Diggers UK land squat: 3 articles FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Thu, 15 Apr 1999 20:53:02 -0700 (PDT)


FWD  http://www.egroups.com/list/diggers350/

From: "Steve Platt" <Plattsteve@aol.com>
Date: Sun, 21 Mar 1999 17:11:50 EST
To: diggers350@egroups.com


DIGGERS THEN AND NOW
STEVE PLATT for GUARDIAN SOCIETY (issue of 24.3.99)

The woman in the white gloves and blue corduroy, who I'd met at the tenth tee
as she walked her dog around the edge of the golf course, was concerned that I
should not divulge her identity. "They wouldn't like it," she cautioned me
distractedly, glancing around nervously as if someone might be spying on her
as we spoke.

"They" were the other residents of what likes to describe itself as one of the
most exclusive private estates in Britain. "It" was the fact that one of their
number was talking to me, an outsider, about the existence of a public
footpath in the very heart of their private domain.

Not even the local council likes to talk about the 20 metre-wide strip of land
in its ownership that runs in a short semi-circular sliver around the north-
eastern ramparts of the ancient hillfort at the summit of St George's Hill,
near Weybridge, Surrey. It's not marked on any maps, nor signposted on the
ground. Parts of it appear to have been appropriated in the gardens of the
adjoining properties. Yet if you look closely for the gap in the hedge where
Caesar's Cottage butts onto Camp End Road (the developers of the hill got
their history wrong; despite the names, this was an iron age fort, not
Caesar's camp), you can trace the beginning of the path as it wends its way
around the foot of the ramparts.

Given to Elmbridge Borough Council in 1952 by the then owners of the estate,
this anonymous strip of land is about as near as St George's Hill gets these
days to the notion of public or common land. Gates and private security guards
bar the main entrances to the estate, on which it is a modest dwelling indeed
that measures its price in less than millions and where the tightest of
planning controls prohibit the construction of any property with less than an
acre of land around it. Recent would-be visitors to the hillfort footpath
report being told that no such public land exists on the estate and being
turned away at its exclusive gates.

But it was not ever thus. Until the developer, W G Tarrant, bought the one and
a half square miles that make up the St George's Hill Estate in 1912, the hill
was a popular centre for walking and other country pursuits. Many of the
rights of way that were extinguished then had previously been in use for
generations. Earlier still, this had been common land, compulsorily enclosed
by Act of Parliament in 1804 by the Duke of York (of nursery rhyme fame). And
earlier again, it had been the setting for probably the most famous land
occupation in English history.

Back in the English revolution, shortly after the beheading of Charles I, the
waste and common land of St George's Hill was squatted by Gerard Winstanley's
Diggers. Billed as "pioneers of communism" in an exhibition now running at the
Elmbridge Museum in Weybridge, they arrived on the site of these modern
millionaires' mansions on 1st April 1649 with the intention "that we may . . .
lay the Foundation of making the Earth a Common Treasury for All, both Rich
and Poor". Three hundred and fifty years later, a rag, tag and bobtail army of
Winstanley's political and spiritual descendants is returning to the hill with
a similar message.

The original Diggers were, for the most part, landless peasants who had fought
in Cromwell's army against the king. Calling themselves "True Levellers" (as
distinct from John Lilburne's less radical Levellers) because of their
rejection of the notion of private property, they came to plough and sow the
earth in common, claiming the untended land they believed to be rightfully
theirs. "Was the Earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at
ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others,
that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land, or was it made to preserve
all her children?" asked Winstanley in The New Law of Righteousness.
Winstanley's modern-day equivalents share a similar disdain for the
concentration of land ownership in the hands of the few, but a greater
difficulty in raising the land issue to a central position in modern political
discourse. Whereas, right through to the early years of this century, the
question of land ownership was recognised as being key to any programme of
democratic or economic reform, today it is seen rather as a fringe issue.

