Packs of cards and plentiful supplies of chocolate are essential parts of the tunnel survival kit, according to the environmental activists living underneath Euston to protest about HS2 – the high-speed rail link that is due to come into the London station.
Since the early hours of 27 January, nine activists from the campaign group HS2 Rebellion have been occupying a network of tunnels they and others dug out.
During the first few days of the protest some of the group were taking turns at the bottom of the down shaft to communicate by phone with people above ground. Deeper inside the tunnel the phone signal is weak or non-existent. Communication has become more sporadic as HS2’s eviction team has advanced.
However, the activists are still managing to get messages out saying they are safe and well, in good spirits and that the tunnel network is so far holding up. HS2 has not commented on operational details of the eviction.
Eleven days after the tunnel occupation began, the tunnellers continue to resist attempts to evict them, as they hope to raise the alarm about the climate emergency in general and the destruction of ancient woodland and the diverse flora and fauna, which they say the HS2 project is causing.
A comprehensive survey of the impact of HS2 on wildlife said the project would destroy or damage irreparably five internationally protected wildlife sites, 693 local wildlife sites, 108 ancient woodlands and 33 legally protected sites of special scientific interest.
HS2 disputes this, and says it is delivering an unprecedented programme of tree planting and habitat creation alongside the new railway, with 7m trees and shrubs to be planted between London and Birmingham alone. Economists and planners have also told the Guardian they believe the route will help create jobs away from London and ease some of the geographical inequalities in the UK.
One of the young activists not previously revealed to be in the tunnel is 22-year-old Nemo, who has shared a video message with the Guardian. When asked by another protester what her thoughts of the future are, she said: “At the moment my future is filled with Calvin [the nickname of one of the tunnels], crawling around and cuddles.”
She said: “I’m really enjoying life in the tunnel. It’s quiet, especially compared with the noise of London. I’m not from the city so I’m not used to all the noise. I’m not hungry. I’m eating loads and loads including some posh cheese last night.”
The activists planned carefully to ensure food and water supplies were in place in the tunnel before the eviction started, along with books to read and packs of cards. Battery packs to keep phones charged have been essential. Toilet arrangements vary slightly above and below ground. In the tree houses occupants climb higher up the tree with a bucket to urinate and then shout “urine” before tipping out the bucket. Below ground there is an arrangement with bailiffs that they will dispose of urine and faeces.
Before contact with the tunnellers became more difficult the Guardian spoke to Dan Hooper, also known as Swampy “We are very happy down here,” he said. “We’ve got a really good crew. We all click quite well. We’re having a lot of chats. We play cards when we’re not busy. There’s lots of solidarity down here. We have been working as a crew on this.
“Last night we ate a jar of olives and have plenty of chocolate down here. The temperature is a constant 12 degrees so we’re never cold. I’m feeling quite positive about the whole thing.”
He described it as “absolutely outrageous” that what he said was the biggest deforestation since the first world war was happening at the time of the climate emergency. “Government is planning to restart the road-building programme we stopped in the 1990s … It’s just full steam ahead. The only thing that’s going to stop it is that these schemes are so unpopular. Actions like the tunnel protest are turning the tide and making the government aware that people aren’t going to stand for this sort of thing.”
Jimbino Vegan, 41, a musician, poet, writer, artist and activist, has experience both above and below ground on the anti-HS2 protest at Euston. He helped dig the tunnel and was one of a group of seven in the first treehouse to be evicted on the afternoon of 27 January after bailiffs moved in.
His involvement with working on the tunnel began when he was playing music near Euston at the end of last year. The weather was very cold and he discovered the tunnel was a good place to warm up. He soon got involved with helping with the covert digging project.
“I’m surprised nobody knew what we were doing. People kept emerging carrying buckets of earth and covered in muck,” he said. Much of the tunnelling work was done between 4pm and 5am, he said.
“The digging work can be a bit lonely, often two people would be working together but it was also very satisfying and there was a fantastic vibe in the camp. It’s been a real education for me. “
There has been concern over the protesters’ safety. Georgia Gould, the leader of Camden council, said: “I believe in the right to peaceful protest, and as leader of the council I have expressed my deep reservations about the impact of HS2 to Camden. I support the right of citizens in our borough to make their voices heard, and to take non-violent action to bring attention to causes they are passionate about.
“However, I am deeply concerned about the risk to the health and lives of these protesters in these tunnels – from gas and electricity supplies, from the risk of tunnel collapse and from living underground for prolonged periods. I would urge everyone still at the site in Euston Square Gardens to leave the tunnel, make themselves safe and ensure that their voices continue to be heard in the national discussion about HS2 and the climate and ecological crisis.”
Others have criticised the target chosen by the activists. Gareth Dennis, a railway engineer and writer who supports the HS2 project because he believes it will reduce climate damage, said: “My frustration with the activists in Euston Square Gardens is that they are repeating some of the anti-public investment arguments against HS2. They are succeeding in drawing attention away from damaging road projects and drawing attention to a project that stands to make a mass contribution to reducing Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions.”
But Vegan said the hope of the activists was that the combined impact of Covid and the climate emergency would help people re-evaluate their place in the world and see what they are doing to destroy their own habitat.
“We need to become closer to nature, to learn from it rather than destroy it.”