Leading investigator reveals the bond he formed with an activist
Britain’s leading investigator into unusual deaths risked his life playing cat and mouse with eco-warriors. Now the search and rescue expert reveals the unlikely bond he formed with the notorious activist Swampy
Since the age of five, I’ve felt completely at home underground. That’s when my dad, himself a passionate potholer, first tied me to a safety line and encouraged me to climb down a wire ladder into an abandoned mine.
The darkness and the silence would have scared most off for ever. For me, however, the adrenaline rush was instant: I was hooked.
From then on, Dad and I spent every weekend together in the old Surrey mines. I learned to wiggle fearlessly through ‘worm-holes’ that were far too narrow for a grown-up.
By my teens, I was on the radar of the Surrey fire brigade. My knowledge of the local mines – combined with years of crawling through tunnels – meant they’d sometimes call on me for help with rescues.
Swampy – who was already capturing the public’s imagination – was apparently the mastermind behind a complex of tunnels that were deeper and better fortified than at Newbury. Pictured: Daniel Hooper – or Swampy – pictured left, with Peter Faulding last year
This was all voluntary work, of course – until 1995, when I decided to set up my own rescue company. The timing was fortuitous.
As I didn’t watch much TV, I was unaware of events developing 60 miles away, outside Newbury in Berkshire. In tunnels under surrounding fields, a New Age army was preparing to fight for a cause that few people understood.
Mud-caked and dreadlocked, these people were about to wreak havoc across the country. And I would be cast as their nemesis.
The call that changed everything for me came from Thames Valley Police. A superintendent explained: ‘We’ve got protesters in tunnels holding up a major road construction project. They’re extremely organised and I believe you’re the man who can get them out.’
For the previous six months, protesters – who opposed the Newbury bypass because it involved destroying over 120 acres of woodland – had taken to living in the trees and underground.
The tunnels were a particularly effective ploy because they knew no heavy machinery could drive over them if anyone was inside. If just one tunneller were to be accidentally killed, I knew the furore would be unimaginable.
Pictured: Swampy protesting a Manchester Airport expansion in 1997
The operation to clear the camp began in January 1996, the day after ‘giro day’, when unemployment benefit was paid out. The thinking was that many of the activists spent their dole money on alcohol and cannabis, so were likely to be groggy the following morning, making them easier to remove.
For my part, I soon established that the tunnellers had already moved on. But I had my first lesson in the extreme lengths they’d go to for their cause.
I was appalled, for instance, to find one tunnel that went straight down for 20 feet had been dug into sandy earth without shoring or any support. It was a death trap.
Another shaft had been lined with three metal oil drums, with the bottoms cut out, to create a tube. One drum had twisted and collapsed. Had anyone been in the shaft at the time, they’d have been cut in two.
I was soon despatched to Honiton in Devon, where three protest camps had sprung up on the site of the proposed new A30. ‘There’s one individual called Swampy who seems to be a specialist at digging these things,’ I was told.
Swampy – who was already capturing the public’s imagination – was apparently the mastermind behind a complex of tunnels that were deeper and better fortified than at Newbury.
Aware they’d be occupied, I put together a team that included four ex-members of the SAS and two ex-Paras, and spent £30,000 on specialist equipment. I hired air compressors to enable us to send breathing air down the tunnels. I invested in safe lamps that couldn’t cause any explosions and a second communication system so anyone ‘downstairs’ could talk to people ‘upstairs’. I bought drilling and cutting equipment, medical equipment, safety harnesses and ropes. And, most importantly, a tea urn.
By the time we got to the site, some eager bailiffs had already gone down one of the tunnels and roughed up a couple of protesters, which was stupidly short-sighted.
Our job was going to be hard enough without giving these people reason to hate us. Carefully, I removed a large piece of metal at my feet and peered underneath. Ten feet below, down a narrow 10ft shaft, was a man sprawled face-down on the earth. And he wasn’t moving. I quickly summoned a doctor, had a tripod erected over the hole and climbed down on a wire ladder.
For the previous six months, protesters – who opposed the Newbury bypass because it involved destroying over 120 acres of woodland – had taken to living in the trees and underground
With great difficulty, because the shaft was only four feet wide, I felt for a pulse on the man’s neck. Nothing. He was in a thick coat but his skin felt cold to the touch. Had I just found the first martyr to the cause – a protest against the building of a section of the A30?
With growing alarm, I raced back to the surface and asked the doctor to go down for his own checks. After a couple of suspenseful minutes, I heard a high-pitched squeal.
‘What’s wrong?’ I called down.
‘I couldn’t get a response, so I squeezed his plums,’ said the doctor. Not a standard way to check for signs of life, but effective.
When the doctor resurfaced, he told me the protester’s wrist was clipped into a tight wire noose which, in turn, was locked to a pipe that had been sunk into the earth under his body. The pipe was half-full of ground-water, and the poor chap was soaking wet.
