JANE FRYER: This protest has more than a hint of The Great Escape

Swampy’s tunnel vision over HS2: Burrowing deep in the ground near a London station, this protest that’s got more than a hint of The Great Escape, writes JANE FRYER

  • Activist Swampy and his pals have spent months digging 100ft underground tunnel near central station 
  • HS2 Rebellion set up Tree Protection Camp in Euston Square Gardens in September to thwart rail project 
  • They claim underground tunnel is their ‘best defence’ against eviction, which started this morning 

Of all the places you might choose to start constructing a secret underground tunnel network, a muddy stretch of grass between Euston station and a busy six-lane road in the centre of London is surely low on the list.

But for two months – the entrance hidden beneath a ramshackle wooden tower – a team of HS2 protesters led by veteran activist Swampy (aka Daniel Hooper) have been covertly digging away in a fashion reminiscent of the 1963 Steve McQueen war epic The Great Escape.

From dawn till dark, they’ve been tunnelling. First 15ft down and then along, 100ft in one direction, not quite so far in the other, lit by head torches, eco-friendly lanterns and united by a zealous passion for the environment as, above them, police sirens scream, traffic roars and lockdown London goes about its business.

Until yesterday that is. When, at 5am and after a BBC news expose, flustered police and bailiffs arrived by the score – and four of the protesters, including an 18-year-old girl called Blue, immediately holed up deep in their burrow with enough food and water, they say, to sit it out for the next six weeks.

‘It’s quite tight in parts,’ Blue told the BBC. ‘Sometimes it’s quite difficult to get through. But we’ve made it as safe as we can.’

Even so, it is not somewhere many of us could tolerate for even an hour. Just looking at pictures of the tunnels is enough to send anyone with even mild claustrophobia into a cold sweat.

Shored up by bits of recycled wooden pallets, it is supplied with oxygen via what looks like a garden hosepipe and has makeshift loos fashioned out of old bins.

Codenamed Kelvin (the longer one) and Kristal, the two horizontal tunnels are dark, damp and, during heavy rain, prone to small collapses. While they open out to caverns and chambers, there are areas so narrow the tunnellers have to squeeze their bodies through.

‘I’ve been down. It’s actually a fun experience. I would recommend it!’ says Al, 18, a student from Hendon who is guarding the entrance. He tells me he has been involved with the Extinction Rebellion anti-HS2 brigade for six months. Another protester, Larch Maxey, 48, cheerily describes it as ‘a bit like home’.

Hole lot of trouble: Protester is dragged away on Wednesday evening in Euston Square as people are removed from the camp

Police enforcement officers move in to the encampment in Euston Square Gardens in central London, where HS2 Rebellion protesters have built a 100ft tunnel network, which they are ready to occupy, after claiming the garden is at risk from the HS2 line development. Picture date: Wednesday January 27

And to be fair, they’ve had an embarrassingly long time to settle in. It started back on August 28, when the anti-HS2 activists set up their ‘Tree Protection Camp’ in Euston Square Gardens to protest against the £106billion high-speed rail project which will terminate at Euston and, more specifically, to prevent the destruction of what’s left of the Garden’s 52 ancient trees. Fifteen of these have been earmarked for felling to allow HS2 Ltd, the firm which controls the land, to build a temporary taxi rank.

From the outside, the eco-activist camp looked like business as usual. A quagmire of mud, cheap tents, scrawled signs, sodden mattresses, traffic cones and rather fetid-looking protesters.

The last time I saw Swampy, he was shouting abuse at me from the top of a tree in the HS2-blighted Wendover Woods in the Chilterns. But there he was again yesterday, described by the team as ‘an invaluable source of expertise’.

Departure: Police lead rail protester away at Euston Wednesday where HS2 protesters are being removed from trees and tunnels at a makeshift camp outside the Station

HS2 Rebellion protester on a zip line between two trees in an encampment in Euston Square Gardens, January 27

Certainly he’s got form, first becoming a household name in 1996 after spending a week in a series of tunnels in a failed bid to stop the construction of the Newbury bypass in Berkshire. Naturally, he is now one of the ‘Euston Four’ holed up in the main chamber of the underground complex.

With him is Maxey, a former lecturer at Plymouth University, another veteran activist – he was a key organiser of the Extinction Rebellion roadblocks which crippled London in May 2019 – and a fellow tunnelling expert.

Scott Breen, 47, also known as ‘Scotty’, ‘Sprog’ or ‘Digger Down’, is the third.

Pic shows the scene at Euston today where HS2 protesters are being removed from trees and tunnels at the makeshift camp

The father of (at least) two absconded from prison in 2007 for six months following a conviction as a courier in a heroin deal and, in 2019, was arrested for allegedly lying down at the entrance of an HS2 construction site in Uxbridge and using cement to bind his arm to that of another protester.

The odd one out appears to be Blue (short for Bluebell) Sandford, the well-spoken daughter of Roc Sandford, an eccentric millionaire who made his money in property and tourism who now lives on his ‘off-grid’ Hebridean isle, Gometra, and is so right-on he gives Blue and her elder sister presents made of ‘rubbish’ for Christmas.