That will not stop the modern Diggers trying. As part of the 350th anniversary
commemorations, the loose-knit "Diggers 350" campaign group is staging a
"pageant" and march on the hill on the weekend of 3rd April. Provided that the
golf club gives its consent, campaigners intend to erect a Diggers Memorial
Stone on the site before moving on to a long-term land occupation somewhere
nearby. (Participants who feel so inclined are being invited to "come along to
the 3rd April march with sleeping bags, tents and things to plant and grow"
and to "make sure there's someone to feed your cat for a few days".)

Those involved include The Land Is Ours landrights campaign, which first came
to St George's Hill four years ago, when it organised a short-lived squat of
the disused Wisley airfield nearby. The Surrey Herald reported at the time
that residents were "baffled" by their appearance, although the owners of the
golf club declared themselves to be "delighted" by the planting of two trees
on their land. Since then, The Land Is Ours has sharpened its campaigning
teeth with further land actions, including the occupation three years ago of
Guinness's Gargoyle Wharf development site in south London. This spring, in
alliance with campaigners who have come in particular from anti-roads,
squatting and other protest groups, it is promising a week of action leading
up to long-term land occupations in various parts of the country.

The current debate over the "right to roam" and other aspects of countryside
policy has shown how the ownership of land -- dating back in many cases to its
distribution at the time of the Norman Conquest -- remains central to many
important issues. For Diggers 350, these include rights of access to land for
low-cost housing, recreational and community uses, low-impact rural
development, self-sufficient or self-managing communities, permaculture
schemes, travellers sites, sustainable employment projects and much more.

Whether, within such a diversity of interests, there exists the potential to
build a significant land rights movement in Britain remains to be seen. It is
one thing to point out that just 1 per cent of the population owns 75 per cent
of the land; it is quite another matter to get the other 99 per cent to do
anything about it.

But there have been small straws in the land rights wind. Minor victories have
been won, for example, on the rural settlement front, where low-impact rural
developments such as the Tinker's Bubble community in Somerset have secured
(albeit so far only short-term) planning permission for their settlements. The
numbers involved may be small, but Gerard Winstanley's Diggers probably never
totalled more than a couple of hundred at St George's Hill, and Winstanley
himself was never in any doubt about the importance of symbolic actions, even
if a particular occupation of land ended in failure.

"And here I end, having put my Arm as far as my strength will go to advance
Righteousness," he wrote after the final eviction of the Digger communities in
1650. "I have Writ, I have Acted, I have Peace: and now I must wait to see the
Spirit do his own work in the hearts of others, and whether England shall be
the first Land, or some others, wherin Truth shall sit down in triumph."

He would, no doubt, be pleased to note that the Spirit is still doing his work
in some hearts -- and that, if nothing else, a public footpath in the middle
of one of the most exclusive estates in Britain, where once he sought to
plough and sow, is likely to be walked upon by a few more people than usual
next weekend.


The Diggers 350 commemorations include:
Thursday 1st April  Digger discussions and entertainment, 7pm, Weybridge
Library Hall, Church Street, Weybridge
Saturday 3rd April  March and pageant to St George's Hill and placing of
memorial stone, commencing 12.30pm, The Centre, Hepworth Way, Walton-on-
Thames.
Friday 9th - Saturday 10th April  'Hearts and Spades' Diggers conference with
Michael Foot, Weybridge and Walton (Details 01962 827289)
Until 10th April  Exhibition, The Diggers and St George's Hill, Elmbridge
Museum, Church Street, Weybridge



THE DIGGERS AND ST GEORGE'S HILL
STEVE PLATT column for TRIBUNE (issue of 26.3.99)

"To prove a legal title to land," as Lloyd George once said, "one must trace
it back to the man who stole it." One of the modern-day receivers of stolen
property, the Somerset estate holder, Ewen Cameron, was earlier this month
appointed to head the new Countryside Agency -- with responsibility, among
much else, for the introduction of the right to roam on open country.

