HS2 AND THE CONFLICT OVER JONES HILL WOOD: A SOCIAL LANDSCAPE
OF OPPRESSION, VIOLENCE AND RESISTANCE 

High Speed 2 (HS2) is the most ambitious transport project ever attempted in the United Kingdom, as well as, one of the most contentious, with its construction resulting in the felling of more than 108 ancient woodlands, and the highest level of deforestation since World War One. The officials at HS2 argue it is possible to move these ecosystems and replant them in more convenient locations, whereas the local communities affected by this construction see this as a flawed argument as it ignores their deep-rooted cultural and social links to these natural spaces. Ultimately, we find the landscape becomes a place of deep division, oppression and conflict with power struggles over the natural habitat. This project is a multimedia investigation using photography, interviews and online analysis to understand the conflict of interest and social consequences through the analysis of Jones Hill Wood, an ancient woodland that is said to be the setting of Roald Dahl’s book Fantastic Mr. Fox, and surrounding spaces. The wood is located in the Chilterns, Buckinghamshire, a place designated by the UK as an area of outstanding natural beauty and of deep social significance to those that live and interact within it. What I observed were spaces fought over by two opposing ideologies of neo-liberal globalising politics on the one hand, and English rural localism on the other, a political landscape where power struggles result in oppression, violence and resistance, a space of conflict over how we define the natural world. 

Jones Hill Wood

HS2 fencing on Leather Lane

LANDSCAPE OF COMMUNITY

The ambition of this project is to turn landscape from a noun to a verb, understanding it not as simply as an immaterial object, but rather a process in which social and individual identities are formed. Nature itself is a concept often perceived as a force outside of society, empty of people and full of natural beauty and wildlife. In fact the opposite is true, nature is deeply social, part of a landscape defined by individuals and social groups, making it impossible to disentangle the social from the natural; rather in reality nature is lives with us, personified through human interpretation and interaction, becoming an embodiment of identity, values, culture, emotion, politics and community. Landscape is a point of view and a way of seeing, that is maintained, destroyed and reconstructed by social forces. Nature becomes part of this way of seeing symbolising certain social meanings and values, as historian Simon Schama states, ’landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood, water and rock’ .

Joanne

Joanne grew up with Jones Hill Wood, often she refers to it as 'badger wood' as it was a place she'd  come to see badger sets and the local wildlife. For Joanne the wood was a therapeutic space to escape and unwind. Unlike her sister who decided to live in the city, Joanne sees rural life and nature from places like Jones Hill Wood as essential for her mental wellbeing. She speaks of disliking the lights of the city and just enjoys sitting in her garden in the dark feeling the bats fly overhead. However, since HS2 has moved in Joanne has withdrawn from the natural landscape around her, she describes avoiding the HS2 construction stating that she finds it ‘too distressing to walk by'. Now she focuses on her own garden instead, to which she refers to as ‘my little corner’.

The Bunce Family

Through altering the landscape, HS2 is not simply tampering with a natural space, but a place of generational family memory and identity. The Bunce Family who farm the land near the wood highlight this generational connection. When interviewing brothers Kevin  and Peter Bunce they told me about their family’s history within the local landscape, three generations since the 1950s. As children they would play in the woods, enjoying the natural wildlife, even commenting on the fact a badger set had been there for ’60 years’. For the Bunce family there is a strong emotional connection formed through the memories of Jones Hill Wood. They see themselves as having a continuous relationships as a family with the natural space and wildlife, such as the 60 year old connection to a particular badger set. They are following the footsteps of previous generations and hopefully passing on this social relationship to the next.

This is further emphasised through their work as farmers, their habitual relationship to the land, of which a consistent physical interaction create strong emotional bonds. The land doesn’t simply exist outside of them, but is shaped and physically maintained by their actions, from their physical labour to their imaginatively projected meanings. Furthermore, as long-term leaseholders of the land, the trees and natural space are seen as their property, through this stewarding of landscape the farmers are preserving their property for future generations of family. 

As Kevin Bunce states, ‘our grandfather come out here and he pushed the odd hedge out here and there...It was the likes of his generation and our father's generation who made this countryside.People say, oh, it belongs to everyone. Well, It doesn't because the farmers have made it what it is...our dad always said we're just park keepers...it’s our way of life. We've grown up doing it all our lives and enjoy doing it’.

This family relationship is also deeply tied to the culture of the landscape, with locally living writer Roald Dahl gaining inspiration for his book Fantastic Mr. Fox from the wood and the local farmers, in particular the Bunce family whose surname is used as a name for one of the key villains. As Dahl writes,

‘Boggis and Bunce and Bean 

One Fat, one Short, one Lean. 

These horrible Crooks

So different in looks

Were none the less equally mean’ - Fantastic Mr Fox, Roald Dhal.

Thus, story, culture and family history become key connectors to the natural landscape, they personify the space and give it a meaning, tying the Bunce farmer’s social identity to the area. The farmers themselves become a social institutions fused with the cultural symbolism that Dahl and others have assigned to the local landscape. 