The doctor had cut away his sleeve and discovered, to his horror, that circulation to the upper arm had been cut off. The protester’s arm was turning purple. ‘He’s got half an hour before he loses his arm,’ said the doctor. ‘You need to get him out now.’
I scrambled back down. The first thing I did was lie on top of the man while I tried to dig around his body to get to the pipe. But there just wasn’t enough room.
So I changed tack, digging instead into the side of the tunnel wall, so I could create enough space for me to crouch. The protester, meanwhile, was getting colder and increasingly uncomfortable. Eventually I managed to dig a channel under him. Finally, I could reach into the pipe and cut the wire noose around his hand.
After that, he was happy to be winched to the surface and a waiting ambulance. It had been a close call – far too close for comfort.
Manchester Airport protester Swampy, with Jimmy Pursey lead singer with punk group Sham 69 as a new runway was due to be built
Through the rest of the day, we cleared protesters from other tunnels and completed our objective, ready to move across to the main camp the following day – where Swampy was waiting.
We examined the entrance of a tunnel called Big Momma. There were four people inside, including Swampy (real name Daniel Hooper) and Muppet Dave (he had a dog called Muppet). Carefully climbing down the shaft, I came to a door covered in corrugated steel and barbed wire with a ‘danger’ sign hanging from it. I could hear voices behind it. ‘I’m going to leave an air line and also some communications equipment at the door,’ I said. ‘If you open it, we can start free-flowing compressed air to keep the oxygen levels safe for you.’
Then I began shoring up the sides to make the tunnel safer. Finally cutting through the door, I found a length of tunnel ending in another reinforced door. There was a gap at the top, where two sets of eyes were peering at me. I asked: ‘My name’s Pete, what’s yours?’ ‘I’m Dan and this is Dave.’
I immediately recognised Dan as Swampy.
Over the following days, Swampy and I spoke many times as I worked my way along the tunnel. Every morning I would find he had moved further away, behind a door or some other obstacle.
We chatted about regular things and it was always good-humoured. I built up trust with him.
Frustrated by the amount of time the rescue was taking, the police sent over a negotiator and a radio, which I delivered to Swampy.
The negotiator began confidently: ‘Hooper, this is the police negotiator from Devon and Cornwall Police. I’m here to talk with you.’
‘Go f*** yourself,’ replied Swampy, and the line abruptly went dead. The negotiator was lost for words. Back down I went, only to find bits of what was once a police radio, dumped outside the tunnel door. ‘Probably best to just let us deal with it,’ I said, as I handed the pieces to the negotiator. Crawling in after Swampy and Dave, I soon found two more cramped tunnels, each containing a protester. Eleanor, known as The Animal, was one of them.
‘There’s one individual called Swampy who seems to be a specialist at digging these things,’ Faulding was told. Pictured: Swampy protesting more recently against the HS2 rail line
Her arm was locked onto a pipe sunk into the wall. This meant we needed to carefully shore around her, cut into the pipe and free her hand without causing injury. One mistake could sever an artery.
After managing to extract both protesters, followed by Muppet Dave – with whom I had a congenial cup of tea – I continued the search for Swampy. He’d gone down a vertical shaft just 24 inches square, so it had to be widened and shored before I could reach him. The most crucial part was trying to prevent soil tumbling down to entomb Swampy.
Whenever I emerged, I kept a small camera running – and the footage showed that he’d creep out from his tiny tunnel each night to the larger shaft. Clad in just his underpants, he’d stretch his cramped limbs. It was like watching a badger on its nightly prowl.
Each morning, we’d be greeted by a delightful bag of human waste that he left for us to remove.
When we finally shored to the bottom of the shaft, I peered into the 12in ‘worm’ tunnel where Swampy had wedged himself, but couldn’t see a thing.
‘Are you OK, Dan?’ I called.
‘Yes, I’m fine, but I could do with a cuppa,’ he replied.
Fair enough. I held a flask of tea in front of me as a colleague pushed against the soles of my feet to propel me into Swampy’s minuscule tunnel. To my relief, I finally popped through into a chamber.
‘Your time’s up,’ I told Swampy. ‘Have a cup of tea and let’s get out of here before we both get buried.’
Swampy was calm and reasonable. He’d been underground for nine days, surviving on water, cold baked beans and Frosties.
We shook hands, and Swampy emerged from Big Momma on January 30, 1997, to an explosion of flashing cameras.
Faulding met Swampy at the site of the proposed new A30 where protestors were taking action. Pictured: Swampy more recently in 2020 campaigning against the HS2 railway line
Shortly after that it was on to Manchester Airport for protests called War In The Woods, because a second runway was due to be built over ancient woodland.
The protesters had already been there for months. Swampy was also well ensconced by that time, having high-tailed it up there after his stint at Honiton.
