I visited the Kirby Misperton Protection Camp today, with my partner Robbie. The camp was set up just before Christmas by peaceful anti-fracking activists and local residents, immediately after rejection by the High Court of an appeal against North Yorkshire County Council’s decision to approve an application by Third Energy to frack for gas close to Kirby Misperton village. The camp lies in an unused field along the road that connects the village to the A169 York-Pickering road.
Our afternoon began at a workshop in Knaresborough where we met FFHD group members Jane and Andy, who had organised a donation of pallets. My job was to deliver them to the camp in my transit van. Pallets are highly valued in the camp because there are experienced protectors there who know how to construct makeshift buildings from them. Driving around the northern ring-road of York the sun came out and I thought it was going to be a beautiful afternoon in Ryedale, but unfortunately along the A64 Scarborough road we ran into a thick wall of fog, so all that follows I saw only through a haze of murk.
It was only on Monday we last visited the camp, but what a difference five days has made! There’s many new temporary buildings, tents and marquees, and a parking area has been designated inside the field to remove the inconvenience to locals of too many vehicles parked along the roadside. I was initially trepidatious about bringing my van into the field as the ground was soft and I know how easy it is to get such a heavy vehicle bogged down, but there were people busily spreading thick straw over the access route to keep it firm so I bit the bullet and came in. Immediately I opened the back doors a crowd of eager helpers appeared and in no time my cargo of pallets had been unloaded and added to an already abundant stack donated by other well-wishers. Through the mist across the field I could see the skeleton of a substantial new edifice under construction from old pallets.
Shortly Jane arrived on site, and we stayed for a while talking to people and taking part in a group photo since numbers had swelled to around fifty people by then. They are a mixture of concerned local residents and inveterate activists from around the country who have converged on Kirby Misperton, as it is currently the front line in the campaign to keep Britain safe from fracking. The atmosphere is convivial around the central camp fire, from where mugs of tea are handed out to all new arrivals while others keep busy building, cooking, organising and keeping the site looking tidy. We looked inside the provisions tent which is now stacked high with tins and packets of food, all donated by fellow-travellers. There appear to be no leaders as such – tasks get achieved in what initially looks to be a chaotic muddle, but on closer inspection reveals itself as a system based on co-operation, mutual respect and a shared desire to make the project work.
So far Third Energy have not commenced fracking operations but there remains no legal reason for them to delay. The camp protectors are committed to peaceful and more-or-less legal protest and obstruction tactics when the fracking lorries arrive. The road where they are situated is the only good route to the drilling site from the A169, so it will be used by heavy vehicles carrying drilling machinery, chemicals, water for fracking, and removing contaminated waste water. They will need to rumble through the small village, circumnavigate its quaint and iconic war-memorial roundabout, and also negotiate a narrow bridge, all of which has provoked much local anger. This road already experiences long tail-backs some days in the summer since it is also the access route to Flamingoland theme park, located beside the village.
There were plans afoot to interview supporters on camera that afternoon in a makeshift studio built from straw bales and tarpaulin, but Robbie and myself were feeling camera shy so we excused ourselves and went to have a look at the drilling site itself. I’d noticed a public right-of-way on the Ordnance Survey map which skirts the edge of the drilling platform, so we parked the van on a verge on the far side of the village and went to explore.
The first thing I saw that struck me a bit odd was the footpath finger-post at the roadside. It was pointing the wrong way, towards the road rather than down the path, as if someone had turned it around to discourage walkers. My map showed the path heading north for a short distance then turning west, but the field had been recently ploughed and sown with a winter crop and there was no evidence of recent walkers. I have a GPS map app on my phone so I knew we would be quite within our rights to walk straight across the field, but a boyhood in the Scouts has left me with an ingrained disinclination to walk across a field of crops, so we clung to the hedge and skirted around the perimeter. The fog was so thick now we couldn’t see across the field, and I was delighted when a hazy rectangular shape, at first dimly seen, resolved itself into two long rows of solar panels at the far end of the field, presumably powering a caravan and holiday rental site the other side of the hedge. I took this as a positive sign that some people have recognised there is a much better way to generate power in the countryside than by the destructive process of fracking.
Once my GPS assured me we were back on the route of the public footpath we followed a tall hedge alongside the next field, but when we reached the corner I saw a further intimation that someone didn’t really want us to be walking along this right-of-way. The gap in the hedge through to the next field contained a large tangled mass of fence wire, as if someone had tried to block it off not very long before. The wire had been trampled down so the route was passable, but we also saw a NYCC public footpath finger-post which had been uprooted from the ground and laid flat so it wouldn’t be visible from across the field. We propped it up again, pointing it in what we hoped was the right direction.
Not much further along, a tall security fence loomed out of the mist and we were soon looking through the wire at the compound that is the root of all this controversy. KM8 has already been drilled for gas in the conventional way, but now Third Energy intend to use the same well for the potentially much more polluting fracking process. What we could see through the wire was hard to interpret for a non-expert – some odd white pieces of technical equipment in a line just inside the fence, a strange green box that was faintly humming, an expanse of compacted hard-core the size of several football pitches with an ominous hole in the middle. At the southern end of the site, through the mist I could vaguely make out the shapes of large pipes and tanks, but there were signs around the fence warning of patrols and security cameras so we didn’t leave the public right-of-way to investigate further. We were staying strictly within the law, for today anyway… At the western end of the drilling site we crossed a small brook which runs right along its boundary and gave me cause for concern if there were ever to be a spillage of toxic liquids. Even following the moderate amount of rain we’ve had in the past week, much of the drilling platform was covered in standing water.
We continued to Alma Farm, the nearest inhabited building, then went north and returned to the van past the entrance to Flamingoland and through Kirby Misperton village. Many of the houses display “No Fracking” posters on their gates. On the edge of the village there was a parked police van but no police officers were visible. However, as soon as I got in my van and did a U-turn in the lane, a pair of headlights appeared out of the mist and became flashing blue lights, so I wound down the window to talk to the officers. “We saw you walking past…” the driver said. I’m not at all surprised my van attracted attention parked in the middle-of-nowhere close to a controversial drilling site, and the police seem to have been waiting for us to return from wherever we’d gone. I told them we’d just been “out for a walk” and they appeared satisfied. I’m an un-marked white van driver and as such I’m used to being regarded as an object of suspicion, so I guess they were doing their job. The protectors at the camp tell me that the police have treated them with respect so far.