LANDSCAPE OF CONFLICT

Proposed HS2 viaduct passing over The Chilterns, Buckinghamshire.

When understanding the conflict between HS2 and communities fighting its construction we can see two distinct sides. For the people that live in the areas affected by HS2, the local landscape symbolises something outside of economic value. It is a place of pride and beauty. The English countryside represents the essence of England and its heritage, ‘the green and pleasant land,' where the seemingly unchanged space is a place of beauty and natural wonder. It is a place with its own local power structures, a relic of England’s past, dominated by feudal social structures where certain prominent English families own most of land for generations. This is a typical social system in rural England where class, inheritance and social hierarchy define the power over the land and the community. 

HS2 represents another form of power, one of modernity, globalisation, trumping these archaic forms of local power. HS2 embodies Neo-Liberal economic interests, which seek to drive an ever more integrated global community, or a ‘zero-friction society,' of which goods, people and information flow without restriction. As HS2 states on their official website, ‘We must never lose sight of the scale of the prize: the chance to transform, not just transport in this country, but our economy as a whole to make it more productive, more balanced and capable of competing successfully in a very competitive global market’. This conflict can be seen as a dichotomy between ‘spaces of place’ and ‘spaces of flow,' in which the landscape becomes a struggle or tension between two difference spatial and temporal logics. That being the local idea of space as a place, an unchanged embodiment of local society, versus the idea that space should facilitate the global flow of goods, people and information.


Since the HS2 construction began in the local area over 10 years ago relations between local residents and HS2 staff have deteriorated rapidly. Residents who had never been into environmental activism have taken up arms against the construction. Environmental groups such as Extinction Rebellion have moved into the area, permitted by local land owners to set up camps on their land to directly oppose the construction. In response HS2 has begun a process of securitisation with the landscape transformed into a space of surveillance, suspicion and intimidation. Large fences have been erected around the construction sites, dividing the local community from the natural landscape. Security guards and dogs brought in to protect the sight, and cars with CCTV employed to patrol the area. One particular resident complained of a security fence running through her back garden, flood lights shone directly onto her house and orange cladded security guards patrolling the space 10 meters away from her home 24/7. It this response of securitisation that gives us an insight into the conflict between these two groups, the landscape is now divided, battle lines drawn, with conflict, paranoia, intimidation, fear and anger permeating the space.

When conducting the field work for this project I myself became a subject of suspicion in HS2’s securitised zones. By walking and taking pictures near the fences, I was perceived as a possible threat. On many occasions I was followed and filmed by balaclava wearing security, who never spoke but would read out my license plate over their walkie-talkies. I had also been followed by nondescript white pickup trucks with CCTV cameras on their roofs and drones. I began to fall into the conflict, positioned on one side of the divide, considered a threat to HS2 and thus a target of suspicion. 

However, it is worth noting this is not the case for all HS2 security staff as some spoke to me telling me that they felt sympathetic for the cause of the environmental activists but were simply ‘doing a job’ or ‘feeding their family’. When I asked one guard about his background, he stated that he was from a working-class background based in London, and that the job at HS2 was simply the best paid work he could get during the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, based on his circumstances he was pushed into confronting activists, whereas those in higher positions had the luxury of hiding aware from it. As underlined by one local activist when discussing  the HS2 security staff, ‘they’re paid to do what they’re told and the people at the top they take those trees down ...it’s like in the army if you’re asked to go forwards and fight you did’. 

Local resident watches over the HS2 Jones Hill Wood construction site from her back garden

HS2 van which followed and filmed myself and protestors nearby the HS2 construction sites

HS2 security guard a tree inline to be felled.

LANDSCAPE OF VIOLENCE

Nature is cultural, it embodies social group's collective memories, their shared understanding of the world, and reflects their interaction with it. A farmer who ploughs fields and maintains hedges, sees nature as part of their working environment. A dog walker perceives nature as a space of leisure, stress relief and social interaction. We each have a different way of perceiving the landscape and as such cultures and interpretations of that space are born and nurtured. Violence in this context can be understood as a disruption to this symbolic order, felling trees and killing local wildlife can be viewed as painful as a physically violent act. As a result, identities, memories, meaning are all under threat when a social space are disturbed in this fashion. Recently, this idea was adapted by environmental lawyer Polly Higgins, who argued that the destruction of the environment was also a form of cultural genocide, and as such should be considered as a crime against humanity, or ‘ecocide’. The definition being the act of destroying ecosystems to the extent that it ‘severely diminishes’ the local inhabitants ‘peaceful enjoyment’ of the natural world. A crime so severe both Higgins has proposed it be considered an international crime against humanity in the eyes of the International Criminal Court. In terms of HS2 and Jones Hill Wood, I have many anecdotal accounts of alleged ecocide crimes from HS2, as well as, violence both physical and symbolic towards local residents and activists. What we come to see is the natural areas around Jones Hill Wood become landscapes of violence, flash points of conflicted areas of society.

