95km, av 15.2km, max 43.8km, CO2 offset 14.3kg, time riding: 6hrs 15mins

At a really great Time to Cycle debrief event in mid-Feb there’s lots of discussion about what comes next. There’s general agreement that a ride to Germany will take place, as part of the Break Free 2016 actions in May. There’s talk of a ride to Wales too. But, in the more immediate future, it turns out there’s a new attempt to extract fossil fuels happening right here, almost on our doorstep south of London.

The discovery of oil in the Horley area close to Gatwick Airport is not something many people know about. But it’s real, and its extraction could start to happen on a large scale if UK Oil and Gas (UKOG) have their way.

By all accounts, UKOG appear to be a pretty gross company, with a history of exaggerating their oil discoveries. They use the shabby defence of “helping secure UK energy supply”, but in fact they’re just very excited about the prospect of making a select few people even richer, with no mention of climate change, local pollution to water courses and the air, or what happens when all this oil is extracted. They also talk of creating jobs – but how many exactly (a handful), and certainly not for the local people who will be most affected by the extraction.

He’s blocked me on Twitter now, but David Lenigas’ tweets where he pretends to be J.R. Ewing were tragically pathetic. You can get a taste of the ‘excitement’ by following the #GatwickGusher hashtag – but be warned, you may want to do a little bit of sick afterwards.

So, on Sat 20 Feb a small group of cyclists (there are about 7 of us) get off to an early start and ride to Horley. I cycle solo from New Cross to Croydon, where – by the power of Glympse – I meet the rest of them (including a lovely woman who runs the End Ecocide campaign in the UK), and get a flag for my bike.

The route is similar to the first day of London to Paris; once again there’s the enjoyment of escaping the clutches of London into the fresh air (and steep hill) of Farthing or Fairdean Downs, flags blowing brightly in the breeze, and then the brilliant downhill stretch where you cross the M25 and are officially outside Greater London!

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When we get to Horley, we meet another group of cyclists who have made the journey up from Brighton (including Duncan with his soundsystem). There’s also a group of people who have come up from Brighton on a specially chartered bus, powered by vegetable oil (obviously).

Our meeting point just happens to be the same place as where UKIP have got a stand for the day (the EU Referendum date has just been announced) and there are some comical scenes as some of the activists we meet there engage in lively discussion with the Kippers, whose energy policy seems to be essentially “let’s develop more of our own fossil fuel supplies so we don’t have to rely on those untrustworthy Arabs”. Actually, after talking to them it turns out they may oppose the Horley project if it’s going to mean a lot of extra HGV traffic in the area (er, it will). So they may be a useful ally yet…

Once everyone’s ready we cycle around the town in a loop, handing out flyers for a public meeting which will be held in the town the following Sunday. You can read about what was said at the meeting here. A couple of people refuse to take the flyer, saying “I’m in favour”. That’s fine too – it’s a public meeting with all views welcome, for and against. Lots of people do take the flyers though, and most seem unaware that their town could soon be the epicentre of a new oil rush!

Once all the flyers are gone we ride up to the drilling site, a couple of km out of town, at a place called Horse Hill. We have our very own police escort – aren’t we lucky! Here we meet a big group of local activists who have set up camp and have been monitoring what’s been going on over the last few months, including slow walking in front of lorries as they deliver chemicals to the site, so the exact nature of the chemicals (which will be poured into the ground) can be recorded. What these guys are doing is hugely impressive, compared to us ‘activism day-trippers’, but I guess it all helps.

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We walk / slow ride up to the site, some people carrying a ‘red lines’ piece of fabric from the December protests. Horse Hill should be another red line – we need to keep this oil in the ground and fast-track the alternative technologies, rather than develop yet another fossil fuel resource which will just allow us to continue our dependance, like a junkie searching for that next oil-rush hit. We need to go cold turkey.

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When I talk about this on Twitter with some of the bullish (bullshitter?) investors who are getting all excited about Horse Hill, they say – ah, but your cycle helmet, what’s that made out of? (as if I’d never considered this – damn, you got me there guys!) Yes, we are going to need plastic for a while to come, unfortunately, but I’d love us collectively to reduce our usage of and reliance on plastic. The way it takes thousands of years to degrade, the pollution of our oceans with all kinds of plastics, from carrier bags to micro-beads – is that meant to be a good thing?  Especially when alternative materials are available.

At the site, we hear speeches from local activists and our very own Duncan, as the police stand by, and are actually very accommodating – even though there’s a ridiculous number of them. Do they really think we might storm the drilling site?! A local activist tells of getting sick from simply visiting the site regularly, and talks about the pollution of local rivers. Something you don’t hear UKOG talking about in their upbeat assessments of the site. Watch a short film of the action here.

After this part of the day is over, we have some soup to warm up and then we’re encouraged to go and take a look at the drilling site. It’s a couple of hundred metres back from the main road, and is surrounded by a large fence. A short way up a very muddy path there’s a small tree with an overhanging branch which provides about the only vantage point. From here you can see the site; a drilling rig, lots of concrete, and lots of plastic containers – who knows what’s in them.

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Having done what we set out to do, we head back into town to warm up and get some food in a local pub, before attempting the return journey. Fortunately, we have the wind behind us on the way home. It’s just Maria and I by this point, and we make really good progress, attempting a slightly different route back to London, via Reigate Hill and a fantastic downhill stretch (well lit, surface to die for!) on Portnalls Road all the way down to Coulsden. Then it’s back onto the Brighton Road and Purley Way. We go our separate ways at Croydon, leaving me to cycle the last few miles alone with my huge flag still sailing in the wind; I feel a little self-conscious but also by this point I’m too tired to really care.

It’s been a good day of cycling and activism. Given this government’s keenness to support new fossil fuel extraction, while reducing support for renewables, I’m not confident that the oil will be left in the ground in Surrey, unless local people and climate activists working together can put up a really strong fight.

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