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  • Writer's pictureGabija Steponenaite

Different but not Indifferent: Sarah's Battle to Save an Ancient Valley

Updated: Jan 31, 2021

Environmental activist Sarah Green, 65, was not afraid to spend 20 hours under the digger. Being dyslexic, she taught herself speed reading skills and read piles of legal documents. Sarah has been sued a few times a year, but she was determined to save Colne Valley and its wildlife. Now she feels like hope and time might slip away.

A Woman Nobody Talked To

Sarah Green, a petite woman with chestnut coloured hair and a curious but somewhat disconsolate look in her eyes, had been walking across an ancient wetland near Harvil Road by Uxbridge town. She approached two men, dressed in orange coveralls, pulling circular chalk samples out of the drilling holes. "Birds also need homes," Sarah said to the men.

The workers looked at Sarah with discontent and loaded the circular chalk samples into a white van. "Are you taking these chalk rolls for testing?" Sarah asked again. The men ignored her and walked behind the car.

The construction workers were forbidden to talk to Sarah, an activist and Green Party candidate for Ruislip,Northwood and Pinner. She was well known as "trouble" to companies involved in building the controversial High Speed Railway 2 (HS2) running through Colne Valley.

This was two years ago.

A construction worker looks at the protestors' camp

High Speed Train Through Ancient Wetlands

Her voice to save ancient wetlands, wildlife and aquifer that filters and supplies water to three million Londoners became too inconvenient. Last summer, Sarah signed a consent order preventing her from obstructing HS2 work and trespassing on their land.

Across the road, opposite to the HS2 construction site, protested  built a camp.
Harvil Road protestors camp entrance

Since 2012 Sarah has been voicing her opposition against the high-speed train line construction and has written petitions, letters to members of parliament and local council. She has given numerous interviews to the national media and participated in direct action protests.

HS2 is a high-speed line connecting London, the Midlands, the North, and Scotland. When it is built, it would serve over 25 stations and run through eight major cities of Britain.

It was calculated that the line would connect around 30 million people. The project classifies itself as one of the most demanding and exciting transport undertakings in Europe.

Its critics raise concern over the project's cost with a final projected price tag of £170 billion. The first stage alone costs £24bn. Some critics call it "the most expensive railway scheme in the world."

Activists also have raised numerous environmental concerns.

In January of 2020, The Wildlife Trust published a survey informing that HS2 construction will destroy or irreparably damage five internationally protected wildlife sites, 693 local wildlife sites, 108 ancient woodlands, and 33 legally protected sites of particular scientific interest. Numerous species are at risk, including willow tit, white-clawed crayfish, and dingy skipper butterfly.

Environmental campaigners near Harvil Road are concerned that drilling might damage the aquifer that lays under the valley. Numerous fortifying poles need to be drilled into the water filtering layer of chalk and could possibly contaminate the water reserves.

Colne Valley is called "the lungs of London" for its proximity to the city and is the closest escape to the countryside for its west side residents.

We are Nature

For many years Sarah and her life partner Josie Asher lived on a narrowboat cruising London's canals and rivers. Their trips would often bring them to the natural areas around Uxbridge. "We fell in love with the place," said Sarah.

Arthur Daily Trips give the real narrow boat experience and a glimpse to Colne Valleys natural beauty. Image from Sarah's personal archive.

In 2013 the pair settled in a cottage in the area. The two women ran Arthur Daily Trips: taking passengers on their narrowboat to enjoy nature, learn local history, or have a day of celebration.

The area's rich archaeological heritage spans around ten thousand years and includes several nationally important prehistoric sites such as Three Ways Wharf, Spelthorne, and Yeoveney Lodge.

The first written evidence citing the Colne comes from 'Chronicles of St Aethelweard,' written in the Saxon period, around 893 AD. Through the centuries the area was known for its developed waterways, agriculture, hunting, and recreational grounds.

"It is important for people to feel at one with nature because we are nature," Sarah said, "We just lie to ourselves that we are not part of it. Sadly, we are being conditioned to be afraid of the weather, insects, or getting dirty. We can learn a lot from the environment just by observing it."

When Sarah needs to find peace or inner balance, she retreats to nature for a long walk or does some work in her garden.

The Different One

Sarah grew up in Solihull, an affluent suburban town outside Birmingham. Her father was a medical doctor and lectured anatomy at Birmingham University, and her mother was a weaver and taught art at a local school.

