The Hebridean island of Gometra is a mesmerising wilderness of rocks, white sand beaches, heather and sapphire sea, and yet its laird, environmental activist Roc Sandford, 62, is glued to his phone. His 18-year-old daughter, Blue, is in London, hiding in 100ft of makeshift tunnels beneath Euston Square Gardens in protest against HS2 and she’s driving her poor father crazy with worry.
“I’m longing for the moment when she comes out,” he says tearfully on a video call from his shed, the only place on the island to have a phone signal. “I find myself bursting into tears with no warning. It’s so symbolic, her being underground. It’s like something out of Greek mythology.”
It’s been more than two weeks now since Blue, the youngest of Sandford’s four children and Britain’s answer to Greta Thunberg, entered the tunnels with a group of six other protesters. Initially, Sandford’s son, Lazer, 21, was down there, too, guarding the entry shaft with his body; he had his arm encased in a steel tube inside a wrought-iron safe buried in concrete. But he gave himself up last week in return for lighting and sanitary products for his fellow campaigners who include Daniel Hooper, the 47-year-old green campaigner better known as “Swampy”, and his 16-year-old son, Rory.
Sandford believes Blue – who has been on a school strike since she completed her GCSEs at private school in north London and whose book, Challenge Everything, encourages other young people to step up to save the world – has enough food to last her for six weeks. She’s keeping in touch with him and her mother, who lives in London, via her mobile phone, which has reception at the bottom of one of the down shafts. “I keep asking her if she’s okay and she sounds upbeat and resolute when I speak to her, but she’s facing horrific experiences – I’m very concerned for her safety,” he says.
There’s no doubt that the tunnels are a dark and dangerous place, wholly unsuitable for those without hard hats and proper safety equipment. Machinery including cherry pickers could destablise the tunnels, according to safety experts, and there are currently no oxygen monitors. Lazer has told his father that he had been trampled and, at one point, caught his neck in a rope. “I was sent a video [of him choking] and it sounds like someone is dying,” Sandford says. “I was really shocked to discover what’s going on down there – the risks they are taking. It’s extremely difficult and painful to watch.”
His only comfort is the fact that Blue is tough as old boots, having divided her childhood between Gometra, where the temperature inside the house is currently three degrees and there is no hot water, and an off-grid house in north-west London, where the family lives in a tent in the living room during the winter months. “My father’s house was similar and so was my grandparents’ – it’s not a hardship once you get used to it,” he says.
She’s also her father’s daughter when it comes to safety. “You have to be a stickler for safety if you’re going to survive in a place like this,” Sandford says, gesturing towards the window of his hut from which you can see nothing but sky, rock and sea. “Blue has a sardonic wit, as if she sees through folly in all forms and she thinks for herself. I love her so much,” he adds, wistfully.
If he had his way, she would be studying for her A-levels. “I’m a great believer in education as being an important route to freedom in life, so I have always wanted to stress this with my children,” he says. Her teachers at King Alfred School in Hampstead begged him to try to influence her into staying on; they told him she could do anything. “It’s very sad to watch her turning her back on it, but I completely understand that she’s not being given a choice, her generation isn’t.”
Sandford has spent the past few years watching all four of his children evolve into hardcore activists: his eldest daughter, Savannah, 22, from his first marriage, protested naked in the House of Commons on April Fools’ Day 2019 during a Brexit debate; Lazer and Blue poured oil over themselves in the National Portrait Gallery in protest against BP’s sponsorship.
There have various dicey moments; Savannah, was cut free after she D-locked herself to furniture at an oil industry dinner in Edinburgh and Lazer was removed from a tree at another HS2 protest in Denham, Buckinghamshire.
Sandford is aware, though, that his children are just chips off the old block. Since his early 20s, Sandford been challenging the existing order through protests, demonstrations and disruption; his proudest moments as an activist include successfully challenging plans for new salmon farms on the west coast (four out of five were cancelled), and chaining himself to the bottom of a truck on Waterloo Bridge during the Extinction Rebellion last March.
