Saturday, 28 July 2012

“If Trees Could Cry – Oxleas Wood” - a 20th Century adventure in eco-magic

“Unevolved man is, notoriously, a destructive creature, and is loud in asserting his "right" to be so. Have not those who can see a little further and think a little more deeply at least an equal right to defend and preserve? It is not only animals that are in question here: is the fashion for redwood fences and garden furniture really an adequate reason for thinking beings to exterminate trees of age-long growth? We do not wish to do more than touch upon this matter, for its significance must already have impressed many. Not only this or that living species is in danger; there is also that fabric of which each is a component, that web of mighty vibrations and of subtle echoes...”

-          Robe and Ring, The Magical Philosophy, Denning and Phillips

It was the late 1980s just as my Charlton House Green Circle group came to the end of working through Denning and Phillips’ “Magical States of Consciousness” over the previous 18 months, when I heard something from a close friend that hugely alarmed me.  The United Kingdom Department of Transport was planning to build a six-lane road through one of London’s last remaining ancient woodlands and designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. The road was to be called the East London River Crossing. Local household residents were up in arms. Road developers and bankers in the City of London were delighted at the prospects of shareholder profit and quicker trips to and from work.

As ancient woodland Oxleas Woods had survived in all its beauty and peace for over 8000 years and now, in the space of a year or so, it was to be decimated in the name of progress. 900 year-old trees and a vast array of rare flora and fauna were to be destroyed to provide drivers with a faster route between the City of London, East and South East London.

Many hundreds of years previously the 77 hectare site had been gifted to the citizens of London as a leisure area “to enjoy for perpetuity”. Oxleas was one of the capital city’s last remaining sizeable green spaces and in some respects acted as the lungs of London. It has been described as “the last remaining part of the pre-historic great forest of London”. People from all walks of life benefited from Oxleas - playing children, nature lovers, hikers and dog-walking adults, from the poorest communities in London in enormous social housing estates in Kidbrooke to the middle classes of Eltham and Shooters Hill.

In since forgotten pre-historic times, as the highest part of the whole South and South East London environment, Oxleas would have been a sacred place. With the recent pagan renaissance it had become a special place again for many people.

I had lived on its edge over the past few years in Woolwich and Shooters Hill and had spent many days and nights wandering through its leafy glades, meditating and occasionally celebrating seasonal rites and natural magic with friends. As the days passed, my alarm turned to rage. What could I do to stop this madness and desecration?

There were a number of environmental organizations and residents’ groups trying to stop things through the political processes but things were really not looking good. The government was now starting to displace hundreds of local families through compulsory purchase orders. These orders provided a nominal cash sum for their homes and then evicted them out so as the road could be built were their houses and gardens had previously stood. Whole communities were to be broken up.

Over the next couple of years a number of magical groups started working on the challenge, supporting the environmental and resident groups in both practical and magical ways. I was hugely fortunate to be involved with one of the environmental groups (Greenwich and Lewisham Friends of the Earth) and two of the magical groups – Dragon and the Fellowship of Isis. In time an aging Vivian Godfrey would lend a hand in an unexpected way too.

Dragon was an eco-magic group founded in London during the summer of 1990 by a diverse group of people who had attended a series of evening classes on folklore. On the surface it appeared an odd collective of people including Pagans, Witches, Druids, Hermeticists, Thelemites, Qabalists, followers of Asatru and Chaos Magicians. With a few exceptions, most members were private people who desired to keep their activities out of the public gaze. However, there were some more public members such as occult author and controversial celebrity, the late Gerald Suster, who were quite happy to make some noise about what was going on. Twenty years later Dragon still exists as a broad network of eco-magic practitioners, but, that is another story! However, at its founding, its first magical campaign was to save Oxleas Wood from the proposed road development. 

With my then partner and other members of Dragon and the FoI I started to attend as many local meetings as possible  where people were actively organising to save the woods. People Against the River Crossing (PARC) were the most impressive of these groups, made up of local residents, from Greenpeace activist , Waste Disposal Manager, to doctor – nine of whom eventually put their homes on the line to fight the road development in the UK parliament and courts of justice, finally taking their fight to the European Parliament.