Blue is the youngest but perhaps the toughest of the lot. Already hailed as the ‘British Greta Thunberg’, she spent her 17th birthday on a school strike in Trafalgar Square where she was handcuffed and put into custody for 27 hours for blocking a road. When she speaks, she is calm, clear, passionate – and a lot like Greta. She said: ‘I’ve grown up partly on a farm on a wild off-grid island in the Hebrides so I’ve seen the threat of environmental destruction up close and feel like I’ve always known what’s at stake,’ she tells me.

The real mystery here is how on earth the tunnellers got away with it for so long. This isn’t a wood in a bit of quiet countryside. It’s the very heart of London – and they’re digging beneath a city pavement!

Can you dig it? Protesters use a bucket removing soil at the tunnels outside Euston station

‘We never thought we’d last this long,’ agrees Groovy, a 19-year-old drama student and activist from Leeds. Of course they didn’t. For while the tunnel entrance was hidden beneath the ever-growing ‘fortified stronghold’ – complete with wooden towers and nicknamed Buckingham Pallets – for anyone paying attention, there were plenty of clues something was amiss.

For starters, the tons of soil that had to be removed from the tunnels. Every day for months, bucket-loads of bright orange stony soil have been brought out and then, under cover of dusk, spread around the dark brown muddy park. ‘We didn’t go as far as putting the soil down our trouser legs,’ said Larch in reference to the methods adopted by the PoWs in The Great Escape. ‘But we have been spreading it out on the yard, dropping it down in small batches as we go.’

Some they’ve used to make bright orange paths across the quagmire. Everyone is talks constantly talking about Kelvin and Kristal. ‘We wanted to give them code names so people weren’t always mentioning “the tunnels”, and give it away,’ says an activist called Howard.

Pictured: A protester known as ‘Larch’ in part of a 100ft tunnel network dug in secret under Euston Square Gardens in central London, which they claim is at risk from the HS2 line development. Issue date: Tuesday January 26

You may not approve of the activists’ actions but you have to accept their tenacity is extraordinary. They have weathered torrential rain, extreme cold and discomfort to dig a tunnel that, while deemed ‘extremely dangerous’ by experts, is impressive in scope and scale.

They’ve survived on out-of-date food and gallons of gritty coffee, endured endless blisters from wielding garden spades, slept in mud, and forgone basic ablutions. Most are covered in mud. They’ve also taken crazy risks. Despite Swampy and Larch’s ‘experience’, they are not professional tunnel builders and subsidence is a problem during heavy rain – fortunately no one has been hurt so far.

As Howard puts it: ‘You have to crawl out. You can’t hurry. You can’t rush. You have to take your time.’

Pictured: An 18yo campaigner named Blue in the tunnels under Euston Square park

Their actions are utterly reckless but as Blue puts it: ‘I’d sacrifice anything to climate and ecological emergency not to be happening. It’s not about martyring ourselves, it’s about stopping HS2.’

And now it looks as if they could be here for a while. Because, while the bailiffs had a relatively straightforward job yesterday clipping some protesters from the high-wire network in the trees and dismantling their tree houses, shoehorning the Euston Four from their burrow is not proving so easy.

Last night, they were still holed up as enforcement agents used angle grinders to hack through to the reinforced entrance. Maxey predicted it would take an age for them to break through each foot of tunnel. Speaking from inside the tunnel via video, he claimed the bailiffs were causing ‘undue risks to our lives’ by potentially creating a collapse.

Pictured: Construction of part of a 100ft tunnel network dug in secret under Euston Square Gardens in central London

‘I’m scared of not having enough access to sunlight, of not seeing my partner or friends,’ he said. ‘But most of all I’m scared of the way the bailiffs are going to carry out the eviction. We want the most dramatic eviction the UK has ever seen so it wakes the public up to the climate emergency.’

Well, it’s certainly going to be dramatic. And a nightmare for officials. Let’s just hope Swampy really does know his stuff and the tunnel holds until the protesters and all those who are putting their own lives at risk to hoik them out emerge safely.

Additional reporting George Odling and Elliot Mulligan for the Daily Mail.    


Swampy: The 47-year-old activist, real name Daniel Hooper, became a household name in 1996 during protests against the Newbury bypass in Berkshire. After years laying low living in a yurt with his girlfriend and three children in west Wales, he returned to activism in 2019 in the wake of Extinction Rebellion, barricading an oil refinery in Pembroke. Has taken part in a number of protests against HS2, including last year with his son Rory, 16.

Scott Breen: ‘Scotty’ absconded from an open prison in Scotland in 2007, where he was doing time for his role as a courier in a heroin deal. He moved in with his girlfriend at Faslane peace camp, getting her pregnant, but was caught after six months on the run.

Blue Sandford: Daughter of eccentric millionaire Roc Sandford, 62, who owns an ‘off-grid’ island in the Hebrides. The 18-year-old said: ‘When I was little I thought everyone was the same as my family and I didn’t really get why these super destructive industries existed.’

Larch Maxey: A former lecturer at Plymouth University, the 48-year-old has a long history of activism and was a key organiser of Extinction Rebellion’s ‘swarming’ roadblocks which brought parts of London to a standstill in May 2019.

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