Having emerged from the Underground, the only sign we could see of what we were heading for was made of cardboard and held by two lone protesters sitting on steps, their laughing and chanting almost drowned out by the helicopter hovering overhead. Around the corner we were met by the sight of the sun beaming over Russell Square and the sound of a bass drum beating time. We joined a river of people just in time to walk alongside a samba band, many ad-libbing with spoons on biscuit tins, playing vuvuzelas and singing, and before long the overwhelmingly positive atmosphere made us forget our shyness about chanting with them.
The march was escorted down Southampton Row with minimal police presence. I made a point of smiling at each officer guarding the entrance to the disused Holborn tramway station entrance in Kingsway, those who didn’t manage to avoid eye contact in time didn’t return the gesture – not that I expected them to. The crowd thinned out around Aldwych and I began to feel nervous on the Strand as I knew we were about to enter the SOCPA exclusion zone but it soon became apparent that people were only gathering briefly in Trafalgar Square before continuing through Admiralty Arch.
The Metropolitan Police had confirmed the route and timing a number of days beforehand but Whitehall and in particular Northumberland Avenue, the alternative later route to Victoria Embankment depending on the number of protesters, was blocked by a police line at this point, so anyone wishing to miss Parliament Square and make their way straight to the NUS events was unable to do so. I think it was in front of these lines that we saw people holding a banner for the University for Strategic Optimism pausing.
Territorial Support Group officers lined St James's Park facing the rear of Whitehall, but it was only on Horse Guards Parade that we saw any police officer in discussion with a member of the public, and amicably. On the corner of Great George Street the crowd in front slowed and stopped before turning, shouting "kettle!" and "go back!” We ran with them along the line until we could access the park entrance at the end. Others carried on but we felt confident in approaching officers between there and Birdcage Walk, who confirmed that that there was no kettle and that the march was not to be escorted through the park, so we returned.
We could see that the rather over-optimistic temporary fencing arrangement had been knocked down, but with the usual songs and chants, the mood was on the whole good-natured. Understandably there were police lines at Victoria Street, St Margaret Street and Bridge Street, but from the official route on Parliament Street we could see what looked very much like a police line blocking Whitehall. We weren't keen to walk up to investigate this in case we were kettled there keeping us away from the main group and any change of plan to allow us via another route, and nor did anyone else seem to be.
In the meantime we took a tour. On the green, makeshift toilets had been assembled from the fencing and tarpaulin and small fires were lit once the warmth heat from the marching had worn off. Dancers around sound systems on wheels made the green vibrate like a nightclub floor, schoolchildren chalked slogans onto the pavements and lecturers were passed megaphones for impromptu speeches. The densest part of the square was of course nearest the Houses of Parliament, through which we struggled over contorted metal and around trampled tents to look for Brian Haw but saw no sign of him or Barbara Tucker.
After a little while we noticed a police line across our entrance on Great George Street, which we had seen nothing quite excessive enough to provoke. We assumed the reason was to encourage us to pass through Whitehall but another had since formed at Parliament Street. The option of Westminster Underground station was closed off, as were the subway toilets - although someone was obviously in enough need to give the padlocked gates a go - but we didn't feel too worried at first as there was still some time before the vote in which the situation could change.
There seemed to be a surge towards Victoria Street so we made our way into the crowd as far as we could and as far as we felt it was safe to do so. “There are many, many more of us than you”, we hinted. The Supreme Court at that point was surrounded, somewhat graffitied, but otherwise intact. The police line wavered before introducing mounted police to charge. As the sun set it was difficult to see batons and truncheons flying but any doubt dissolved when avenues opened to let the injured through, from schoolchildren and teenagers to the middle ages or elderly, first walking wounded, then held up by friends, hands and heads bright with blood. "Shame on you!" and "Your job's next!" we screamed.
Firecrackers were thrown, fencing from the green crowd-surfed to the front but relatively little progress was being made. With at least another hour until voting, there wasn't much else to do and even among thousands of people, in the cold and dark there were moments I felt alone with my thoughts.
My mind flickered to my son back at home, whose primary school knows how lucky it was to secure funding for their renovation work before these uncertain financial times, whose potential secondary schools appear untouched since my own schooldays, with staff giving up hope of seeing the rebuilding work they desperately need happening any time soon. I wondered if those renowned for the special needs provision he needs will be as good by the time he gets there.