“I learnt early on that you need to hold your nerve against authorities. They aren’t necessarily right and they aren’t necessarily going to win,” he says.
Is he tempted to join her in the tunnel? Sandford shakes his shaggy locks. “I’m terrified of it,” he says.“ I don’t think I’m as brave as the children, but I’ve been in similar places in terms of challenging things I didn’t think was right.”
When Cato, his eldest son, was born, he felt a homing instinct to return to place he’d grown up and raise his children close to nature, using as little carbon as possible. “The problem is that with the climate and nature breaking down, it’s getting harder to bring your children up in the wilderness. Surely this is as good a reason as any to do something about it?” he says.
Cato was two when Sandford bought Gometra and the family began living off-grid, farming sheep for a living. At first, Sandford used a diesel generator to power his cooker and washing machine and drove about on a quad bike and Land Rover, but gradually these “guzzling off-grid” items broke and he began living even more frugally – without central heating or mains power, charging his mobile, laptop, torches and power tools via a solar panel.
Even for babies, it’s no hardship living in these conditions, he says, so long as you have the right blankets and clothing, although he does admit to using disposable nappies. “You learn how to dry clothes when it’s damp, and diagnose yourself rather than dashing to the doctor,” he says. “I like the fact that I don’t have broadband and I have to go to my shed to get phone signal. It means I can be proactive rather than all the time reacting.”
The only real stumbling block to family life on Gometra was the lack of schooling. Sandford toyed with the idea of homeschooling, but eventually opted to educate the children in London, fearing it would be too insular on the island where there are only two other households, his tenants. Following the breakdown of his two marriages his former wives based themselves in London, so the situation suited everyone and, while the children would cry when they left Gometra for the mainland at the end of the holidays, he’s pleased that they learnt to survive in the urban jungle as well as in the wilderness.
Sandford admits that the new high-speed rail link wasn’t on his radar until the children went into the Euston Square tunnels, but he stands by their protest, even though the Government has said that the cost of tackling climate activists at HS2 sites has hit nearly £50 million. He believes that there is no place in the world for a new fast train network, requiring a huge amount of carbon. “People are in denial; the world has changed – it’s like the third runway at Heathrow and the coalmine in Cumbria – the sooner these projects are cancelled, the less money is wasted and the fewer lives are put at risk,” he says.
But what about those who need this infrastructure for their jobs, or to get to university or a hospital appointment? One could argue that it’s a bit rich for a family with a private island and multiple homes and private schooling to try to jeopardise new commuter links for the sake of ancient trees.
Sandford is well aware of his privilege. During our conversation, he reiterates on several occasions that he knows how fortunate he is to have grown up close to nature, to be financially comfortable even without the income streams from his farm and lodger. It would be ridiculous, though, he says, if people didn’t try to protect our crumbling environment simply because they were in a fortunate position. “To say people who are fortunate shouldn’t try to save the environment doesn’t make any sense. Everyone is going to have to do something – we’re all going to have to stick our necks out.”
Besides, his children might be “aristo activists”, but they aren’t trustafarians. They’re no longer supported by him financially, he says: Savannah does without money, Cato works for an environmental think tank, Lazer works as a building site labourer and Blue earns money from her writing.
“None of them buy anything much and they hardly ever use money. They live much of the time in protest camps or with friends,” he says. A mutual friend points out that they probably find the world quite a difficult place to be in right now. “Most people can’t give up ‘necessities’ such as heating but they’ve been brought up not to need them,” he says. “They feel extinction is imminent, and yet no one is listening because they’re focused on day-to-day living.”
Sandford wishes for Blue’s sake that she wouldn’t have to face the law when she emerges from the tunnels; courts are never fun, he says. “But the experiences of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the suffragettes show us that when a government isn’t doing what it needs to be doing in a crisis, non-violent direct action is a way to wake it up.”