Third Battle of Newbury

The Third Battle of Newbury


From The Sunday Express, Autumn 1994 (date uncertain).

Many battles have taken place in Berkshire. Alfred the Great and King William both fought here and now nine miles of road has become the focus of yet more conflict.some say that the bypass the Department of Transport plans to cut through countryside west of Newbury will destroy the area's rural character. Others complain traffic is choking the town. For the third time, Newbury has a battle on its hands.

By John Gibb

Photograph by Michael Birt.

Main photograph by Christopher Cormack.

On a windswept autumn day, Lord Falkland, a Liberal peer whose ancestor, Lucius Carey, was Secretary of State to Charles the First, showed me the spot where his forebears and 5000 men had been killed during the first battle of Newbury in 1643. "The road will run to the edge of the battlefield," he says, "and it will all but destroy it."

Much of the land remains free of the development that has crept out of Newbury and, despite the brutalising of the town, this landscape has changed little over the years. Much of it has been designated an area of outstanding natural beauty by the Countryside Commission. There is no corporate farming here no golf courses: just trees and fields.

But the Newbury bypass will change all that. It will be one of the most environmentally damaging roads built in Great Britain from many years. The route runs through four Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) including Snelsmore Common, which is internationally important and one of the largest and richest areas of heathland remaining in the region.

The SSSI designation by English nature should be the highest level of protection possible, but the Department of Transport, it seems, is able to override it. The road will run through Rack Marsh and the Lambourn River and through the Kennet Valley floodplain.

The bypass will also damage battlefield site, pass close to Donington Castle, a grade I listed building, and infringe an EC habitats directive by destroying colonies of many protected species. Understandably, there are people who are up in arms. The proposed route is 9 miles in length and there is hardly a foot of it that is acceptable to everybody.

Lord Falkland is appalled that the road will be driven through the battlefield. "I believe it should be protected. Men died for their beliefs were buried here. I can think of no other civilised country where a road like this would even be contemplated."

The thick hedgerows and small fields have survived and there is hardly a house to be seen. Here, people retreat from the urban sprawl of Newbury to enjoy the peace.

We walk onto a bridleway crossing a field of young the distance is the escarpment that marks the edge of the Hampshire Downs. "The traffic has to go somewhere," he acknowledges, "but driving a road through a peerless landscape simply because it is the least expensive option in short-term and brutal."

St Gabriel's School of girls is on the A34just to the south of Newbury. Headmaster David Cobb says that the sooner the bypass is built, the better. "The A34 is a problem. When we broke up for a half term on the afternoon of 23rd of October, the date coincided with a race day at Newbury and at around three in the afternoon a lorry broke down just to the south of us. At the same time there was an accident to the north of the town. The parents had descended on the school to take the children home and there was complete gridlock. The traffic just sat there for an hour churning out fumes.

"The trouble is, the traffic is so bad it is began to affect the economic prosperity of Newbury. People can get into the town so they go elsewhere."

Cobb has a point. I watched parents queueing to drive out onto the road, dodging between juggernauts as they thundered down the hill.

"But if the road goes to the west, how do you justify the destruction of the countryside?"I asked him.

"I agree that as a school we all responsible transmitting the cultural and historical aspects of the area in which we exist, but the road blight our lives," he says. "The protesters say that 70% of the traffic is local and what is needed is better traffic management. But the other 30% are the juggernauts,which have a devastating impact on the town.

"I understand the arguments about development and damage to the countryside, but surely traffic spewing out lead is an environmental threat to the centre of Newbury? What is needed is strict enforcement of the planning laws to protect the land between the town on the road and a fundamental reappraisal of planning strategy in the town to help Newbury to preserve its character."

One of the most high-profile protesters is Robert Hardy, who describes himself as an actor in his spare time. He is also a member of the Battlefields Trust Panel of English Heritage.we need in water meadows by the Lambourn, close to where the Roundheads lay in siege against Donington Castle prior to the second Battle of Newbury in 1644.

"We have officially recognised the first battle and included it on the Battlefields Register because it was an important Civil War engagement. Newbury is situated at the crossroads between London, Bath, Oxford and Southampton, so it was of significant strategic importance.

"The British have a strange attitude to history. The Department of Transport put a motorway through the battlefield of Naseby, now they want to put this road through the Parliamentarian positions to the north of Round Hill at Newbury. These places should have the status of war graves. After the fight they would dig a pit and bury their dead on the spot."

