"Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail."
Trying to trace the origins of the current traveller scene is very difficult. There is no clear moment when people took to the road 'en masse' and the scene itself has constantly evolved. Here is some defining moments in traveller history that help show us why and how it started and grew as a movement and way of life.
IN 1970 over 200,000 people came to the Isle of Wight for Jimi Hendrix's last UK gig. An alternative free fringe event was established outside the security fence which was eventually removed ant the whole event declared a free festival. The first Windsor free festival held in 1972, strongly linked with the squatters slogan 'Pay no Rent'. By 1974 the festival had become an 'Ecological Fair' backed by the United Nations. It was broken up by the police after only a few days.
The first Stonehenge people’s free festival was held for several weeks in 1974. The Wally tribe became the first prophets of the road and squatted Stonehenge for much of the year. Thousands of people turned up every year for the festivities, wood fires smoked amongst the tents, children ran naked on the grass, adults fulfilled their chores of wood and water collecting and there was singing and dancing, a real celebration of life. This continued until the state could tolerate it no longer.
By the mid 70's the 'love & peace' philosophy was being replaced by more political activity. There were clashes between organisers of festivals and the members of the audience who wanted to create a free festival movement that can't be stopped.
With unemployment rising through the 70's and increasing levels of alienation, festivals became an alternative lifestyle for some. It wasn't long before summer on the road became a nomadic lifestyle all year round. While Glastonbury and Stonehenge are more commonly associated with travellers the majority spent much time at smaller gatherings like May hill, Meigan fair, Strawberry fayre and the Psilocybin fair.
Throughout the early 80's a series of peace camps and green gatherings had been established to highlight government policies. One of these was Molesworth where CND supporters and travellers had set up a camp which became known as 'Rainbow Village'. On Feb 5th 1985 eviction was enforced, although local police were present it was the army who gave instructions over a load-hailer; 1 hour to pack up several months life and leave. The deadline was extended to the morning but then they announced that 'if those remaining do not leave the army will clear the site with minimum force' - how much was that? 1500 royal engineers erected a temporary fence around the 7 and a half mile perimeter. It was the largest single royal engineer operation since the Rhine crossing in 1944. At about 8am contractors moved in to tow or shove away buses and caravans that had not been moved.
Battle of the Beanfield
On May 31st 1985 several hundred headed east towards Wiltshire for the annual Stonehenge festival. They stayed overnight in Savernake forest. However a whole series of authorities had conspired to prevent this 12th festival from happening at all.
June 1st was a sunny Saturday morning, and the long convoy of vehicles travelled slowly to Stonehenge, followed by a police helicopter. Encountering a road block 7 miles from Stonehenge but still outside the 4 mile exclusion zone that had been imposed, the lead vehicles turned down a narrow road. There was another road block on the next road and police clad in riot gear, moved into position at both front and rear of the convoy. As police attacked vehicles at both ends, the ones in the middle of the convoy smashed their way through fences into neighbouring fields.
The police wore heavy overalls with no identity numbers. They employed massive force against women and children as well as the men they encountered. After initial arrests it seemed there was to be a peaceful solution after all. Negotiations proved impossible and suddenly at about 7pm the police charged.
Travellers started up vehicles if they could and drove frantically into the neighbouring bean field to escape the squads of indiscriminately attacking men. By the end of the day 520 people had been arrested, many children were taken into care in the middle of the night having just witnessed the traumatic destruction of their homes and beatings of parents and friends. Some animals were destroyed or beaten. All the vehicles had been smashed badly and many had been completely gutted.
The riot police were prepared for aggressive action and those travellers who escaped into surrounding woodlands were met and detained by members of the local police force sickened by the violence. Television viewers were astounded by scenes of police violence on an unprecedented level and these were the censored films. The Earl of Cardigan was profoundly affected and later gave evidence in court.
The 'test case', Phil's, was heard a couple of years later at the Magistrates court in Salisbury. He was found not guilty on all charges and outstanding charges against all the others were also dropped. In 1991 a number of travellers fought for compensation. Emotive witnesses recalled events backed up by film and recorded police conversations. Damages were awarded but the judge recalled all compensation payments to cover court costs.
Watch the film Operation Solstice available on YouTube for footage recorded that day, beware it is horrific.
The 'peace convoy' had been effectively smashed in 1984, the 'rainbow village' had been hounded into small groups by spring 1985 and those travellers attempting to reach Stonehenge for the summer solstice had been viciously attacked. As a systematic destruction of a lifestyle it could have been an effective campaign yet spirits had not been crushed and the culture has continued to evolve and grow.
By the winter of 1991 travellers had begun to establish large winter sites, some with bars, cafes and bands. Party atmospheres continued all year round, and traders could keep making money. The Avon C.C. policy of non-harassment meant that safe unauthorised sites were available in that region, and some such as Hanham in Bristol became authorised and gained basic services.
In May 1992 a sudden influx of travellers in Worcestershire resulted in police confusion and Castlemorton Common became a site. Word spread not only by the grapevine, but thanks to media coverage (this was the last time central news reported a free party due to the amount of people that saw Castlemorton on the news and went there).
About 20,000 people converged on the site and the police organised roadblocks to prevent further arrivals, they also advised shop keepers and publicans not to serve 'hippies' or 'travellers.' Although the media emphasised the filthy squalor in reality several hundred travellers remained to clear up. Much media attention was also focused on the confiscation of rave equipment, particularly that belonging to Spiral Tribe.
This is where my interest in the travelling scene started, and I wasn't even there! For many other people as well it made them aware of another scene, another way of life. Some went on the road straight away and are still doing today, for others it was more of a fashion thing almost, it was cool to be a traveller if you were involved in the free party/rave scene and a house dweller.