Before Mr Cameron gets agitated about the fact that he is not among that
landed aristocracy that can trace its ancestry back to the original thieves,
and that he or his forefathers paid good money for his personal country pile,
let's remind ourselves that a stolen video is still a stolen video no matter
how many hands it passes through. And we are all the victims of the crimes
that put the ownership of our land in the hands of such a few. We have a right
to expect that these people repay their debt to society.

That is why, after the huge letdown of the appointment of a recent president
of the Country Landowners Association to oversee public access to mountain,
moor and heath, the news that this access will have some statutory basis came
as such a relief. We have had 50 years of legislation holding out the prospect
of voluntary access agreements, during which those who pinched the land from
the rest of us in the first place have kept their "Private" signs ever more
firmly in place.

If you don't have anything else planned this Easter weekend, you could do
worse than a spot of trespassing on some mountain or moorland that will soon
be open as of right. Alternatively, if you prefer to exercise your brain as
well as your legs on some of the wider issues of land use and ownership, both
today and in the past, you might like to join the motley band of modern-day
Levellers and Diggers who will be assembling at St George's Hill, near
Weybridge, Surrey, on Saturday 3rd April. There they will be marking the 350th
anniversary of the original Diggers' occupation of common land on the hill,
shortly after the beheading of Charles I, when Gerard Winstanley led a group
of mainly landless peasants to plough and sow the waste with the intention
"that we may . . . lay the Foundation of making the Earth a Common Treasury
for All, both Rich and Poor".

"Was the Earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and
for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these
may beg or starve in a fruitful land, or was it made to preserve all her
children?" asked Winstanley in The New Law of Righteousness. Faced with a
furious and often violent response from the landed interests of their day, the
Digger settlements in Surrey and elsewhere lasted barely a year. But their
belief in common ownership lived on, to the extent that a sympathetic
exhibition now running in the nearby Elmbridge Museum bills the Diggers as the
founders of British socialism and St George's Hill as the "birthplace of
communism".

In one of those ironies that surely prove that fate is not merely capricious
but deliberately cruel, St George's Hill today is one of the most exclusive
private estates in the country. Previously common land, it was stolen from the
rural poor by the (Grand Old) Duke of York by forcible Act of Enclosure in
1804. Today, its 800 acres, complete with Úlite golf and tennis clubs,
comprise a gated and guarded enclave in which planning rules prohibit the
erection of dwellings that occupy less an acre but did not prevent the
developer in the earlier half of this century from largely destroying one of
the best-preserved iron age hillforts in south east England.

That hillfort, however, at the highest point of the hill, is the site for a
surviving sliver of public land. A 20 metre-wide, crescent-shaped strip, which
follows the line of fort's north-eastern ramparts, it has a footpath along its
400-metre length. No matter what the security guards may tell you at the
estate entrances (and some visitors report them as trying to bar entry to
those who they do not like the look of), this little piece of England belongs
not to the estate or any of its millionaires' mansions, but to the local
council, to which it was donated in 1952.

It is worth a visit, in part because the leafy lanes of St George's Hill,
well-wooded now, quiet and free from the through traffic that tears apart so
much of once-rural Surrey, are as fine a stretch of tarmac as ever you are
likely to see. More, though, it's pleasant to think that the communal spirit
of Winstanley still stalks this private realm. "I have Writ, I have Acted, I
have Peace," he wrote after the final eviction of the Digger communities in
1650. "And now I must wait to see the Spirit do his own work in the hearts of
others, and whether England shall be the first Land, or some others, wherin
Truth shall sit down in triumph."

**************************************************

Walk a while with the spirit of Winstanley at St George's Hill on Saturday 3rd
April. March, pageant and placing of memorial stone, meet 12.30, The Centre,
Hepworth Way, Walton-on-Thames (details 01865 722016). Also "Hearts and
Spades" Diggers conference with Michael Foot, 9th-10th April (details 01243
532717) and Elmbridge Museum exhibition, Church Street, Weybridge, until 10th
April (01932 843573).