We walk into the hamlet of Bagnor on the banks of the Lambourn. The peace of this village will be destroyed by the road. "There was action all around here during the siege of Donington Castle," he says. "They still dig up relics of the fighting. People do enjoy and need to go to these places. They want to know what happened, how history was made. If the road is built, the battlefields of Newbury will have gone forever because of the ensuing development. It is a desperate situation as far as English Heritage is concerned. It must be stopped."

Tea with Lord Palumbo in his 18th-century mansion in Bagnor, once the home of Billy Wallace, playboy and occasional squire to Princess Margaret. "I bought the Manor house because of its beauty and because it is in a peaceful and secluded part of the country," he says.

Palumbo has done much to return Bagnor Manor to its former glory. Pin-striped lawns roll down to the Lambourn river. An avenue of poplars leads to the sweep of drive before the front door. " Hayat, my wife, redesigned the interior and we have tried to make it into a home," he says as we walk slowly towards the river. There is a feeling of warmth and comfort rather than wealth about the place.

He is limping and looks tired. "I thought I had gout," he says, "but it turns out to be a pulled muscle in my knee. I had to drive to the hospital on the other side of Newbury. I cannot understand how the planners have been permitted to let the town degenerate into such a mess. They have allowed huge stores to be built on the outskirts so the traffic is in chaos while the centre of the town is dying because nobody goes there."

"A letter has been sent to the Department of Transport from the European Commission and the government will have to take notice of it," he says. "The road breaks important parts of European law. It contravenes the habitats directive and destroying Sites of Special Scientific Interest is just not acceptable. It is the first stage in a legal process which could reverse the decision.

"Once the road is built, it is final and it can never be reversed. We should think in the long term and the decision to put the road through the countryside is pure economic expediency. The development of Newbury is all to the east, so why build the road on the West? When I say I do not want the road here, people say, 'He would say that, wouldn't he?' But I feel, now we are approaching the millennium, that it is the right time to ask ourselves what our grandchildren will inherit."

Jill Eisele is married to an American and moved to west of Newbury in 1990. "You get used in sensitive developments in the US," she told me, "but when I came here and saw what they were planning to do to West Berkshire, I genuinely could not believe it.

"The National Rivers authority, a statutory body responsible for the well-being of our waterways and the drainage of groundwater, was never consulted by the Department of Transport during the public inquiry into the road. The design of the crossing points over the Kennet and the Lambourn will significantly increase flood risk and, under certain conditions, the water levels will increase by 19 inches. The district valuer is concerned about compensation to householders. It is a complete mess."

Friends of the Earth, the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have all complained to the European commission. The EC have written to the British government asking for clarification on the destruction of the SSSIs, heritage sites and the lack of appropriate environmental assessment before the public inquiry. DoT Secretary of State Brian Mawhinney must reply within two months.

"It seems too late to do anything about the road," says Eisele, who founded the pressure group, the Third Battle of Newbury, earlier this year. "there is no doubt that Newbury has a traffic problem, but the bypass will have serious implications of the town. It will not just damage protected countryside, it will create a boundary for development. The only acceptable route is to improve the route through the centre of the town and introduce a sensible policy of traffic management. According to the Department of Transport's own statistics, 70% of the traffic is local and within a few years the situation will return to its present chaotic state."

Alan Jones, director of planning services, Newbury District Council,is a supporter of the western route that acknowledges the damage it will cause. "Anybody who has walked the bypass route knows what a tragedy that will be. Even the DoT's own consultants said it would be an environmental disaster. But there is no alternative. If they try to improve the road through the centre of town it would have to be on stilts and would blight Newbury forever. There is no practical route to the east.

"It is possible, now that certain elements of European law have been raised, that the road could be delayed, and even abandoned. The introduction of two new SSSIs and the heritage sites are a difficulty for the Department of Transport. However, I understand that they have already started minor works on the beginning and end of the route, which could technically get them off the hook.

"I agree that the crossings on the embankments over the Kennet and Lambourn rivers are badly designed. They will cause flood problems and we always asked that the road should be on pillars, which would have been more sightly and acceptable. But, as usual, that the DoT took the cheap option. In my opinion, we must have a bypass and the only practical solution is to the west."

Whatever the outcome, Newbury ' in the 80s nicknamed Thatcher town ' will remain in turmoil for years to come.

Back to the Newbury Bypass Factfile.