Then in 1990, Olivia Robertson, founder of the Fellowship of Isis, came to London to present at the first ever Fellowship of Isis International Convention. I was fortunate enough to support the formidable organiser, C, with the Convention and was invited to work on the doors for the event. I have never, in all my life to date met such a wide assortment of characters devoted to the Goddess and from all walks of life! To add some specific Ogdoadic interest, Olivia and her brother Lawrence had been co-workers in the Mysteries a couple of decades previously with Vivian Godfrey and Leon Barcynski.

Shortly after the convention, C had told a number of us that on the visit Olivia had insisted on taking a small number of FOI members to visit a particularly renowned medium. The medium had allegedly told the visitors a number of things which were either true at the time or subsequently came to pass shortly thereafter. What particularly struck the visitors was that at one stage the medium had adopted on a peculiar physical stance mentioning that she felt there was a cravat wrapped around her neck. At this point in the consultation the medium started to talk in a strange pitch and pace, specifically focussing her address on Olivia. The medium told her audience that she could see a man speaking intensely with Olivia’s late father. From this vision the medium’s audience were told that they should complete a ceremony by a water well, with a sword that had something important to do with trees. The medium had not known about the audience’s involvement in the Oxleas Woods Campaign.

Later, Olivia Robertson explained to C that she felt from the body language, voice, cravat and description of the man talking to her father that the late poet and magician W.B. Yeats had been trying to get a message to them. Incidentally Yeats had been a close family friend of the Robertsons in the first half of the 20th Century

Make of this story what you will, but out of this meeting, a trip was rapidly organised back to the FOI Enniscorthy Castle temple in Eire, where a ritual, one of many to follow, was composed and performed by the castle’s well, involving a large sword aimed at saving Oxleas Woods and initiating the Noble Order of Tara.

As the campaign to save the woodlands heated up the protest activity took on a life of its own. Many magical and non-magical folk spent their evenings, weekends and holidays working on the campaign.  People resorted to writing letters to politicians, decision makers, newspapers, being interviewed on the radio and leafleting all the local area. I started to get songs dedicated to the Campaign or the campaigners on a number of the local London radio stations as an alternative way of getting free advertising. Thousands of committed local people and campaigners signed a pledge to take peaceful but direct action to chain themselves to the bulldozers if the road builders ever started the destruction of the wood.

On the inner levels a number of groups started meditations, visualisation and rituals to help save the woodlands. Perhaps the most mischievous and creative action taken was initiated by a friend from the local FOI Lyceum. He carefully designed a sign and wrote it out in an old calligraphy style and then made copies which he laminated. These crafty signs were then ceremonially attached to key trees at the four magical quarters of Oxleas Woods. From my recollection, the notices proclaimed that the Noble Order of Tara would not permit the destruction of the wood and that its guardians would fully protect the wood from harm. These were posted at the entrances to the wood as well.

Importantly these signs were noticed by many residents and quickly picked up by a local journalist who gave good coverage in the area’s local newspaper. The rumour circulated like wildfire that an ancient curse had been placed on anyone who was to be involved in the road building.

At the same time a number of other groups such as Dragon and also the secretive “T.R.B.” stepped up their magical endeavours, always keeping in the background to the main line protesting. Dragon also contributed on the physical plan to by producing campaign post cards from recycled card which told of Oxleas’ plight but also doubled up as a postable message to the Secretary of State for Transport in the UK government. 

One particularly gifted artist member with the help of a very well connected C and few others produced a beautiful pagan calendar to raise funds for the campaign. C kindly contacted a wide variety of occult writers to donate text for specific months in the proposed calendar. A number of well known writers gladly responded with articles, including Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki(Servants of the Light), Ronald Hutton(Historian, writer and researcher on witchcraft), Marian Green(Quest and the Invisible College), Nigel Pennick (Writer and Northern Tradition expert), Mike Howard (The Cauldron), Olivia Robertson herself and Melita Denning. The calendar sold like hot cakes.

