Skip to content or view screen version

A report from the Cottenham traveler community

manos | 19.01.2005 01:13 | Free Spaces | Social Struggles | Cambridge

A group of activist from the Cambridge Action Network alarmed by the overt racism of some local newspaper articles and websites, decided to visit the traveler community outside Cottenham, Cambridgeshire. Eleven settlements there are under the direct threat of eviction: people are going to be kicked off their land by bailiffs, driven to the county borders, and their homes will be trashed. Unless we do something to prevent it...

We arrived at Smithy Fen, five minutes outside Cottenham, just after dark. The road was not lit, and badly maintained. Although our visit was unannounced it was easy to be directed to Patrick's home, a local resident, that welcomed us into his caravan. There was a fair bit of distrust at the beginning; Patrick even asked us, only half jocking, if we were associated with the BNP. 'You see they have been leafleting around the town to drive us out', he explains. Our explanations, that we would like to show solidarity with the community under threat, and our common acquaintances appeased him, so the atmosphere became less tense.

His first question exposed us completely: 'Do you know anything about traveler issues?', obviously very little. So he gave us some background: in 1968 a law was passed that local councils have to provide land for traveler sites. Most of them did not. Those that did only provided for small settlements of 6-12 Caravans. Those who did not fit had to leave! In 1994 the Tory government decided that no more sites were to be build. Having to adjust with the new reality many travelers, bought land, brought electricity and water, and build sewage systems to serve their needs. Around 2002-3 a campaign was spearheaded by Terry Brownbill, to drive some of the people living in the Cottenham site out.

'But you see the story starts much earlier, in Germany. There was a man called Hitler' Patrick continues. 'He persecuted Jewish people and Gypsies. Jewish people have managed to be accepted in society, while we are still persecuted'. An exaggeration? Hardly! Reading Brownbill's website: and substituting 'traveler' for 'Jew', exposes its true nature. Statements like “800 wealthy and aggressive travelers rode into town, set up a massive camp on Smithy Fen on the edge of the village and usurped Human Rights legislation to claim their right to stay.”, or “50 communities across the country struggling to defend themselves against traveller invasions. ” are only few that show how easily travelers are defined as the 'others' and are given collective qualities, that calls for them being driven away. It seems, what is demanded is a kind of modern pogrom. Patrick continues, 'the claim that there are 800 people living in the 11 plots can only convince people that have never been here'. He challenges us to look around. It would indeed be difficult to fit 80 people in each plot of about 40ft by 90ft.

Patrick is quite passionate about uncovering the hypocrisy: 'People say that we have swarmed public services, schools and doctors, but there are only very few of us'. He contrast the small traveler community with the planned 29 600 new homes that are planned to be build in the nearby village of Oakington. He is cynical: 'Complaining about us gives local politicians easy votes, they are just out there to be elected they don't care', the populist and racist rhetoric clearly still works. Although the community has been the focus of attention of the media, he does not have much hope into them. 'What they wanted to know when they came to talk to me here was not our problems or opinions, but what is the cost of my TV.'

Court cases are due to be decided in the following months, and it is likely that some members of the community will be under threat of eviction. What does this means? The police will close down all access to the site at 6am in the morning and a group of bailiffs will go in. They will escort the families to the county border. Their homes, or other structures on the grounds, will be demolished. Fair? Now close your eyes and imagine it is your family...

- Homepage:


Hide the following comment

Time to Speak Up!

21.01.2005 17:43

Ethnic cleansing by any other name.

The reason Jews were accepted is in no small part due to artists and entertainers like The Marx Brothers, Phil Silvers and, latterly Woody Allen who made it cool to be Jewish.

However, by the very nature of the Gypsy/Traveller community, this was never going to be as easy to accomplish, due to the fact that, up until recently, the community were (obviously) on the move, and therefore, so far as mainstream mass culture goes not in such a good position to contribute their ideas to the cultural pot.

Maybe it's time for all those artists, songwriters and poets to start arguing their case for traveller culture! In this age of the internet, at least they stand a better chance of being heard, and perhaps, in time, of being taken more seriously as the deeply historically rich, soulful culture we know them to be.

Rogue Thinker