Modern Diggers defending eco-camp against National Trust

Despite the appalling weather, Runnymede Eco villagers are determined to carry on camping right through the Christmas and the New Year in their struggle to defend ancient rights. Photo report by Peter Arkell.

If you walk through woodland near Egham, Surrey, you may come across what appears to be a geodesic dome. In fact, it is a heated communal tent, where citizens of Runneymede’s eco-village congregate after dark to keep warm, eat, hold camp discussions, celebrate and play music.

The "geodisic dome" community tent from the outside

They have been there 7 months, defying several attempts by the National Trust and property developers to evict them from a site close, ironically, to where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215.

King John was forced to concede some basic legal rights to his opponents, which form part of English law to this day. But not, it seems, as far as the eco-villagers and their encampment are concerned.

Conditions have been particularly difficult in the recent wet weather with streams of water running down the hill and through some of the tents. There is thick mud in and around the site.

singGathering winter fuel...tune

But the villagers remain busy and cheerful, gathering fallen branches, sawing and splitting the larger bits, improving their tents against the rain and wind, repairing the heating stoves, planting trees and preparing beds for the planting of vegetables and fruit trees in spring.

They have dug out a small reservoir or well above most of the tents for gathering water from an underground spring. A hosepipe snakes its way from this reservoir through the site to a tap from which anyone can draw water.

Runnymede Runnymede
L: The reservoir with clean water      R: Adjusting the smoke output in one of the tents

The villagers are also busy planning the resumption of workshops in the new year. In the summer and autumn they held workshops on woodcraft, green wood-working, clay sculpture and waterproofing, naturally. They even organised  bike-powered screenings of  films. And they held talks and discussions on the history of land rights.

Runnymede Runnymede
L: One of several teepees on the site     R: One of the tents in the mud

The community is under constant legal harassment from the National Trust, even though the camp is not on National Trust land, but on the Runnymede Estate, formerly part of the campus of Brunel University and now owned by a housing developer. The land has remained disused since 2007.

Inside the kitchen tent

The National Trust manages, but does not own, this estate which is home to the Magna Carta monument, built on the historic site where King John is said to have sealed the Magna Carta in 1215.

The eco-villagers have been evicted three times by bailiffs paid for by the developer, but have always returned. They live under the threat of further evictions, and point out the absurdity and injustice of their position in the light of the association of the place with the historic struggle for democracy, equality and limitation of absolute power.

Making some logs for the stoves
Making some logs for the stoves

As the eco-villagers put it on their website,  “...we find a minority of land owning elites hold almost total power over access to the thing whose life we all depend on: the land.”

The eco-villagers have always set out to occupy only disused land where they could set up a low- impact, ecologically harmonious community. Earlier in the year they clarified their aims in their Declaration from the Dispossessed:

We peaceful people, declare our intention to go and cultivate the disused land of this island; to build dwellings and live together in common by the sweat of our brows. We have one call: every person in this country and the world should have the right to live on the disused land, to grow food and to build a shelter. This right should apply whether you have money or not. We say that no country can be considered free, until this right is available to all.

With our current system in crisis we need a radically different way of growing our communities. We call on the government and all landowners to let those who are willing, make good use of the disused land. Land that is currently held from us by force. By our actions, we seek to show how we can live without destroying the planet or ourselves. Free from the yoke of debt and rent, our labours can be directed to the benefit of all.

Though we may be oppressed for our actions, we will strive to remain peaceful. But we are committed to our cause and will not cease from our efforts until we have achieved our goal.

The villagers think that one of the reasons for the legal measures being taken against them is to make sure they are not still in the wood in 2015, the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. One of the ideas put forward by the community is to create a grass-roots gathering at the Runnymede site in 2015 “to celebrate the idea of freedom and civil liberties”.

But with the official celebrations planned involving the Queen and other notaries, “perhaps”, say the villagers, “the prospect of a rabble of common people turning up at the same time as dignitaries to commemorate the same event has irked the authorities and led to this legal action. Whatever the reason, the effect of such an injunction if authorised will be to grant the National Trust the power to forcibly remove anyone who they do not want on the land at Runnymede forever.”

Monument to the Diggers at St Georges Hill, Weybridge Monument to the Diggers and to Gerard Winstanley in Cobham High Street, Surrey
L: Monument to the Diggers at St Georges Hill, Weybridge
R: Monument to the Diggers and to Gerard Winstanley in Cobham High Street, Surrey

The eco-community at Runnymede take much of their inspiration from the Diggers or True Levellers of the 1640s who saw the land as a “common treasury” for all and set out to demonstrate what they meant by setting up co–operative communities in, among other places, St George’s Hill in Weybridge (now a gated housing estate for the rich) and Cobham.
Both of these places are only about 10 miles from Runnymede. The Diggers were also persecuted by local landowners and clergymen who sent in thugs to break up the communities. Their fight lives on in the woodlands of Runnymede.

22 December 2012

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