With the help and assistance from a local conservation expert who was also a member of Dragon, the artist then produced a popular information pack on the history, flora and fauna of Oxleas for schools. The conservationist spent the next few months setting up educational lectures at lots of local schools but always finishing off with a compelling hook about Oxleas Woods. The number of protesters kept growing. Swathes of school children joined in and insisted that their parents also sent protest cards to the government.

A fundraising free festival was organised alongside an amateur dramatic outdoor production of Shakespeare’s play Midsummer Night’s Dream was put on in the woods to raise publicity and campaign funds. This was supplemented with a visit of about 50 protesters to Marsham Street in London, the office of Malcolm Rikind, the then Secretary of State for Transport. We dressed up as trees and did a Shakespearean based theme on a line from Macbeth – “When Oxleas Woods comes to Marsham Street, McRifkind will no longer be”.  We got national media coverage on the main BBC news, the Guardian and Independent newspapers. Things were beginning to look good for the woods. 

However, then the legal challenge to the road started going wrong. By all accounts it seemed that the East London River Crossing was going to be built anyway despite all our efforts. It was announced on the news that the High Court had decided in favour of the road. There was no appeal mechanism with the UK. It seemed that this was an definitive and final ruling. Despite this, a number of magical campaigners felt that there was another options and that the devastation to the ancient woodlands could still be stopped. Various people had this supported by rune casts, geomancy and tarot readings.

PARC, who are the real local heroes here, redoubled their efforts looking at options and Dragon members sent out vast amounts of 'Save Oxleas Wood' postcards through the Green Circle in the UK and Holland, and through the FOI across the whole globe with copies of the Isian News.  A campaign to involve the European Commissioner and the European Courts was stepped up.

Finally, the word of the news went out that the East London River Crossing would not go ahead. We had won. At European level, without even finalising the legal process, it was determined that the UK government had failed on a number of legal requirements relating to the proposed road scheme. The publicity against the development and the government was huge and forced a climb down. The massive efforts of all the organisations and individuals had paid off. PARC and Friends of the Earth had arguably contributed the most to the campaign alongside Alarm UK and the Oxleas Strategy Group. But, an enormous amount of magical will was invested behind the scenes which can’t have done anything but helped the overall success.

The Oxleas campaign set a gold standard in the UK for how to protest against developments that local people felt would be environmentally disastrous. 

Some two decades later in February 2012, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, announced that two new river crossings would be given the go ahead for the East of London. In the months that followed running up to the start of the current Olympics, Oxleas was in the news again. This time because the military felt it necessary to station surface to air missiles in the woods to safeguard the security of those in London during the Olympics. It appears that it may soon be time to reinitiate some resistance! Do they know what they will be up against?


  1. A very heartwarming story. Isn't it bonkers though that they're deploying these missiles at all, let alone siting them in such inappropriate places. If they did use them over central London the consequences don't bear thinking about - these things don't just turn into party streamers as they fall to earth. Their presence has probably been demanded by Coca-Cola in case they need to shoot down anything flying over with a Pepsi logo on it.

  2. It is completely bonkers.

    "Their presence has probably been demanded by Coca-Cola in case they need to shoot down anything flying over with a Pepsi logo on it." Love it! Think I'll now pop out to stock up on some Whole Earth organic Cola.Ooops, watch that missile.....

  3. I loved this story . . .I used to live in SE London in the 70s, but not familiar with those woods. May they live long and greenfully! As GM said:

    What would the world be, once bereft
    Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
    O let them be left, wildness and wet;
    Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet . . .

  4. Thanks Mara. Nothing like a bit of thanks for sharing that. I suspect GMH was a bit of a tortured chappie in his own way from my own limited researches on him! I wonder how much of his depression was due to his reaction to the "modernising" world around him?


The Springtime of Dion Fortune

There she is staring out at you...or maybe that should be "in to you"! Whether writing as Violet Firth, Violet M Steele...