Thousands of people marched through the Sussex countryside on Sunday in the biggest show of strength to date for the UK’s anti-fracking movement, the start of a three-day campaign against exploratory drilling near the village of Balcombe in west Sussex.
Organisers had hoped to attract about 1,000 people but as supporters from around the country arrived in coaches and by train, police estimated that there were more than double that number. The march comes before direct action demonstrations that are expected to target the site run by private company Cuadrilla.
Protesters filled “matchmaking” forms on arrival, listing their preferences and skills in activities such as climbing, standing their ground, getting through or over fences, looking after people, providing entertainment or documenting the action. They will be placed in teams by their preferred activity, and have also been asked whether they are willing to risk arrest.
Cuadrilla has in the past few days, after discussions with local police, halted drilling activities at the site and removed some equipment. The company has also urged protesters not to attempt anything that could compromise their own safety.
The firm has partially drilled an exploratory oil well on the site, which was abandoned by oil company Conoco in the 1980s. Tests on the data obtained from drilling will help to determine whether the company presses on with its plans.
Among the marchers as it set off on Sunday was Liz Lyddon, a grandmother from Brighton. “I am very concerned about climate change for our future generations,” said the 69-year-old. “Fracking is not the direction we should be taking – there should be a huge investment in renewable green energy but there is no sign that any of our politicians are even thinking seriously about that.”
As the noisey march wound its way through the wooded lanes from the campsite to the train station Lyddon said the combination of people who had turned up – from locals to long term environmentalists – was proof the campaign was gathering momentum. “This shows that the opposition to fracking is growing.. and I do think that as people start to think about fracking they will begin to think about the wider issues around climate change and energy supply.”
Anti-fracking groups from across the country had travelled to Balcombe to take part in the demonstration, conducted in the afternoon amid a heavy police presence. Keith Ross, from Frack Free Wales, said: “I am here to make common cause with the people of Balcombe and elsewhere because we may well need their support in the weeks and months ahead in south Wales … It is good to know that our group is not alone. I think this has become a rallying point for campaigns across the country.”
Among a plethora of banners representing environmental and political groups across the country were also many locals from the Balcombe area. Suzie Horn, 52, said: “We have tried all the official channels … and nobody has listened to us so I think this is great.”
She said there was a lack of understanding about the possible consequences of fracking from the industrialisation of the countryside, how many wells would be needed, how much water would be required and how the waste water would be dealt with.
Tim Green, a local resident and professor in electrical engineering at Imperial College, who was with his young son, said he was on his first demonstration for 20 years. “Shale gas is not an energy that we should be pursuing … This is not about one test well in one village, it is about the future energy for generations to come.”
Previous actions have included protesters blocking the gates and supergluing themselves to the fences. Paul Caplin, of the Reclaim the Power camp, said: “Local people have tried every legal method to prevent Cuadrilla from invading their community, without success. Civil disobedience is one of the few ways in which ordinary people can get their voices heard above the lobbying power of the energy corporations.”
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