Many tried it for a few months or even years and found that ultimately that lifestyle wasn’t for them. I decided not to try life on the road immediately and to raise my son as a house dweller. At first I tried some summers on the road, working at festivals on the way. Then I took the plunge and moved full time into my home on wheels.
The year after Castlemorton Common, the police set up Operation Snapshot, an intelligence-gathering exercise on raves and travellers, designed to establish a database of personal details, names, nicknames, vehicle registration numbers, traveller sites and movements. Undercover operations were carried out and photographs taken.
This information was used as a backbone for an ongoing intelligence operation begun by the Southern Central Intelligence Unit (SCIU), operated from Devizes in Wiltshire and initially co-ordinated by PC Malcolm Keene. The SCIU held regular meetings with representatives of all the constabularies of Britain. Leaked documents revealed that Operation Snapshot had estimated there to be around 2,000 Travellers vehicles and 8,000 Traveller’s in the UK.
The scene was set for a further tightening of the screw. In 1994, the government passed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. This piece of legislation is very lengthy and far-reaching. It has a number of provisions that directly affect the lifestyles of many people but particularly affects travellers, squatters, ravers and protesters.
For travellers and those involved in peaceful protest on private property (environmental activists), section 61 on the CJA is even more draconian than the previous Public Order Act. Section 61 now provides a power for the senior police officer present at a scene to direct trespassers on land to move if: (a) six or more vehicles are present, (previously 12) or (b) damage is caused to the land or property on the land, (previously damage to gates fences etc. now the land itself i.e. tyre marks on the grass!!) Penalties for this offence, or to return within three months, can mean a £2,500 fine or three months imprisonment, or both.
Further, section 62 allows the police to seize and remove vehicles when they have issued a direction and it has been ignored. Further sections of the Act enable the seized vehicles to be held until all removal and storage charges are paid. Fees to reclaim motors from one of the five `holding pounds' that have been established are likely to be high. An uncollected vehicle will eventually be destroyed and a further charge made for this!
The extraordinary lengths taken by the authorities to annihilate the new traveller population in the UK are a testament to the treatment meted out to cultural minorities outside `acceptable’ norms. The use of legislation, intelligence, targeted harassment, benefit clampdowns and news-manufacture have been employed as a multi-tactic approach stretched across a ten year period. Such strategies are often achieved without public knowledge; with the length of time over which they are employed, diffusing recognition of their mechanism and ultimate intention.
What is clear, however, is that rather than seek to democratically accommodate an expanding community culture, Margaret Thatcher’s government and those who replaced her, sought instead to annihilate it. The social consequences are immense. The festival circuit, once an evolving people-led celebration and community co-operation, by the end of the 90s lied largely in the hands of profit-motivated commercial promoters. Thankfully the 00s started to give birth to a less commercial ‘grass roots’ scene on the festival circuit.
End of an Era?
Meanwhile, the travelling community, fractionalised by an annihilation strategy, now displays symptoms reminiscent of the inner cities from which many had fled. Since its enactment, many thousands of travellers have left the country in anticipation of the crackdown on their lifestyle to come. Some have gone to Europe and beyond being concerned for their families’ future in Britain. However, despite the worst excesses of the cultural clampdown, some travellers remain secreted all over the country. Many are now in smaller groups, inconspicuous and unregistered if not drawing benefit.
Officially, the Labour government is committed to a policy of respect for travellers. "A nomadic way of life is legitimate," Home Office guidelines insist. "Gypsies and Travellers should be accommodated and 'tolerated' wherever practicable". But the guidelines have no legal force. When it repealed the Caravan Sites Act, the Home Office told travellers that they should set up their own sites. They had been trying to do just this for years but, as the government knew perfectly well, the great majority had been refused planning permission.
In the few cases in which local authorities allowed them to stay, central government overturned their decisions. What this means in practice is that travellers are, once more, constitutionally criminal. Their very existence is illegal. They are criminalised just by occupying physical space! Without lawful places to stop, they can be hounded from county to county and evicted wherever they pull up. Even the generous landlords who allow them to stay on their property have been threatened with prosecution. The Labour government, like the Tories, is pursuing a straightforward policy of assimilation. People who do not conform to social norms, who are, in other words, not like us, are forced to lose their alternative identity and live like everyone else. If they refuse, they become criminally different. The policy is justified by repeated allegations of villainy, though the Home Office is unable to point to any research showing that travellers as a group are any worse than the rest of us.
So here we are in 2005, travellers live where ever they can nearly always under threat of eviction. The general public can't understand why a traveller would want to live on the side of a main road and yet will do nothing to help force the government to wake up and provide proper sites. No-one wants to live on the side of a road but if you don't want to get prosecuted for trespass sometimes it is the only option. When you have the threat of having your home taken away as well as a massive fine, the side of a road can seem quite appealing!
There are sometimes though great sites that can be occupied for a few months or even the whole winter. The future for travellers in the UK does not look as though it will get any better any time soon. What the government fails to see though is that if a way of life is in your blood (and i don't mean you’re born into it like a traditional Romany) then there will always be some of those that will live that way no matter what. Until the government realise that they can't get rid of travellers nothing will change.
For some of the words, many thanks to Alan Dearling and all those involved in the book ‘A Time to Travel?’
Click on pictures for full image. Pictures courtesy of Alan ‘Tash’ Lodge, Sensamillia & Lilmisslostit.
In 2011 I was asked to write a chapter in a book to be published on travellers and festivals. My chapter was to be about music and festivals in traveller culture, a more recent look at that theme as other chapters of the book were to have a lot of history. The book was published in 2012 and called 'Travelling Daze' it is still available from Enabler Publications but you can read my chapter here: