AN extraordinary news story - an anti-road protest by a small number of people on a Hampshire hillside echoed around the world and seemingly forever changed government thinking.

The epic M3 campaign at Twyford Down, which started ten years ago, was a time of powerful, almost surreal visual images.

A man in a suit holding a child stands in front of a bulldozer; two young women in an inflatable dinghy on the River Itchen try to stop a digger dumping chalk in the water; 20 policemen in a line slowly climb a chalk embankment; security guards in fluorescent yellow jackets evict a protest camp on a foggy cold morning.

Even now there remains a strange sense of visual dislocation for people who knew the area before the motorway.

The mind slurs as you try to picture the old Winchester bypass. Amazingly, virtually nothing remains. The Tory government that pushed the controversial scheme offered in compensation the removal of the A33 and the restoration of the landscape. It was the first time a major A-road had disappeared.

So today walk up Morestead Road or across the fields near the Bushfield roundabout and it is hard to place the old road that carried millions of people a year as recently as 1994.

A railway bridge near Compton that once stood 20 feet above the dual carriageway now has a small drop to grassland.

For 60 years the bypass snaked past Winchester, sinuously following the contours of the land. Now the M3 barges across the landscape but also through your mind, almost obliterating that memory. As a reporter who covered the first protest in February 1992 and the last in 1994, and many in between, and got to know the land well, it's disconcerting.

But for the campaigners who battled for their beliefs that the road scheme was an evil intrusion, the memories of the campaign are still clear.

Thousands took part, hundreds were arrested and some were jailed.

Earlier this month about 50 people gathered for a reunion at St Catherine's Hill to mark the tenth anniversary of "Yellow Wednesday" when security guards in fluorescent jackets evicted the famous Dongas Tribe from their camp.

The sombre nature of the occasion was deepened with news of the death that weekend of Stephen Ward, one of the most committed campaigners.

The protests from 1992 to 1994 failed to stop the road but the name Twyford became a battle cry for environmentalists. When the Labour government dropped the Tory road-building programme Twyford Down was hailed as a key factor. A new cost of environmental action would have to be considered.

The transport issues it highlighted are now as current as ever. The government last week announced that its target for reducing car use will fail and that by 2010 motorists will spend 20 per cent more time in traffic jams.

New or expanded roads which had slipped off the agenda have returned. Resurfacing are ideas for a south coast superhighway from Southampton to Dover to include the widening of the M27, the widening of the M3, the "A34 corridor" from Winchester to Berkshire and beyond and the "A36 corridor" from West Wellow into Wiltshire, including the infamous Salisbury bypass.

The A303 is talked of as an alternative M4. Potentially the most controversial idea is upgrading the A31 through the New Forest.

Car lobbyists want more roads. The campaigners say more roads just encourage more traffic. They point out that locally the bottleneck at the old Hockley traffic lights at Winchester has been replaced by a new nightmare on the A31 at Ringwood.

Activists predict that without a drastic change in

people's travel habits the stress, delay and aggravation at the Hockley traffic lights will become even more widespread.

That sense of dislocation that many people feel at Twyford Down is now matched by the government's chaotic policy on roads.

Chris Gillham, of Upper High Street, Winchester, is involved in a network of groups watching the plans return. He said: "Five years ago it looked as if Twyford Down had really changed everything. The government said 'No more Twyford Downs'. Now they are all coming back again."

Mr Gillham said he now viewed direct action as the only way to make the government listen, citing the fuel protests of a

couple of years back. "That was a little protest by half a dozen people as far as I could see. But they were able to change government policy. Reasoned argument only slows things down. When the road builders start the only way to stop them will be radical direct action."

As one of the few protesters with a mortgage, Mr Gillham found himself in the High Court being sued by the Department of Transport, with his house in jeopardy. But he said: "It was a great time in my life. I look back with a mixture of emotions.

"There were some nice times and some special people."

Eastleigh-raised Jai Redman was radicalised by Twyford Down. Beforehand he used to recycle for Friends of the Earth. With Twyford Down he was involved with the Earth First! direct action and since with the anti-capitalist movement.

Now an artist/activist living in Birmingham, he returned to the down for the reunion: "It was very emotional to recollect the whole experience. I have been involved with protesting since then but I have never seen anything as horrific as the eviction on Yellow Wednesday.

"I still feel angry about it. There was no excuse for what the guards did."

Helen B, who asks that her full name not be revealed, said: "It is hard to see the resurgence of the road-building programme. But Twyford Down did achieve two big things. The first was that it shifted the middle ground of environmental politics.

"Ten to 15 years ago FoE and Greenpeace were seen as radical. Now they sit on government committees. The other thing was that it acted as a catalyst to movements all over the world.

"It was amazing that was achieved by fewer than 50 really committed people. Hundreds more came and went."

A trained ecologist, she was dismissive of much of the chalkland recreation done on farmland next to the motorway. "It's appalling. You cannot replace 4,000-year-old grassland. The top soil was removed because of all the fertiliser and the seeds were planted on sub-soil."

Helen said she would still get involved in actions. "I'm still committed ten years on, though my role may be different. I'm not sure I could go back to living under canvas in winter and carrying water up a hill every day. Living on site is hard."

Juliet McBride, an anti-nuclear campaigner, of Northlands Road, Southampton, said the protest was worthwhile: "It put off road- building for quite a while. It's all now a total confusion. I just despair. None of the problems have been addressed. I would do it all again."

Alan Weeks, of Stanmore Lane, Stanmore, Winchester, fought against the M3 from the 1970s when the original plans proposed it should go across the River Itchen water meadows.

He is a leading light in a present-day campaign that is directly descended from Twyford Down. Mr Weeks is battling plans for a park-and-ride car park at Bar End on part of the old bypass that has since become a wildlife haven with 200 species of flora and fauna.

More direct action is expected if the county council proceeds with the scheme.

Asked if Twyford Down achieved anything, he said: "Yes, the campaigners spread to Newbury and other protests. It really was an inspiration and it led to the government dropping the roads programme. It led to the creation of a network that won't lie down. There is a much greater sense of the environment now.

"The government admit that bigger roads just get filled up. They cure nothing. The only answer is to provide an alternative to the car. That means investment in public transport. The money saved in not building roads could be used for public transport. The government should invest now and avoid trouble later on."