Balcombe, a small village in West Sussex, is currently being invaded. Not by a foreign army or extra-terrestrials, but by something far more annoying: anti-fracking activists, who are protesting against energy company Cuadrilla’s plans for exploratory drilling for oil and gas. (The company has no permission for, or immediate plans to use, hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’, though the technique is under serious consideration for full-scale production.) I headed down to Balcombe to see what’s going on.
I catch my first glimpse of the anti-fracking brigade as soon as I disembark at Balcombe station. There they were getting off the train with me, about a dozen of them, placards in one hand, bongo drums in the other, and a stench of something I’m hoping is righteousness.
Declining the offer of a lift to the drilling site about half a mile from the village, I make my way on foot. Straight away, the impact of the protests is clear. What presumably used to be a quiet country road has been transformed: it’s now lined by dozens of police vans.
The protesters’ camp seems to be inhabited, in the main, by young, mostly dreadlocked anarchists, speaking several languages. I say ‘anarchists’, although whether they have grasped the basic precepts of anarchism is uncertain. Historically, you see, anarchists have been quite keen on the abolition of the state. Not this lot: they like the state so much that they want it, as one banner proclaimed, to come to their aid in the bid to ban fracking.
Before I can speak to the not-very-anarchic contingent, I am intercepted and ushered away by a man in his fifties wearing a pith helmet, high-vis jacket and Dr Feelgood t-shirt. It seems that as far as Dr Feelgood is concerned, I’m not talking to the right kind of protester. Identifying himself as ‘a concerned local’, he gives me a tour of the camp, showing me a children’s play area, the coffee corner and the information tent. He tells me the protest is inspired by the ‘Quaker tradition of passive resistance’. I ask if he’s a Quaker. ‘No, I’m Catholic.’
I’m then introduced to two nice ladies from Friends of the Earth who are armed with a seemingly endless supply of just-add-water soundbites. Fracking is ‘dangerous, unpredictable, chaotic’, they say. It involves ‘top-secret chemical cocktails’ and ‘volatile compounds’. The entire town is involved in the protest, they claim, and the few who don’t support them are either ‘Tories’ or tenants of the estate that is leasing the land to Cuadrilla.