'It was like the Great Escape'

Kettering environmental activist among HS2 Euston tunnel protestors

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By Sarah Ward

A Kettering born academic and veteran environmental activist is among campaigners staging an underground HS2 protest beneath Euston Square Gardens.

Dr Larch Maxey, is one of a small group of protestors, including the well-known Swampy, who have taken up perilous residence in a network of hand dug tunnels as part of their efforts to stop the controversial £106bn HS2 high speed rail project.

The group had been camping out at the central London site, which is set to lose 53 trees as part of the HS2 build, since September and had joined with others to dig the tunnels covertly over a few months. They went underground last Tuesday (January 26).

HS2, which legally owns the land, has been trying to evict the protestors and an application by Maxey to stop the eviction process was ruled out by a high court judge on Monday evening who ordered the group to stop tunnelling and leave the site safely.

Speaking to NN Journal from the tunnel on Monday evening, Maxey, who grew up in Kettering and still has family in the area, said he would attempt to remain in the tunnel until ‘they cancel HS2 or cancel the eviction’. 

There have been concerns for safety of the protestors, with fears the tunnels could collapse or flood. HS2 has been carrying out work above the tunnels while the campaigners have been inside.

“I’m not worried at all,” he said. “I feel really good”. I have known about the climate emergency for 25 years and there is nothing worse for your mental health than watching it unfold. The best thing for your own mental health, I personally feel, is to take action.”

The group took down food, water and bedding, battery packs and lights and in the first week of residence Larch has also managed to read half of a biography of Martin Luther King.

“People think you will get bored and have lots of time on your hands, but it is quite the opposite,” he said. “Time flies when you are down here - we have something called tunnel time and we are on a different rhythm. We do not have the sun coming up and down to tell when a day is over, so the compass we have is when the HS2 staff change shift”.

The tunnels are ten foot beneath ground level and could be as long as 100 ft.

“We have had about thirty people helping for about three to four months to get the tunnels built. It was like the great escape,” he said.

Maxey, whose son is part of the above ground protest group, is pleased this latest protest is raising awareness of the green cause he has dedicated more than half his life to. He is part of the HS2 Rebellion group which says the high speed rail line - which will eventually connect London to Northern England - will destroy 108 ancient woodlands and take 120 years to become carbon neutral. HS2 says it will replant seven million trees.

“Because we were tunnelling in London, we knew we would get lots of attention and we have had so much support. We are putting as much pressure on HS2 as possible. All I can be is responsible for is myself and I am putting 100 per cent in.”

Larch’s cousin Karl Maxey, of Kettering, said he is proud of his cousin’s efforts but is scared for his safety. He and his wife Stacey have kept in touch with Larch by regular phone calls to his underground chamber.

He said: “He is trying to save the planet and I support him. I am worried about him though, as it is dangerous down there and they (the eviction team) are not letting any food in.”

In a statement a  HS2 spokesman said: “We urge Dr Maxey to comply with the order as soon as possible – for his safety and the safety of his fellow activists and the HS2 and emergency personnel tasked with removing the illegal trespassers.”

History of campaigning

Maxey (who was named Ian but changed his name by deed poll) has been an environmental campaigner since the early 1990s.

A pupil at St Andrews CE Primary in Kettering, he attended secondary school in Duston and gained a law degree before going on to do a masters. It was while studying that he became aware of climate change.

He has been involved in a number of environmental protest actions in the UK, including living in a tree for eight months protesting against the M65 in Lancashire in the mid 1990s.

He has a PHD in sustainability and was a geography lecturer for many years before giving it up to become a full time climate change campaigner in 2019.

He lives his life as a freegan, eating food discarded from supermarkets or left by others. 

The HS2 project

When complete HS2 will connect London to Northern England. Phase 1, which is predicted to cost up to £45bn, will connect London to Birmingham and is due to be complete by 2033; phase 2 will join Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. The project, which began construction in 2020, has long been controversial and many quarters have called for it to be scrapped amid environmental concerns, local protests and escalating costs.

A government review in 2019 recommended it go ahead in its entirety.

The line will go through South Northamptonshire and pass Brackley, Sulgrave, Chipping Warden and Upper Boddington. However it will not stop in Northants prompting the area’s MP Andrea Leadsom to say the rail upgrade will bring no benefit to local residents.

Appeal from Larch

Readers who agree with Larch and want to try and stop HS2 can lobby their MP and support the climate change and ecological emergency bill. 

The group also has a go fund me page for those who wish to support financially.