Dozens of people marched in Shaftesbury today, united by their goal of saving the planet. Planet Shaftesbury arranged this morning’s event. Their members insist that local and national authorities need to acknowledge climate breakdown and take immediate action.
Grandparents, mums, dads and children walked side by side, some with painted faces, others carrying banners and placards demanding an urgent response to climate change. They shouted words and messages of concern for today’s children and for future generations. “All of our schoolchildren are concerned. This isn’t something to do with the capital city,” said Planet Shaftesbury’s Karen Wimhurst.
Today’s Shaftesbury event does follow a headline-grabbing week of action in London. Some Shaftesbury residents travelled to protest on Waterloo Bridge and at other sites across the city. But for some rural Dorset residents, London might seem a world away. Bee Group organiser Brigit Strawbridge says that, 110 miles away from the capital, people are still passionate about the future of the planet. “There are 120 people here today in Shaftesbury who care enough to come out and publicly say ‘we are worried, you should be too’,” Brigit said.
Catherine Simmonds believes that it is important that people show their support for climate action in the shires. “My understanding is that Extinction Rebellion very much wanted to visit towns and seed the project there,” said Catherine. “They’ve been coordinating the big London event but they wanted to leave behind witnesses in every town about the environment so that local people can take it over as their issue, in their place. For me, it is really important that we can be in Shaftesbury and can be a ‘witness’. Everyone in this street is going to be affected, in some way, by climate change.”
The London activity has inspired one aspect of today’s Shaftesbury action – the singing and chanting. “Karen and I were in London this week, on Waterloo Bridge, and we brought back some of their chants with us,” said Robin Walter.
The idea behind leading the Shaftesbury procession from the Town Hall to the Eastern Development with bicycles was also borrowed from London. Critical Mass bike rides have become a form of protest in London. Despite inviting cycle-owners to take part today, most people completed the 90-minute circuit of Shaftesbury on foot. Cycling at a walking pace is tricky and Peter Aldiss said he was apprehensive when he arrived on his bike. “I’m not too good at going slowly, but I’ll give it a go,” he enthused.
By 10.15am, Shaftesbury’s High Street was a mass of colour and sound. The group started to move, marching to the beat of drums and any instrument people could play at the same time as walking in the procession. Gillian, draped in a vibrant fuchsia-coloured feather boa, was making music by playing an African instrument that looked like an egg timer. She didn’t know what it was called.
By 11.30am the walkers were back where they began, after following a slight deviation from the planned route to take in Tesco and spread the message to its Saturday shoppers. There was a celebratory atmosphere outside the Town Hall. “As we went down Bell Street, I counted 123 people going past and it seemed to me that they were there the whole way around and we may even have gained some,” said Robin Walter.
Fellow Planet Shaftesbury organiser Richard Foreman was delighted that townspeople had turned out to support the cause. “I’m very pleased indeed. I was thinking we’d be lucky if we got thirty or fifty people,” said Richard.
“It’s been great. People have taken the leaflets” said Karen Wimhurst, as she reflected on the warm reception the walkers had enjoyed. “There were people who felt this isn’t for them. Hopefully in time. But there are many people who have given us the ‘thumbs up’, taken leaflets and said they’ll sign up. So I hope this is a movement which is really growing.”
Activist Claire had marked messages in colourful chalk on the pavement next to the bus stop in front of the Town Hall. “I’m doing what is called ‘chalking’,” Claire explained. “It’s a way of getting a message across to a large group of people. As the public walk past, they get to read a short message that hopefully will make them think. It should be eye-catching and colourful. My message is all about the importance of thinking about our diets, because our diets have a huge impact on the environment. Animal agriculture is responsible for a huge amount of loss of biodiversity. The acidification of our seas and the clearing of vast tracts of the Amazon rainforest is all for meat and dairy production. And it’s something that, if we care about our planet, we need to address.”
