Early January and an iron-cold easterly has given way to the wet warmth of a south-westerly. The post-Christmas week’s heavy dump of snow is all gone save for the odd grey patch piled up in farm gateways, thawing rapidly and leaving a smudged reminder of the beauty of a real Kentish winter.
It has been nearly a month since the concordat. Cash-strapped and struggling to keep warm in a ramshackle cottage in Hastingleigh, the enormity of Imperial’s vision has passed me by. Beth — my wife — and I left Wye for the hills the previous August. Since then, we have been plagued by terrible family illness. It feels like our lives are only just back on the fairway.
Neither of us intends to look back.
But then there is David Hewson. The Sunday Times technology guy in the bow tie. I’m vaguely aware that he writes novels. Occasionally, I used to notice him in the bar of the New Flying Horse.
David has invited me for a drink in the Timber Batts at Bodsham near his house to discuss ‘a website’. It has something to do with Imperial College and the concordat. He knows I am vaguely senior on The Sunday Telegraph and I assume he’s just after some work. I really don’t have a clue.
It is Sunday lunchtime and the Batts is, as usual, both busy and smoky. I guzzle Adnams while David, who I assume doesn’t drink, nurses an alcohol-free lager. ‘I’ve set up a site called save-wye.org,’ he tells me. ‘I thought it would be useful for people to discuss this Imperial College concordat thing. But so far only Damian Green, the MP, has written anything and I’m hoping you might write some stuff just to help get it kick-started. Maybe Beth, too.’
I mutter something about being busy, about turmoil at work but promise to think about it.
David also wonders whether I’ve got shorthand and whether I might be going to the public meeting called by the college for the following day. No, I am not going to the meeting. I don’t work on Mondays and, besides, my reporting days are long behind me. ‘Well, I’ll probably go anyway,’ David says with a slight shrug of resignation.
Five hundred people go to the meeting but David is not among them. He misses the Borys line that did more to motivate the people of Wye to man the barricades than anything, the extraordinarily haughty gaffe that the deputy rector will never be allowed to forget: ‘But to put it in terms you’d understand…’
So begins our contribution to the battle for Wye: chaotic, uncertain, and utterly amateurish, it is a wonder that save-wye ever gets off the ground. In those first few weeks, our stats software tells us that the site is visited by David, me and the Google sitemap robot.
Down the road a complex and colourful organisation forms under the leadership of Ben Moorhead, a boyish and charismatic lawyer of London and Bodsham. It is called the Wye Future Group. It descends into in-fighting immediately. Diana Pound, the environmentalist turned planner who advises the group, tells me that it is a classic case of ‘forming, storming, performing’. I have no idea what she is talking about but a few weeks later it is clear that they haven’t got beyond the storming bit.
Wye’s borough councillor, former spook Ian Cooling, is settling in nicely to his new role as a double agent. By day, he is the wounded defender of the village, issuing unintelligible 2,000-word treatises on why Imperial should be allowed to build on its brownfield sites in return for coughing up the money for something called a ‘one-stop shop for council services’. But by night he is giving succour to Imperial, quietly egging on the director of estates, David Brooks Wilson, in his bid to pay off the university’s enormous overdraft by turning Wye into a new suburb of Ashford. Secure in the knowledge that no-one outside will ever read his emails, Cooling keeps up this charade for the most of the next year.
Meanwhile, confident that its operation to dupe the two councils into supporting its grand project has succeeded, Imperial is moving at speed. Letters are being written to government ministers. If all goes like clockwork, Brooks Wilson envisages the bulldozers cutting the first turf on the green fields beneath the Downs some time in 2007. Cooling is whispering to him that the first mutterings of local opposition are not a representative view of the village. There is, says the councillor, a silent majority who support the vision.
But just nine months later, that ‘vision’ is dead. Imperial is defeated, its academics turned property developers humiliated, its depleted coffers stripped of another £1million to finance this fiasco. Brooks Wilson is out of a job, the victim of a self-made disaster the echoes of which will resound long in the annals of English environmentalism. Cooling, unmasked, is forced to make an astonishing admission as he switches sides just before unconditional surrender is declared.
Even for those who were close to it, it is an extraordinary story. One in which a group of nice middle-class villagers hunkered down and used the system to defeat an avaricious developer. But that is the official version and it bears only a passing resemblance to the real story of what was needed to send Imperial packing.
Fourteen months have now passed since I met that man Hewson in the Timber Batts. About a month before Imperial finally accepted defeat, he told me that he was planning to write a book about the battle for Wye. I thought he was mad to devote the time to such a thing. Surely, I said, he’d be better off concentrating on his fiction, which sells millions, than a factual account of an obscure environmental battle that might shift a couple of hundred copies at most.
I’m happy to say that, once again, I have been proved wrong about my friend David Hewson. Tomorrow (Saturday) his book — Saved — will feature on the cover of the Daily Telegraph’s Weekend section and will be launched at a special event in the New Flying Horse a week later. He says on the blurb that this is the whole story, ‘warts and all’, of how Wye defeated Imperial. There are no punches pulled here, no allowances for the delicate sensibilities of some of the book’s intended audience. Apart from protecting a few of our sources, this really is the story in its entirety. Not everybody is going to like this book but I imagine that that is exactly how David wants it. Let’s face it, not everybody liked save-wye and we still have an amazing ability to make enemies out of thin air. But this is an honest and unexpurgated account of a battle that was very nearly lost before it was joined. It deserves to be read by everybody who cares about the parlous state of democracy in our country.
The publication of Saved marks the end for this website. We’ve gone from attracting just 100 or so visitors in the first month to reaching more than 110,000 readers. From a shaky start, it became the main weapon in Wye’s armoury and was instrumental in defeating Sykes and his cohorts.
So this time that really is it. save-wye ends here. Some time over the next fortnight, we’ll be pulling the plug on the comments and closing it down. The site will still be here to read as a resource but David and I are determined that not another word will be added. If you miss us, then from Easter Saturday, of course, there’ll be another 85,000 words to read — words you won’t have read anywhere else.
Thank you, again, to everybody who has read our stuff — both online and in those printed editions — and to those who supported us with the occasional financial contribution to help us with our printed edition costs. We never asked for help and we are enormously grateful. Thank you, too, to the two secret squirrels in the village who did so much to keep this show on the road — David and I won’t ever forget your efforts.
The last word is a personal one from me. For setting up this site, for persisting when everything looked so bleak, for writing some of the most erudite and entertaining copy it has ever been my pleasure to read, for encouraging me to rediscover the thrill of investigative journalism … thank you, David.
It was fun.