A young relative of mine is yet to take her GCSEs and I wondered how, if things got even harder, whether she or any of her peers would even bother to contend with nil government financial assistance at college only to accrue tens of thousands of debt at university.
I looked over to my friend, who has just received an unconditional offer in spite of being subject to a very serious physical assault early in his A-level studies. His girlfriend was at college for the day before work in the evening, waiting to hear whether she has secured a place at her preferred university. I wondered if they were the next to be dubbed as lazy and ignorant as the past few generations of students have been and whether their tutors will give them any more the time of day once their fees increase sharply midway through their course.
My boyfriend was battling through as much red tape as final year coursework who, after spending the best part of ten years in his trade after leaving school, took a degree for the first time as a mature student to better his chances in the market, and is now just worried about getting back into the market at all.
I was snapped out of my worries by the grinding sound of the plastic security cabin, which had been on its side for some time, being dragged off the corner of the green while on fire, belching its thick fat black fumes over most of the people on the square. It was only once the smell eventually reached us that we found we could take our eyes off the scene and move elsewhere. We found one talkative policeman to exchange a few friendly words with over the ballasted barriers, but I knew well enough not to bother with changing the subject from the voting schedule towards that of when we might be allowed out, as it would likely be met by silence, if not withdrawal.
From the direction of the Treasury a young lad ran towards but fell before the green followed by maybe as many as 20 or 30 people, some of whom caught up with him and starting beating and kicking him. We immediately ran to his aid and were glad that most people who saw what was happening backed us up. Someone hauled him up onto the green and away from danger while arguments broke out, over which a girl reminded them that “we should be fighting them” - pointing towards Parliament – “not each other”.
Doing the rounds again, we were surprised to find the police line at Parliament Street had retreated, possibly broken, so we wasted no opportunity in checking it out this time. On passing the Cenotaph we remarked to each other how it remained as spotless as ever. We were even more taken aback to see a column of people being let out via the Ministry of Defence but we decided to be two of them. Nearly out, we looked back only seconds later to see mounted police blocking others from coming the same way.
Knowing the NUS event was on Victoria Embankment, we joined it for the end. Aaron Porter, president of the NUS and Alan Whittaker, president of the UCU, made speeches met with boos, jeers and calls of "where were you?". We were instructed to wave white light sticks which had been handed out before our arrival while a campaign song was played, then repeated as filler. The tune and the lyrics I cannot remember and don't care to, but wouldn’t mind if it made number one, given the cause. I could've sworn the girls I saw dancing were plants though.
Intriguingly, at the close we were ordered to leave northwards only, despite it not being the only exit. The MOD exit had since been blocked at each end, and there wasn’t much happening at the Whitehall end, so we returned southbound towards Big Ben only to hear that the fees rise had been passed. There was some heavy-handedness on the part of the police outside Portcullis House and I was impressed at how quickly this was dispersed once cameras came out. As the glow sticks came into their own, I found myself considering the odds of victory for Team GB in the javelin in 2012. Something akin to a conga line of protesters and reporters formed on the barrier between the road and pavement, not that much could be seen from it past a police photographer’s rather intimidating if not impressive bit of kit, except for the police helicopter light now shining upon the Treasury.
We popped into Whitehall again. At the Banqueting House I looked up to see a bust of King Charles, who was hanged here in January 1649, wearing two shirts in case the audience should mistake his shivering for fear. I was glad of my three layers, as not wishing to cross the trajectory of the fireworks meant being stuck on the wrong side of the fire. Government officials left the police lines meeting no hostility from the crowds whatsoever.
With no forewarning, everyone started suddenly running toward Trafalgar Square, as did we, thinking they knew something about a kettle we didn't. I was briefly tempted by the first pub I'd seen in hours, but being given the opportunity to complete a march anywhere, we plodded onwards. We clambered up onto the base of Nelson's Column (people being on average half a foot taller since it was built) to watch a scattering of people advance. After Whitehall cleared, everyone moved to the other side where we were horrified to see not only the attempts to set the Norwegian Christmas tree on fire, but this while someone was climbing up the trunk of it. Lights were pulled off as we shouted for them to stop.