Claire chalked ‘Love Your Planet – Go Vegan’ onto the flagstones. “I’ve only been vegan for just slightly under a year now but I have really enjoyed making that change to my lifestyle. I know I’m a lot healthier for it. I’m emotionally a lot healthier. I know that I’m not buying into animal cruelty. I know that I’m helping to make the planet a better place three times a day. Anyone can do it. It’s easy,” Claire enthused.
Karen Wimhurst shouted her address to the excited crowed. She wanted to encourage online action. Karen urged locals to sign a petition to demand that our new unitary council declares a state of climate emergency.
“Dorset is the only council in the Southwest who have not done this. Now Dorset is a young council, it’s just been formed, so there is no shame in that. But this is something that they must prioritise. You can go to the Planet Shaftesbury website, follow a link, sign up and encourage everybody to do that. We don’t want to be the odd one out in the Southwest by not taking this step.”
Karen believes that Dorset Council needs to set and achieve a specific target. She wants them to make a firm commitment and she is expecting to see a precise form of words. “Our Council is going to become carbon neutral by 2030. And we’ll be taking any kind of appropriate measures, looking at the infrastructure and public transport ways in which people can really do this. And we will be using all the powers that the Council has to effect that,” said Karen, outlining the kind of statement she hopes will be released from Dorchester.
We were standing outside Shaftesbury Town Hall, so I asked Karen whether she wanted Shaftesbury Town Council to do more from its offices and council chamber above. “I think the Town Council has done a great job with its new environmental policy. It is really looking after our town. However, the words ‘climate emergency’ need to be used and they need to be in every declaration. It’s really helpful for the Council to do that at any level. It puts pressure on the government to do the same,” said Karen.
After today’s display of support, Robin says Planet Shaftesbury has been encouraged to consider future environmental and climate action events for the town. “Someone just suggested doing a festival, which should be great fun. So if there’s interest in that, we will do it,” he said.
And more Planet Shaftesbury members’ events are being planned. “There’s a monthly meeting in the Town Hall on the third Thursday. Everyone is welcome. That’s free. Whether it is a talk or film next, we haven’t decided yet,” Robin said.
“There is a local energy group that we’re talking to, to see if that’s possible in Shaftesbury,” he continued. “It’s a little more difficult now that the government’s cut the feed in tariff and the export subsidy.”
Karen added that town’s environmental group remains open to residents’ suggestions. “Planet Shaftesbury is still an emerging group, so any anybody who has an idea can come along and decide where they want their energy to go. The ‘War On Waste’ group wants to do something about plastic in the town, so we can be declared ‘single use plastic free’. I think that’s the next thing, which people might be looking at. However, there is a group that is concerned with insects and wildlife around the town, too.”
The earlier group chants had given way to the repeated catchy slogans of protest songs as over 100 voices boomed that ‘the earth is broken’ and that flowers, wildlife and insects must be saved. That is a key climate change concern for Catherine Simmonds, who lives just outside our town. “Insects,” she said. “Because they are at the bottom of the food chain. I’m really interested in migratory birds. The birds that we have coming here in the summer – swifts, housemartins and swallows – are all declining. Part of that will be because there are fewer insects around. There’s more pressure on the insects that we’ve got. But it is everything, really. Pollution. Plastic in the sea. It’s all interconnected. And it’s all connected to us in our activity, so it’s time to take some responsibility,” Catherine said.
Then everyone filed down the steps leading from the High Street to the top of Gold Hill for a group photo against the iconic backdrop. They held-up banners and looked skywards towards a camera attached to an overhead drone. Everyone smiled and then chanted about saving flowers and animals for the aerial video recording. There was a brief interruption from a small terrier sitting on the cobbles outside the Salt Cellar. He clearly didn’t appreciate a mysterious object hovering above his head!
By midday, the crowds were thinning as people headed home or broke into smaller groups to continue their discussions, energised or inspired by the morning’s display of solidarity. As he wheeled his bicycle home along the pavement, Robin Walter summed up why today’s Shaftesbury action had attracted so many people from different walks of local life. “It’s going to affect everyone,” he said.
You can follow Planet Shaftesbury at PlanetShaftesbury.org.