‘No one goes there, dog walkers don’t go there’
‘No one goes there, dog walkers don’t go there’
Hundreds of people are in a ‘mass trespass’- a group protest - to save a very old woodland. Center Parcs, a holiday company, wants to build there. Amy Hall writes.
Dave Bangs speaks to a crowd of mass trespassers. Credit: Amy Hall
‘We cannot fight for nature if we do not know nature,’ David Bangs tells the crowd. David Bangs is a conservationist, author, and activist. He is going to lead about 300 of us on a ‘mass trespass’, a big group protest, into Worth Forest, a very old woodland in West Sussex, south England. The mass trespass was on Saturday 24 September 2022. The banner says, ‘Worth Forest is worth saving’. It is a protest against plans for a £400 million Center Parcs holiday resort at the very old woodland of Oldhouse Warren in the forest. Center Parcs holidays has six other resorts across the UK and Ireland. In July 2021 the company announced its plans for 224 hectares near the village of Balcombe. They want it because it is close to London, less than an hour away by train.
Landscapes of Freedom is a group working to make sure people can get to the South Downs, the Sussex Weald, and further. They organized the protest with another national group Right to Roam. Right to Roam campaigns to change the Countryside & Rights of Way Act in England. At the moment it is not possible for people to get to 92 per cent of England’s land.
The trespass is like a celebration, a party, and the sun is shining after a strong possibility of heavy rain. About 300 people are there. It’s the first day of autumn – the Equinox when day and night are the same length – and many people are wearing their ‘forest clothes’ and leaves.
A people’s forest
Instead of a Center Parcs, campaigners want to see a ‘people’s forest’ at Oldhouse Warren, like Epping Forest in London or the New Forest in south England. They believe that more people need to know about these woodlands as a way to protect the ancient trees and wildlife. Oldhouse Warren is home to many rarer birds and others, including Goshawk, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, and Woodcock.
There are worries that building here would damage the landscape. It is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a ‘fine landscape…with great natural beauty and it is in the nation’s interest to keep it safe.’
I met Dave Bangs at his home in Brighton a few weeks earlier. He believes strongly that making it possible for people to get to the forest is the way to get people to protect it. ‘This separation between people and nature is a very big problem for nature,’ he says. ‘How can you save something that you don’t know?
‘We should have access to nature as much as we should have access to the National Health Service, free education, and a right to a home. We should have nature around us.’
There is so much evidence about the positive effects of being in green spaces, and nature. It can help conditions such as depression and anxiety, as well as improving mood, sleep, concentration, and stress.
Buying and selling nature
Regular foragers Emma and Edward joined the protest from southeast London. Part of Emma’s reason for joining the trespass is to support local people against the plans. ’It is worrying that we could lose the biodiversity.’
Local people started a group called Protect Oldhouse Warren and there are sessions for people to find out more about the plans. ‘I know that these campaigns can be really difficult for the local people – their voices are so small. So if we can come and help, I think it’s really valuable,’ Emma says.
During the day, many people talk about their anger at using nature for economic profit. Outdoor fun is, after all, a big part of Center Parcs. Center Parcs says, ‘We build our holiday villages carefully into the woodland and keep as much of the forest as possible.’
Helen joined the trespass from Reigate in Surrey today. She does not believe what Center Parc says. She says, ‘To make money from woodland and ask people to pay to come into a Center Parcs is the worst of what capitalism does.’ The vicar enjoys walking and she is also a campaigner against shale oil extraction at Horse Hill, near where she lives. ‘So much is already there only for profit in our world.’
Credit: Amy Hall
Some local people support the new Center Parcs because of the possibility of new jobs. Taliesin lives nearby. He says if more people know about it locally, there will be stronger protests. He found out about today’s trespass from a local WhatsApp group. ‘I saw the Center Parcs plans and it is a crime because this is a really beautiful place… I take all my visitors to see the forest.’
‘The big problem at Oldhouse Warren is people don’t know about it,’ says Dave. Most of the Centre Parcs site is closed and so no one goes there, not even dog walkers.’
Walking and roaming on the land
It seems like the protest is getting stronger. Caroline Lucas is a Green Party MP. Last week, she sent a statement to read to the group to support the protest. She introduced a right to walk and roam bill to parliament and the Right to Roam campaign worked with others to organize many events like this across England over the past year. A few days before, many people took part in a ‘dark skies’ protest in Northumberland and enjoyed the stars without any city light pollution.
Harry Jenkinson works for Right to Roam. ‘We are trying to make an ecological connection between people so that they care about nature. But also we want to do more. We don’t just want access … we want fairer access.’
He talks about how working class and Black People and People of Colour communities are less likely to have access to nature in England. A study by Natural England in 2017 found that, over the previous 12 months, just under 60 per cent of white people said they visited the natural environment at least once a week. This compares with about 40 per cent of people from all other ethnic groups. And the problem is not only about access. The countryside in England is generally much whiter than city areas and it can seem like a hostile place.
Class, health, and disability also stop access to nature in England. For example, over 20 per cent of people cannot use public rights of way because they cannot climb over styles, or move through gates themselves, or because they are with someone who can’t. This is why groups like Disabled Hikers, Muslim Hikers, and Black Girls Hike started to give access to nature in a way that feels safe.
Back at Oldhouse Warren, as people began to go to the train station, or back over the fields home, it was clear that there was a new group of people ready to support and save the forest.
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(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)