I went over to assess the first tunnel with my team. At the end of it was a chamber with a woman inside it. Her arm was locked on to a steel tube that had been set into three tyres full of concrete. It was a cramped passageway so we couldn’t use a disc-cutter because of the smoke and dust that would have been created in the confined space. Instead, after two hours I managed to separate the top tyre from the bottom two, exposing the steel pipe that her hand was locked into. It took the rest of the day and into the evening to release her.
The next tunnel had been dug 120ft down a marlstone rock face in a ravine through which the River Bollin ran. Inside was another young woman, locked similarly to the first.
After releasing her we went back to the top of the ravine where among the trees we noticed a tent. Under it we found a hole covered with a steel sheet. The words ‘I have a noose around my neck, do not lift’ were chalked on it.
Rather than try to move the cover to peek under it, we moved the tent and cleared the area of any junk or rocks. I then carefully dug a small trench down the side of the metal, big enough to shine a torch into so I could see what was underneath.
A thick, heavy chain was welded to the underside of the steel sheet, hanging down into darkness.
The shaft went down around ten feet and widened out at the bottom where a girl was lying on the mud floor, face up.
Her arms were in a crucifix pose, inserted up to the shoulder in metal tubes concreted into the walls. The other end of the chain was padlocked around her neck.
The lower half of her body was in another tunnel leading from the bottom of the shaft. She was chanting ‘save the trees!’.
She had willingly trapped herself, and if the tunnel collapsed or someone had quickly lifted the steel lid attached via the chain to her neck, she would have died. I couldn’t help but admire the extreme lengths these people went to in fighting for their cause. The first task was to cut the chain from underneath the cover so we could move it aside and get in the shaft.
But we couldn’t simply snip it because it would have dropped onto the girl’s face – and it was heavy enough to smash her skull.
‘Swampy was calm and reasonable’ Faulding said after meeting the environmental protestor
I tied a piece of rope through the chain under the lid and passed it to another of the team, who secured it. I then carefully cut through the chain with hydraulic cutters. The rope prevented the chain from dropping.
The metal cover was then removed further, exposing the difficult and dangerous task ahead.
We set up a quadpod (a tripod, but with an extra leg), attached a wire ladder to it and I went to the bottom of the shaft to check on her and set up an air line. She said her hands were secured using handcuffs purchased from a sex shop and that she couldn’t release herself.
She told me she was one of four protesters in the tunnel system. I knew it was going to take several days to get them out and was concerned that the tunnel would cave in and bury them all alive. I put her into a positive-pressure breathing mask and we built a strong plywood platform over her chest and head to protect her in case the shaft collapsed.
‘We may have been on different sides, but we respected each other. Even now, 25 years on from the original protests, we occasionally swap old war stories over the phone,’ Faulding said. Pictured: Swampy (right)
With one wrong move trying to cut her out, an artery could have been severed and she would bleed to death. In total, The Worm, as I later learned her nickname was, lay there for three days as we worked around her.
She was cold, distressed, sleep-deprived, and had been lying in her own waste for days. She was taken to hospital as soon as we lifted her out on a stretcher.
We safely removed two male protesters in the tunnel the following day. The last one was down another level and refusing to come out.
I’d placed three wedges in cracks in the ceiling the day before, and they’d fallen out overnight as the cracks widened. This was bad news: there was now a real risk that the final protester was going to be buried alive.
With no time for more shoring, I wormed my way down to try to talk him out. I found him sitting on a mound in the middle of a round chamber, surrounded by a giant puddle of water. ‘If you don’t come out, you’ll die. The ground is extremely unstable and moving,’ I told him. He agreed to come up, thank goodness.
Today’s eco-warriors fight for the environment and continue to hamper big infrastructure projects. They’re more agile now, with organisations such as Extinction Rebellion using social media to coordinate their actions
In another tunnel, we found a girl completely covered in mites and lice. In yet another, where Muppet Dave had spent over 21 days, we had to remove a series of doors before we could get to him.
When we brought him out, he said he planned to bum around Greece for three months. I asked how he’d get there.
‘I’ll fly out of Manchester,’ he said.
Today’s eco-warriors fight for the environment and continue to hamper big infrastructure projects. They’re more agile now, with organisations such as Extinction Rebellion using social media to coordinate their actions. Some methods are different.
It turns out that gluing yourself to a road is a simple and effective way to disrupt large numbers of people. It certainly gets you noticed. And it’s now exceedingly rare for protesters to risk their lives – and for that, I’m thankful. I can’t deny, however, that I forged a bond with the original eco-warriors, who took their beliefs to such extremes.
We may have been on different sides, but we respected each other. Even now, 25 years on from the original protests, we occasionally swap old war stories over the phone.
© Peter Faulding, 2023
- Adapted from What Lies Beneath: My Life As A Forensic Search And Rescue Expert by Peter Faulding, to be published by Macmillan on February 2 at £18.99. To order a copy for £17.09 (offer valid until February 5, 2023; UK p&p free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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