When Victoria Henry went for her regular 5k run around Springfield Park this week she couldn’t understand why she’d returned wheezing – until she saw London mayor Sadiq Khan had issued a warning to stay indoors because of London’s toxic air.
It was a stark reminder why she’d decided to jump on board a moving 23,000-tonne cargo ship off the coast of Sheerness last week to stop it delivering 1,200 Volkswagen diesel cars into the country.
After climbing up its loading ramp with another activist, she unfurled a banner to publicise a Greenpeace campaign against air pollution – picturing two-year-old East Ender Sephie who suffers breathing problems, wearing a gas mask.
“It was a challenging climb, definitely, because you are dealing with an unknown situation,” said Victoria, from Stoke Newington, who spent months in training.
“We tried to stay on for as long as possible and we were there for 12 gruelling hours. This kind of thing happens as a last resort and when people feel the situation is beyond urgent.
Greenpeace activists display a banner near the intended arrival point of the Volkswagen ship. The banner read “Ditch Diesel” and shows the face of a two-year-old girl covered by an air pollution mask. Sephie, who lives in London and has respiratory problems, represents all children affected by air pollution. Picture: Kristian Buus
“We’ve breached our legal limits for pollution every year since 2010 and we are saying companies need to step up and do the right thing.”
The former Greenpeace employee is no stranger to pulling off daring stunts in the name of the environment, having scaled western Europe’s tallest building, the Shard, six years ago to protest Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the Arctic.
The 36-year old Canadian began climbing when she who moved to the UK from Vancouver 10 years ago – although she has a “great picture” of herself as a child climbing up the mast of her grandpa’s ship in Bognor Regis.
“It can help you develop positive mental abilities, like helping manage a fear of heights,” she said. “Instead of dwelling on the negative and thinking of the things that can go wrong in climbing – and in life – you can focus on what you can change and what you can do.”
Victoria climbed the Shard in 2012. Picture: David Sandison/ Greenpeace
Victoria is waiting to hear whether police will press charges on October 19 when she answers bail for entering a vessel. “Vulnerable people are really suffering,” she said.
“There are 40 nurseries in Hackney alone within 100m of the road, breaching legal limits of nitrogen dioxide pollution. We don’t want to wait 23 years for action on diesel – that’s why I’m proud to have done what I can.”