1997, Devon ball clay firm Watts Blake Bearne won permission to move
a stretch of the rivers Bovey and Teign at Teigngrace in South Devon.
It meant they would be able to divert the route of the rivers, so
they could reach untapped deposits of clay, and extend their adjoining
by Devon County Council to allow the development came despite fears
over the damage to habitat, and concerns from the people of Teigngrace
that the change might make the hamlet - already prone to repeated
flooding - even more at risk from the rivers bursting their banks.
eco-warriors made their home in the trees along the river
The ruling also followed months of lobbying against the move, by local
residents and Teigngrace Parish Council.
But their protests fell on deaf ears, and they were resigned to the
fact that they had lost the battle:the rivers WOULD be diverted from
their natural course, the claypit would be extended, and their local
environment would be changed forever...
that is, the 17th of July 1997, when a group of so-called eco-warriors
moved in and set up camp in the trees alongside the rivers.
the march: locals make their view known
They were dubbed "tree-people," after some of them made
their "homes" high up in the trees.
Among the 20 or so protesters at the start was Swampy, who had already
become known nationally for his campaigns against development - including
the A30 in East Devon.
Their efforts were backed by environmental groups such as the Devon
Wildlife Trust, and experts such as TV personality, Prof David Bellamy.
The protesters formed an unlikely alliance with the residents of Teigngrace,
and together, they organised a march along the river - and a march
to London, where their views were handed in the Department of the
of the protesters walked the entire distance to London, and they were
joined by a coachload of locals, headed by the chairman of parish
council, John Martin.
The intervention of the eco-warriors proved crucial, as, on July 31st,
the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott ordered a temporary halt to
Then, in October, he announced the issue had to go to a public inquiry
- even though the plans had already been approved by the county council.
It was during the public inquiry that it emerged that WBB had got
its figures wrong in calculating the impact of changing the route
of the rivers. Studies also found that rare species lived along the
firm pulled out, and the "tree-people" had won. The rivers
were saved for future generations, and the village was saved from
eco-warrors were instrumental in the threat being lifted
years on, and the eco-warriors still regularly pop back to the village
to meet the people they got to know so well during their amazing campaign.
the locals admit that without them, the battle would have been lost.
One of them, Joy Coombes, said villagers would always be indebted
to the tree-people: "I remember the day they moved in like it
was yesterday! It was a day before my 50th birthday...17th July, 1997.
"At that time, our backs were to the wall and we'd lost the battle.
No-one would listen to us, and the plans had been passed.
"Then these wonderful people arrived, and they really turned
things round for us. They had the brains and the know-how, they knew
who to lobby, and how to deal with the media. We learned a lot from
them, and it was an honour to work with them.
"It was a wonderful experience, those days. Our lives were turned
upside down. Everything went by the wayside. Things went mad for months.
was a worrying time, but it was also very exciting, and I will remember
those days for the rest of my life.
"The eco-warriors showed that you have to work really hard, and
make sacrifices to get anywhere at all."
Joy added: "Without the eco-warriors, we'd have lost, and I think
all the villagers believe that. We'd have had that awful development,
and the environment would have been ruined forever. Our lives here
would be very different.
"These people were taking part in protests like this all over
the country at the time, and this was their big victory.
"We will always remember what they did for us - and some of them
still come back to see us. They'll always be welcome here, and they'll
always be our friends."