Sarah was a middle child, growing up with two sisters. She was a withdrawn, taciturn girl, and expressed herself mainly through gymnastics and dancing. Early on, she understood that she was different and did not fit into the town's culture, where residents strictly observed status and social norms.

"I was dyslexic and gay. I was the one who was always a little bit out of step with the majority," she said.

Sarah's learning disorder motivated her to study different learning processes. For many years, she helped adults to gain study skills while studying towards an MA degree in teaching and learning from Southbank University.

Sarah for years voiced her opposition to HS2 construction.

She also became a speed reading teacher. These skills proved to be crucial in her mission to save Colne Valley. "I can read very fast, and I familiarised myself with all the available HS2 development plans and court documents," Sarah said.

Although Sarah has never deeply reflected on why she is determined to stand up for the vulnerable and different, she has joined with activists fighting for justice, environment, and peace since her young adulthood. She was among the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp activists who successfully fought against nuclear weapons being placed at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire from 1981 to 2000.

"I can't stand destruction and violence," she said. "We should celebrate our differences and diversity. That is the beauty of life. If we could celebrate every single beetle, spider, or bird, our own lives would be much richer," she said.

A Battery of Court Cases

Sarah spent 20 hours under the digger to protect the trees. Image from Sarah's personal archive.

In the autumn of 2017, determined to save the Colne Valley, Sarah spent more than 20 hours underneath a digger. She opposed cutting the trees to clear the area for the railway near Harvil Road.

"I don't know if it is courage. I am just being myself. Colne Valley does not have a voice, and it is being utterly destroyed," Sarah said.

But her determined spirit has been restricted by numerous legal actions against her and other activists. In 2018 she was charged with highway obstruction. In 2019 she was accused three times of injunction law violations. These are laws usually preventing a person from committing an act to the detriment of others. In 2020 she was sued three times for aggravated trespassing.

“I am not at the protestors' camp because I have been bullied so much. They (HS2) threatened to take my assets, my property, and my business," Sarah said. The Solicitors' fees were rapidly adding up too.

According to Sarah, HS2 lawyers claimed that she and the other activists' actions obstructed construction work and caused delays worth 16 million GBP. Sarah has signed a consent order, a promise that she will not break the injunction. "I have never violated an injunction. I know the area and read maps very well," she said.

Words Fell on Deaf Ears

Last summer, Sarah spent most of her time working at home, taking long walks in nature, and reminiscing. In 2016 her partner of 22 years, Josie passed away from cancer. "She was a soundtrack to my life," Sarah said.

Josie and Sarah were determined to save Colne Valley. Image from Sarah's personal archive.

Josie and Sarah met at a book store when Josie walked in and joked about her stolen bike: "Somebody got home on the wrong bike." Josie's positivity, compassion, ingenuity, and hunger for life inspired Sarah. Josie was a black transgender woman who, as one might consider, had many disadvantages in society. "But she never felt sorry for herself," Sarah said.

Both women were determined to save beloved wetlands, forests, and all creatures.

Now Sarah guides their boat alone through the valley with the looming shadow of uncertainty and change. She does not know what the future will bring. "Maybe I will start a new chapter," she said.

She hoped that saving Colne Valley will be a pivotal moment and inspiration for other communities fighting to protect the environment and clean water. Sarah observed that during the first lockdown, HS2 preparatory works have intensified. "People are still fighting for the Colne Valley. Land clearing and destruction of nature are heartbreaking," she said.

Last September, HS2 announced the formal start of construction of the high-speed rail line between London and the West Midlands.

Sarah continues writing challenging letters to the authorities and demands transparency from HS2 actions: "I still think there must be a way of saving the aquifer and the valley," she said.

She filed a law suit against HS2 under The Freedom of Information Act that provides a public "right of access" to information held by public authorities. "We have a right to know what is happening to our drinking water," she said. The hearing is scheduled for early March.

Harvil Road protestors camp: activist take turns to monitor construction site seen in a distance.

I met Sarah at Harvil Road protestors camp two years ago. I was working on a video story on predicted water shortages for London. She passionately spoke about the Colne Valley's natural beauty and pointed out early signs of change: cracks in the soil and natural habitats prepared for clearing. I could hear the passion and worry in her voice: worry for people who are losing homes to the construction site; worry for the birds, small mammals, insects who will lose their habitats and probably lives; worry for the aquifer that filters water for millions of London residents. Her determination and hope were not only inspiring; it was contagious. She remains an inspiration for her dedication and courage to stand up for the vulnerable in light of invincible powers.

Images were taken two years ago when I visited Harvil Road Wildlife Protection Camp.


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