The cleared area of Jones Hill Wood

HS2 construction behind Jones Hill Wood

To offset the environmental damage caused by this train line to ancient woodlands, HS2 has attempted to ‘translocate’ the woods to nearby spaces out of the way of the line. This means moving their soil, shrubs and animals to a new location to recreate their ‘ancient’ ecosystems. However, not only is it impossible to quickly recreate an ecosystem that has taken hundreds of years to develop, but this proposal also ignores the deeply interwoven social significance that communities have built over time within these spaces. As a result the destruction of the natural landscape is not simply contested from a purely ecological standpoint but also a social one, of which the HS2 construction is perceived as a threat to people’s ways of life. 

Fresh and healthy soil from Jones Hill Wood

Dried and dead soil from Translocation site by Jones Hill Wood

HS2 translocation site by Jones Hill Wood

One example of how violence is perceived by the local community when these natural spaces are destroyed is from the felling of a beloved Oak Tree on King's Road near Jones Hill Wood in 2020. The tree, also known as 'The King’s Road Oak', was felled by HS2 to create more space for a construction site carpark. The act of its destruction was a major source of emotional trauma for the local community, describing it as ‘upsetting’,‘heartbreaking’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘sad’. The Bunce farmers, who leased the land that the Kings Road Oak lived on, stated that, ‘it was sad actually seeing that tree cut down because that tree has got a lot of memories underneath it’ (Bunce 2021). We understand the tree to be deeply meaningful for the local community, containing memories and personal experiences that are perceived as being lost with the tree. Furthermore, the tree was personified, referred to as a friend and given a name. Thus, felling the tree was perceived as an act violence to a member of their own community.

Developing this idea of violence to the natural landscape, my images below show the hacked bark from the felled tree. My aim was to close in on areas of trauma to the bark, trunk and branches, removing the environmental context from the image, and giving the bark a more visceral and brutal quality reflecting the sense of violent trauma inflicted against the tree. 

Local resident's photography of the Kings Road Oak Tree before the felling.

Another angle of the King's Road Oak Tree taken by a local resident.

The felled Kings Road Oak

Photograph taken by a local resident of a wreath laid at the stump of the Kings Road Oak Tree.

LANDSCAPE OF RESISTANCE

A tree house in Jones Hill Wood where environmental activists have taken up home to oppose the HS2 construction.

From oppression and conflict comes resistance. When HS2 first moved into the area of Jones Hill Wood, it was met by direct confrontation from political channels. Petitions, local governments and experts challenged the government directly looking to alter the course of the project. Eventually, these challenges and much of the initial direct and formal forms of political action ended in defeat. In fact, HS2 has also defeated the environmental activists living in Jones Hill Wood, as they have already cut down the parts of the wood that needed to be removed. Yet, local residents and environmental activists remain defiant in their opposition to HS2. For them, a new resistance is being formed, in which the power of HS2 isn’t directly challenged but rather kept in check. In my conversations with many activists they have said they are aware they can’t stop HS2, rather their goal is to keep tabs on them. Making sure they are doing their job legally, resulting in small acts of defiance throughout the landscape. This can be seen in either local residents allowing their land to be used by environmental activists to challenge HS2, signs being placed to undermine the project or the online space being employed to organise protest and disrupting events. Ultimately, people from all walks of life from experienced environmental activists to people will very have little background in protest are forced into forming a front of resistance so as to sabotage and undermine the HS2 project. 

Environmental activist campsite in Jones Hill Wood

One particular case of resistance I documented was the collusion between local resident Carol-Anne and environmental activist Teleport. Both from two  completely different worlds socially but united to oppose HS2. Initially Carol-Anne found herself simply making cups of tea for the environmental activists or allowing them access onto her land to intervene with the HS2 construction. Small gestures of defiance. Yet this defiance began to grow for Carol-Anne who began to work directly with some of the environmental activists to help them monitor local wildlife in the area and the HS2 construction., collecting evidence of any foul play. One particular activity I documented was Carol-Anne and Teleport placing of a bat monitor around the HS2 construction on Leather Lane, a road near Jones Hill Wood lined with over 50 Oak tree all threatened by HS2. The logic being if they can prove that bats live in the trees then, as a legally protected species, HS2 cannot touch them. This mission was planned from Carol-Anne's home over cups of tea, and executed at dusk whilst HS2 security suspiciously overlooked their every movement. 

The ambition of this study has to challenge our relationship with nature.In an age of global warming and environmental catastrophe, Western discourse often paints ‘nature’ as a separate entity, something either in need to be saved or controlled but independent from our direct reality. However, as demonstrated nature is our reality, it is interconnected to our social world, our community’s health is contingent on the health of the natural environment. As one of interviewee states,


‘I think you can't help feel that the trees that you recognise from when you are growing up and the landscapes that you grow up in, tend to be your favourite a lot of the time we have a personal connection, there's a personal connection. It's weird because they’re just tree’ 


Trees and the natural landscape are all part of the web of our social world, there destruction disturbs this reality and in some cases throws communities into unbalance and conflict. Thus, it is important when we try to understand infrastructure projects such as HS2, from an economic or environmental perspectives, that we also incorporate what the social and cultural impacts will be and how nature means more, much more, than CO2 percentages, or ‘natural capital’. 

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