Britons clamor to rid nation of filthy summer vagabonds


August 26, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- They call themselves New Age travelers. If they represent the future it probably won't work, because they don't.

They plant apprehension and disgust in the minds of ordinary people in Britain, those who live settled lives, hold regular jobs and are reassured by conventional haircuts and evidence of personal hygiene.

Nobody seems to know how to respond to the travelers, except to denounce them as hippies and demand the authorities take action. Some sort of action.

In response to these demands, which have multiplied in recent weeks, the Minister for Social Security, Nicholas Scott, has said his department would make it harder for the travelers to get their unemployment checks as they ride around the country.

"I share the concern of the public at the sight of this invasion of land and the prospect of intimidation in and around our benefit offices," said the minister. He promised that henceforth the "availability for work rules" would have to be met "before a penny of benefit is paid out."

New laws are being suggested, some of them Draconian, if not impossible -- like making it illegal for people to travel "in concert." Previous laws requiring local governments to provide land for travelers -- intended originally to accommodate traditional Gypsies -- are to be repealed, thus shrinking drastically the number of legal camp sites for travelers.

The travelers arrive with the British summer. Most emerge from the towns and cities and are poor and uneducated. But not all: Some are middle-class dropouts, cultists and "festival freaks" who haunt ancient and megalithic sites like Glastonbury in Somerset and Stonehenge in Wiltshire.

Others are people gripped by what one observer describes as the "Huckleberry Finn Syndrome." They have a fondness for portable houses made from the branches of trees.

Finally there are the true Gypsies, the traditional travelers. Martin Ward is one of these, though he has been settled in his trailer for some years under a highway in west London. Still, he is worried now that the government's attention has been drawn to all travelers.

"The authorities have always made it hard for the travelers to live. Now they want to make it a felony to pull into a place where you are not wanted. That used to be a nuisance violation, a misdemeanor. They're talking about [making it a felony] now in the House of Commons."

People travel, according to Mr. Ward, "because their parents, their grandparents, traveled. Traveling people don't like to go into a house. Their home is in the trailer they pull behind them. If they go into a house they lose all knowledge of traveling."

Gypsies such as Mr. Ward tend to distance themselves from the newer people on the roads these days, the "ravers," as they are occasionally called, or hippies. But he is unsympathetic to attempts to prevent them from traveling.

The pressure against them is strong. Fred Newman, who drives around Cornwall in a bus with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, told a local newspaper of the growing pressure against them. "It seems like we're getting so much prejudice and hate they're trying to squeeze us out of existence," he said.

The travelers stream into the country's loveliest rural counties in the south and west. They drive battered buses and vans, trucks, trailers and cars, thousands of them rolling smokily along in rattling caravans.

Their vehicles are often rigged with cooking facilities and beds. Or they sleep in tents. They are in flight from ordinary life with all its demands and encumbrances.

The word most often on their lips is freedom. "Their ideology," said Dr. Eileen V. Barker, "embraces ecology, freedom, feminism, and a belief in the individual."

Some also "are dirty and awful," noted Dr. Barker, the author of "New Religious Movements" and an expert on New Age cultists.

Many of them travel as families, joined by blood or convenience, and children are always in evidence at their camp sites. So are drugs (particularly a popular boutique drug, Ecstacy), lots of beer and noise, some vandalism and mountains of trash, always left behind. Their parties are called "raves"; they go on all night and involve strenuous dancing to thunderously-amplified music.

Well over 10,000 travelers gathered in late July uninvited on a farmer's field in the Vale of Kerry near Newtown in Wales. Before that about 20,000 had camped in the Malvern Hills. The first major encampment and "rave" this year occurred in Shropshire in June, and went on for weeks.

No one knows where the travelers will turn up next. Local constabularies are on perpetual alert. Farmers blockade the backroads with tractors. Police patrol the roads to intercept and turn back the convoys. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don't.

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