Sunday, 15 March 2015

Oral History: Stratford Park Trees (and beyond)

I interviewed Ron about late twentieth century and early new millennium history in October 2011, at J Rool café. He started the story with the Stratford Park Tree Campaign; this ran from late 1988 to January 1990. It was the first national occupation of trees so as to stop the construction of a road.
The trees were occupied night and day for 6 weeks from 24th August, with a minimum of two people on duty all the time with an “ancient” mobile phone to call for help if needed. This was because Stroud District Council tried to bring in a tree cutting company on the night of the 23rd   August. The campaigners “got wind of this and were there at midnight before the company arrived.” There was a group of “70 hard core activists” who turned out on the first night and made up the main rota. The group also formulated a petition that quickly gained 10,000 signatures and was handed into the council.
So why was there such a furore?
A road was planned “to satisfy Tesco with its planned opening of its new store” and Tesco needed to buy some of Stratford Park. The District Council hoped to get “about 250,000 quid for a quarter of an acre” and this stimulated the opposition, a group with a wide spectrum of motivation. For some, says Ron, the main concern was for the trees; for others, it was the scrutiny of council decision-making; for others it was that “OUR PARK” was being interfered with secretly and unconstitutionally.
Ron said that “if it hadn’t been in our park”, there may not have been so much support, but “from the very first night that the campaign became public, it attracted a lot of people who had never questioned authority before and who had never protested or campaigned against anything.” Ron added that born and bred Stroud folk still stop and talk to him about it in the street even today; he added that one of the best things that may have resulted long term from the action was that peoples’ attitudes to authority changed for good – “even Daily Mail readers.”
Ron went on to summarise this event, thus: “This was the first traffic calming scheme in the county, and according to the council figures, accident rates went down by 50%, so we didn’t just save the trees, we saved a lot of pain.”
Ron had more to say on trees – this time, the action to save the hornbeam in the forecourt of the Subscription Rooms. The SDC wanted to refurbish the building, saying it wanted to change the edifice into an arts centre, with the aid of Lottery Funding. This would involve performance on the forecourt and “someone” saw the plans at Ebley Mill sans hornbeam; at that time (1997-98) this was the only mature tree in the town centre, says Ron. Stratford Park stalwarts joined in and supported Ron with a petition by the bus stop, “and people used to shelter under the hornbeam waiting for their bus.” Between 2 and 3,000 signatures were garnered within a fortnight, but Ron felt that more pressure was needed to be exerted upon the council, and so an anti-proposal was sent off to the National Lottery and the result was victory for the hornbeam.

Ron then went on to talk about the campaign to save the Hill Paul building from demolition, at the tail end of the 20th century and at the beginning of the new millennium. He said that concerned citizens became aware that this landmark building was threatened with demolition, days ahead of an English     Heritage report saying that it shouldn’t be demolished. These “concerned citizens” then contacted the owner of the building and also appealed to the public in an attempt to stop demolition. The appeal raised about a “165 000 quid” over about six months and shares were sold.  This was enough to show an expression of intent to the owner, so demolition was forestalled and in due course the building was sold on to a developer, who turned it into flats, “and so the building is still there today.”
This was the result, says Ron, of an alliance of “The usual suspects and people who wouldn’t normally get involved but who put up a lot of money. The meaning of that building is that you can see it every time you come in on the train and it is also the place where so many people worked and they had very warm feelings about it as a workplace and a living environment. It fuses old and contemporary Stroud.”
Ron talked of – and emphasised – “the infamy of the SDC”; he said the building had existed for 150 years and “the day after we bought it, the very next day, the SDC put a closure order on it because they said it was dangerous”; Ron described that as “an act of spite —they wanted a new landmark building there.”
There was further variety of action, apart from that described earlier. For example, on the day when the man came in with the big ball and chain, about 10 people physically obstructed him; then there was the old trick of the protestor on the roof with a number of different hats, so as to make it seem as though there were more than just his solitary self; amazingly this thwarted them on the ball and chain day and gave time to get the money together. “Surprising how little you had to do to stop things happening – now you would be picked off like flies”, mused Ron.

Ron’s discourse then moved on to the decision of SDC to knock down the John Street offices and build a supermarket on the site, so as to move to new offices at Ebley Mill with a new swimming pool at Dursley. Ron comments that there was some “very unusual horse-trading” between councillors with a “very unusual” decision that there would be a vote whereby councillors had to vote for everything as a complete package, “Yes or No.” Ron went on to say that years earlier, Marples/Ridgeway, as it once was, had started buying properties in the town centre; the council was planning to expand its offices and held an exhibition to show different developments of the site; the council then awarded the contract to Marples/Ridgeway, as was, but then known as ARC, as it had become.
It was then that Stroud Anti-Apartheid discovered that ARC was owned by Consolidated Goldfields and so contacted influential people, including the Stroud Council of Churches, and in due course, the contract was taken away from ARC – “ a major triumph for Anti-Apartheid”, said Ron.
I then asked Ron about the area outside Greggs, where the Shambles meets the High Street, and asked him if he felt or thought that this particular locale had an individual radical feel? He replied: “It’s not far from where John Wesley preached, which was pretty radical in itself”; Ron mused further: “It’s also opposite the Swan Inn, a coaching inn, which must have distributed all sorts of communication”.
My mind began to wander into psycho-geographical continuities until I heard Ron comment: “The area only became buzzy when the Subscription Rooms forecourt stopped being buzzy…about twenty years ago; then we had a new epicentre.”
I then asked Ron about some of his silent protests by the Shambles. He talked of his “moral campaigns”; he started these at the Shambles “about 1991, at the time of the first Iraq war; it was a way of protesting about involvement – there was a vigil every day, then weekly, then numbers dropped”, so for the last year or two, it has just been Ron: “I have chosen just to draw peoples’ attention to British involvement in wars”. “Years ago, I used to get abuse – but for the last decade the amount of abuse has been very, very small”; “even squaddies have spoken to me and said they agreed with me.”
Ron then moved on to the selling of white poppies in the lead-up to Remembrance Day. He said that when he first started selling white poppies 20 odd years ago: “There was a huge furore but now nobody seems to bat an eyelid.” At the conclusion of the interview, Ron gave me a disc with a film clip about the 24th August 1989 and began to reminisce about the tension of that morning, when after 5 hours’ waiting: “They actually started tearing people away.”
Ron’s eyes grew watery and he cried a little, as he recalled the tension of that occasion – he added that there was something about that campaign that made him tearful and he had been susceptible to that ever since. Such is the power of oral testimony, together with a passionate commitment to justice. Thank you, Ron.

1 comment:

  1. I liked this piece of local history and Ron (another to add to the gallery of local radicals)