But yesterday the reality of protests against test drilling for gas and oil in the ground under Balcombe in West Sussex became clear as groups of serial protesters from as far away as Wales were found to be behind the attempted blockade.
In total 18 people had by Saturday evening been arrested following the launch of a large police operation to allow the test drilling to begin. Twelve had been charged, among whom there were no local residents. The most serious alleged offence was assaulting a police officer.
There were up to 200 protesters, some arriving on a chartered coach from Brighton and others saying they were veterans of the “Occupy” movement which illegally camped in front of St Paul’s Cathedral in a “tent city”.
A series of other events in which the activists had participated included the G20 protests; the attempt to prevent the eviction of travellers from Dale Farm, an illegal camp in Essex; and the protest against the Newbury bypass in 1996.
Also in Balcombe, was Simon Medhurst, 54, also known as “Sitting Bull”, who earlier this year delayed work on a new road between Bexhill and Hastings, in East Sussex, by tunnelling underneath the site, dubbing his campaign the “Second Battle of Hastings”. Mr Medhurst lives in Whitstable, Kent, just over 25 miles away.
Also among the demonstrators were Natalie Rae Hynde, the 30 year-old daughter of the musician Chrissie Hynde. Miss Hynde lives in St Leonard’s-on-Sea, 50 miles away.
“People all over the country see what is happening here and worry it will happen where they live, that’s why there’s so many outsiders protesting,” she said.
“I think they’re grateful they have louder people here to shout for them.”
A group of activists who arrived at the site wearing ‘Occupy’ tee-shirts with tents, chairs and pillows, suggesting that they intend to turn the blockade around the site where drilling is due to happen into a longer-term camp.
“We’re used to camping out so we can stay a while,” said Lilias Rider Haggard Cheyne, 60, from Littlehampton, West Sussex, which is 25 miles away, who took part in the Occupy protest.
“I think it’s important for people to support others when they need it.
“I know what police are like and so a lot of us have come down to support villagers. There aren’t as many of them as there are of us and this issue affects us all.”
At least one protester held a placard with a slogan which criticised government reform of the benefits system, suggesting they had a political rather than environmental agenda.
On Friday, 16 people were arrested and Sussex Police yesterday (SAT) confirmed that none of the 12 had local addresses. They included a Ezra Lynch, 31, a circus employee, and Frances Crack, a 31 year-old teacher from Cardiff.
Their involvement has raised concerns in the village their genuine fears about local water contamination and environmental damage have been hijacked by “serial protesters”.
Rachael Lewis, 52, who lives on the outskirts of Balcombe, said her initial support for the protest was beginning to wane.
“There’s lots of people setting up camp and arriving in their vans and starting barbecues. This is their lifestyle, I think they just jump on the back of the latest cause,” she said.
“Every time there’s a delivery at the gates of the site the protesters get worked up and the police respond and it turns ugly. I’m just worried it will head the way of Occupy.”
Harry Preston-Bell, 20, a student at Plymouth University who lives outside term time with his family in the village, said: “They’ve descended onto our village and are speaking in our name when a lot of us don’t agree with how they’re protesting. I only recognise one person here from the village, which says something.”
Many residents in the village are, however, opposed to the “fracking”.
Fracking, properly called hydraulic fracturing, is a method of extracting oil and gas from shale beds by injecting water and sand and chemicals. Protesters argue the technique can contaminate groundwater reserves as well as having other environmental side effects such as subsidence. However ministers and the industry say that it is safe, clean and will lead to secure energy supply in the future, boost the economy, and may cause energy prices to fall.
Matthew Record, a 44 year-old accountant from Balcombe who came to the protest with his daughter Anna, nine, said hundreds of other locals felt strongly against the plans although they objected to protests which would lead to arrests.
“Eighty two per cent of villagers voted against the action,” he said.
“This is the thin end of the wedge, this whole part of Sussex to Kent will become industrialised. The police presence will have put a lot of local people off, many of whom are elderly or have young families.”
James Hodgson, 39, a property developer who commutes to London, said: “I’m a lifelong Tory voter, unlike most of the protesters here. I’m not the sort of person who usually protests but when Francis Maude [the local Conservative MP] stopped listening to his constituents I felt this was the only way to make him listen. I support the protests as long as they stay within what is legal,” said Mr Hodgson.”