DO YOU DIG IT?
STEVE PLATT for MIDWEEK (issue of 29.3.99)

The Grand Old Duke of York used to own St George's Hill, near Weybridge,
Surrey. But it's not known whether he ever marched his men to the top of it or
marched them down again.

He probably did so at some point, because he was the aristocrat who
compulsorily enclosed the common land here by a private Act of Parliament in
1804. In doing so, he extinguished all those ancient commoners' rights to dig
turf, collect firewood, graze pigs and so on, which would have upset the local
commoners no end and required the Duke to march his men up and down the hill
on more than one occasion to make sure that no one was sneaking under the
fences of what was now his private domain.

You still have to sneak under the fences to get onto St George's Hill if the
security guards manning the gates at the main entrances don't like the look of
you. Because the St George's Hill Estate is now one of the most exclusive
private estates in the country. The most modest of dwellings here will set you
back several millions. And if you're interested in the sort of properties that
Cliff Richard and the other celebrity residents call home, you'll be looking
at the sort of mortgage loan that not even Peter Mandelson could have got
together from his Cabinet minister mates.

Actually, people don't so much buy houses on St George's Hill as the right to
build on the land on which they stand. The kind of people who live here have
so much money to throw around that they don't just buy new curtains and
carpets when they move in; they call in the demolition contractors and rebuild
the entire place.

This accounts for the fact that there are more hard hats and builders' vans in
the drives of the properties around the hill than there are at the Millenium
Dome. It's only when you look closely that you realise that these are not the
usual men from the Murphia, and that the decals on the ubiquitous white vans
advertise a higher class of building contractor altogether. "Marble Ideas Ltd:
Your Ideas Turned To Stone" announces the sign on one white van. "Markham
Automatic Gates" declares another. "Great Big Pigging Expensive Statues That
You Couldn't Fit In Your Garden, Let Alone Afford To Buy" says a third.

As you slip into the estate via an unmarked gap in the railings just across
>from the lawn tennis club (never mind the lawn; this place has got its own
lake), you pass a building site which promises a "brand new detached family
home". This stretches the boundaries of what constitutes a "family home" to
the limit. How many children do you need to justify 25 bedrooms? What sort of
granny annexe requires its own gym and swimming pool? But with local planning
regulations which stipulate that each property must be built in no less than
one acre of land, there's a lot of space, as well as money, to play around
with.

I'm not sure whether it's comforting or disturbing to discover that neither
money nor space is any guarantor of good taste. The "brand new detached family
home" is about as architecturally imaginative as an out-of-town Tesco's. A
little way up the road, a dwelling named "Atlantis" has two concrete eagles
perched on its gateposts -- rather fitting really, since the house itself
looks like a terrace of 1960s council flats. Nearby, in quick succession, you
can find Georgian thatch, Tuscan pastiche and Tudor parodies standing side by
side with properties whose owners think nothing of siting a satellite dish in
the middle of the lawn or using car number plate plastic lettering to as
nameplates for their multi-million pound mansions. Some of the names at least
show a sense of humour. ("Wit's End"? Well, I liked it anyway.) Most are as
unimaginative as the architecture: "High Trees", "Hilltop", "Hillside", "Hill
Cottage". As for "Camelot", would that be the Court of King Arthur or a sign
that the owners won the lottery?

There are slightly desperate indications of insecurity here too. As if it's
not sufficient to live on a gated, guarded, private estate, some of the
residents have felt the need to stick up additional signs to emphasise the
point to their neighbours: "Private Drive, No Parking", "Private Road:
Residents Only", "Private Post Box: Use Your Own". (Incidentally, even though
this is a private estate, there must be more public postboxes -- with four
collections a day, no less -- per head of population here than anywhere else
in Britain. I counted at least six shared by at most 400 properties.)

