Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Of River Crossings and eco-magic in Oxleas Wood

New roads crossing the river Thames, by bridge or tunnel, are back on the agenda nearly twenty years after the Government's major road building programme of the 1990s fizzled out amidst sustained opposition to its environmental impact. In South East London, the most advanced plan is for the Silvertown tunnel from the Greenwich peninsula to the Royal Docks across the river. Opponents of the Silvertown scheme argue that this would 'actually make congestion worse, not better, as building new roads attracts new traffic. With extra congestion comes extra pollution... Already, the A102 and A2 can’t cope with the volume of traffic from the existing southbound Blackwall Tunnel, with queues through Eltham, Kidbrooke, Blackheath, Charlton and Greenwich'. Meanwhile Greenwich Council is advocating a new road bridge at Gallions Reach to replace the Woolwich ferry.

Back in 1993, plans for an East London River Crossing were abandoned. The scheme would have involved building a new road through Oxleas Wood and it was this in particular that galvanised the movement against it, spearheaded by 'People Against the River Crossing'. A wide range of tactics were used including lobbying, legal action - the 'Oxleas Nine' who appealed against compulsory purchase orders - and the threat of direct action, with thousands pledging to block any attempts to bulldoze a road through the trees.

Oxleas campaigners including David Bellamy outside the High Court
An unusual added element was the use of 'eco-magic' by pagans and occultists as part of the movement, with Oxleas provided the main initial focus for the new Dragon Environmental Network. A newspaper report described one of their gatherings to oppose the road:

'There is magic in the air at Oxleas Wood in Eltham, south-east London. More than 70 people are dancing in circles, banging drums and singing to the pagan goddess Freya. 'Ancient mother, I taste your tears,' they chant. Then the circles pick up speed and move closer before the dancers collapse on to the meadow grass, ready for meditation.These are the people of Dragon, a pagan group that brings together witches, Odinists, druids, magicians and the many other elements of the neo-pagan revival now taking place in Britain...

They assemble at a boarded-up cafe on top of a hill overlooking Oxleas Meadow; a high-spirited, straggling group of men, women, children and the inevitable dogs.A few crusties with army greens and muddy boots mingle with grannies in bobble hats, young mothers with pushchairs, youngsters with names such as Cherokee, and a core of slightly intense, baggy jumpered people in their thirties. Some have drums, one man has brought an electric guitar with portable speakers, one woman has a flute' ('If you go down to the wood today: In the moonlight, witches and druids throw a magic ring around a piece of south-east London', Independent, 27 May 1993). Among other things, 'To protect Oxleas, London Dragon buried talismans in the wood.We each spent a lunar month preparing our talisman in our own way. They were then buried together during a ritual' (The Dragon Guide to Campaigning Ecomagic)

Did the spirit of W.B. Yeats help save Oxleas Wood?!

There's an interesting participant's account of all this at View from the Big Hills blog, which recalls that the Fellowship of Isis also became involved via a circuitous route. FOI founder Olivia Robertson believed that she received a message via a spirit medium from the poet W.B. Yeats which prompted her to undertake a number of rituals to protect Oxleas Wood.  Yeats was, incidentally, among other things an occultist with sometime South London connections. Caroline Wise likewise recalls that with another member of the FOI  she  'ritually placed [notices] on trees at the four quarters of the woods, with a spoken proclamation. The notices said that the Noble Order of Tara would not allow the destruction of the wood and that its guardians duly protected the wood.  We posted these at the entrance gates to the wood form the road at Shooter’s Hill as well'.

Did all of this have any effect? If nothing else it all added a colourful angle to the campaign and helped generate some publicity. As Adrian from Dragon said at the time 'All you can say is that if Oxleas Wood is saved, we hope we will have contributed. We would never claim it was our spells that did it, but it's important that people involved with magic are putting their spirituality behind the campaign'. It's not necessary to believe in supernatural forces to see that spending time in the wood communing with trees probably strengthened the emotional connection of those involved to the place, and this in turn inspired their wider activism. Some of the people involved in the eco-magic side of things were also the most active in the mundane but essential work of community organising and awareness raising.

No doubt if a new generation of road protestors emerges they will find much to inspire them in the movements of the 1990s, including the successful one to save Oxleas Wood. Whether magic in the moonlight forms part of their tactical armoury, we shall see.

The proposed route of East London River Crossing and related roads
(from E-Shooters Hill)

1 comment:

Nigel said...

I remember it well! The legendary jazz punk sometime quartet Baby Trio, led by Dave Aylward were at the forefront of protests/celebrations in Oxleas meadow. How serendipitious that having helped [in a very small way] while living in Peckham, 10 years later I found myself living close by and enjoying the woods on a regular basis :)