After a few minutes riot police arrived and surrounded the base of the tree from which fire extinguisher foam billowed up. Police vans began to park in the south and we jumped down to prepare to run as we knew that, despite our pleas to stop the violence, we wouldn't be differentiated from those caused it and certainly couldn't afford another kettling attempt. "Leicester Square!" shouted someone - the way out I knew best. We outran police vehicles which we were amazed to see turn off in the direction of the Strand. I wondered if Capital Radio were getting the scoop when a large traffic cone flashed past my eyes and hit one of a duo of police officers in the face, who drops like a lead weight. Neither of them was wearing any protective gear.
My friend immediately put himself between the officers and the crowd and I join him until I realise I am mostly guarding a fence, and the edge of it if anything. Instead, not thinking about what we might need later, I attempted to give my one small first aid kit to them, but unsuccessfully as they were evidently trying to judge whether anyone approaching intended to finish the job. Someone from one of the businesses opposite offered them sanctuary on their premises, which they quickly accepted. By Swiss Court I could only see one other officer walking alongside us, keeping in radio contact. On the other side of Coventry Street, I made eye contact with one of the shopkeepers picking up postcards fallen from scattered stands and wondered if he would react to me in the same way as the police officers we tried to help minutes earlier.
In Piccadilly Circus I realised that a few months ago on the streets of London I couldn't even trust pedestrian crossings and now I was walking down the middle of the road while double decker buses were stopping for us. Shoppers had emptied the buildings to watch silently and still, as if someone had taken all the mannequins from the windows for some fresh air. Once on Regent Street, a car waiting at traffic lights was immobilised by a bollard being wedged underneath its front bumper, the driver looking resigned.
A few minutes down the road I heard sirens from behind and turned to see police motorcycles weaving in and out of people on the road. I briefly step onto the pavement as they pass, to see a car in claret red with a crest slowly approaching, its passengers' hair mid length and light. "Hey," I shout to my friend "It's Boris!” My friend catches up just in time to hear me correct myself: "Hang on - It's Charles and Camilla!" There was a little jeering but I started laughing as did most of those around me, mostly waving and calling at them. They reacted in kind, even joking with each other.
The dark Jaguar behind had its doors open, its passenger ready to jump out if need be, and started trying to overtake the royal car, but driving into the backs of people walking on the road. We shouted at them to stop and it was then that people really started to turn on the convoy. Some sat on the bonnet and the driver carried on regardless. I looked back to see how many more vehicles were due, just in time to pull my friend out of the path of the silver people carrier he hadn't seen. Others smashed the back windscreen with a bin. It dawned on me that I should probably expect a bullet any second.
Not knowing where the convoy was headed, we didn't know whether it had turned off or escaped, but either way I was happy to be running anywhere the police or violent people might not be. I saw that we were already approaching Oxford Circus which is perfect for kettling, but remembered that the diagonal crossing had been installed since I was last visited, and was relieved to see 13 seconds (unlucky for some) left remaining for us to get onto Oxford Street. On the opposite side, however, security guards and staff in Topshop peered out of the windows being kicked in; customers thankfully out of harm's way. I remember thinking the people doing the damage had the forethought to dress for the occasion.
I was relieved to see a small group turning into Great Portland Street where I knew there wasn't much in the way of corporate targets. I knew the BBC wasn't far away and that it would be a more suitable place for peaceful protestors to end up, but after losing momentum for a few seconds, the group turned again into Margaret Street. Two people started to smash the windows of Boots and then went inside to smash up the interior as well, staff visibly distressed. With numbers dwindling, violent protesters were beginning to make up a larger proportion of the group. As we felt discouraging them wasn't working and as we would be unwise to risk even being in the area peacefully ourselves, possibly get ourselves arrested, we decided to leave.
We quickly crossed Oxford Circus again, through a horseshoe of mobile phones held to the air, two or three layers deep, then Oxford Street to avoid the police in riot gear who had arrived on the other side. Once inside a coffee shop with toilets, we let our family and friends know that we had stopped marching and were safe. The evening crowds inside seemed oblivious to what was happening just a couple of streets away
Underground announcements were made that Westminster and Oxford Circus stations were closed due to the euphemistic "British Transport Police investigation". I was very wary of being on a tube as I felt physically sick, not just from the physical exertion but the mental effort of trying to reconcile in my mind everything I had seen. Hearing snatches from someone's radio on the way home, we heard that a kettle was in force on Westminster Bridge, which we felt very lucky not to have been included in considering our position at 6pm. A man on the aisle opposite saw our interest and looked momentarily concerned. I smiled just as I had at police officers at the beginning of the afternoon, and slipped into sleep.