At "The Warreners",  a vast rambling plot of land, like virtually all the
properties here set back so far from the road you might not realise that
there's a house there at all, they have even put in one of those curses of
suburbia, a fast-growing Leylandii hedge, to keep prying binoculars (the naked
eye would not be enough) from homing in on the house beyond. And near the golf
club, whose membership roll adds new meaning to the word "exclusive", deep
within a rhodedendron thicket where none would dream to venture were it not to
see what is written on the sign within, there is a post, a tangle of barbed
wire and a red and white plastic notice. "Private" it warns -- for the
benefit, presumably, of any wild bird or rabbit rash enough to think of
entering.

Next weekend, however, on Saturday 3rd April, this exclusive, private realm
faces its peace being disturbed by a motley army of modern-day "Diggers", who
are coming here to erect a memorial stone to an earlier band of Diggers who
squatted St George's Hill during the English revolution. On 1st April 1649, a
couple of months after Charles I had been beheaded, Gerard Winstanley led a
group of mainly landless peasants who had fought in Cromwell's army to the
slopes of St George's Hill. They came to claim the waste and common land, to
plough and sow their beans and barley, and to "lay the Foundation of making
the Earth a Common Treasury for All, both Rich and Poor".

The Elmbridge Museum in Weybridge, which is staging an exhibition to coincide
with the 350th anniversary of the Diggers arrival at St George's Hill,
describes them as "pioneers of communism". They called themselves "True
Levellers" (as opposed to the more moderate Levellers who had risen to
prominence in certain of Cromwell's regiments) because of their belief that
everyone should live in equality.

"Was the Earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and
for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these
may beg or starve in a fruitful land, or was it made to preserve all her
children?" asked Winstanley. He and his fellow Diggers liked neither the
wealthy landlords, who owned the land but would not allow the landless poor
access to it on which to grow their crops, nor the organised church, which
they saw as a perversion of God's creation. They made their feelings known
towards one of the local parsons at the time when, after being illegally
imprisoned at Walton church soon after moving onto St George's Hill, they
later blocked up his pulpit with thorns and briars.

The Diggers faced ferocious opposition from local landowners and dignitaries.
Even so, their colony survived for a year, first on St George's Hill and then
on other land nearby. Other Digger communities were also established in
different parts of the country. None could overcome the vested interests of
the rich and powerful, however, and eventually all that was left of their
movement was their writings and the power of their ideas. "Here I end, having
put my Arm as far as my strength will go to advance Righteousness," Winstanley
wrote after the final eviction of the Digger communities in 1650. "I have
Writ, I have Acted, I have Peace: and now I must wait to see the Spirit do his
own work in the hearts of others, and whether England shall be the first Land,
or some others, wherin Truth shall sit down in triumph."

St George's Hill slipped back into obscurity after that until, in 1912, it was
sold to a property developer, W G Tarrant, who decided to turn its 900 acres
of open heath, woods and hillside into a luxury estate for the rising
professional rich of London, 16 miles away. Tarrant had little regard for
either historical or environmental considerations. He dynamited thousands of
trees on the hill to make way for his golf course and houses. He eradicated
trackways and footpaths that probably dated back to before the Romans. And
when he grew tired of local archaeologists expressing concern over his
treatment of an iron hillfort on the site, he simply flattened large parts of
its ramparts so that they would have nothing left to express concern about.

He would not have had any time for either the original or the modern-day
Diggers, the latter of which are returning to the hill on 3rd April with the
intention of commemorating Gerard Winstanley in more than just spirit. Not all
of the things happening next weekend are on the publicised programme of
events, says one of the flyers calling the New Diggers to arms (or should that
be spades). "Come along to the 3rd April march with sleeping bags, tents,
spades and things to plant and grow," it urges. "And make sure there's someone
to feed your cat for a few days." It promises to be a lot of fun.

END FORWARD



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