To get to Dale Farm you have to take a train to Wickford or Basildon and then try to get a taxi. ‘If your cab driver refuses to take you,’ the Dale Farm Solidarity website says, ‘tell them they’re being silly, then ask to get dropped off at the Belvedere Golf range.’ On Sunday I went to the Traveller site in Essex, where eighty or so families are waiting to be evicted from the green-belt land they own (it used to be a scrapyard, and hasn’t been ‘green’ for years), with Damian Le Bas, a journalist and Romani gypsy.
There’s been plenty of vitriolic reaction to the recent injunctions against the eviction of the site: ‘If they’re travellers why don’t they travel?’ is the inane, recurring question on Twitter. The 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act repealed the duty imposed on local councils to provide sites for Travellers and ‘was the end of legal nomadic living of any kind in Britain,’ Damian says. ‘At the same time as the act was passed, the government released guidance saying that if Travellers bought their own plots of land, they would get preferential judgments for making sites. So the government pays nothing and gets them to house themselves. Amazingly, Travellers began to do this anyway, hoping for the best. What they got was a 90 per cent refusal rate on any application.’ Dale Farm occupies just the sort of land that the government is proposing developing for local housing under the draft National Planning Policy Framework published last month.
When we got to Oak Lane, which leads to the site, the cab driver told us he wouldn’t take us any further. An imposing metal fence bristling with CCTV cameras runs beside the lane. The bailiffs have set up camp behind it. Security guards were positioned along its length. A few people were sitting on a sofa by the entrance to the site. Others were climbing on the scaffolding that forms an arch over the entrance, painting barbed wire-covered tyres with white paint. There were signs that said ‘no ethnic cleansing’ and bunting displaying the Romani flag.
A man introduced himself as ‘Bits O’Wood’ and asked who we were. Had we phoned the press phone? Had we talked to the media liaison team? We hadn’t. He sent someone to see if we’d be allowed in. I asked him why he was called Bits O’Wood and he said it was a long story. He went off to discuss painting a banner with a colleague: ‘It should be like George and the Dragon, but with the Dragon slaying George, because George is, like, the man,’ he said.
After a while the press liaison officer, Kirsty, arrived. She took our names and contact details, and asked us why we were there. Damian explained that he was from the Travellers’ Times, he’d visited the site before and we wondered if we could have a look round. She was friendly but wary, and told us that as it was Sunday most of the Travellers were at church or having family meals, and we probably wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone. We should have phoned ahead. She offered to show us round the site anyway.
There are really several sites at Dale Farm, Kirsty explained: Travellers and protesters live together on the contested land. At the back of the site is ‘Camp Constant’, the hub of the solidarity operation. (The name is a reference to Constant and Co., the bailiffs who have been contracted to clear the land. They claim to be specialists in ‘gypsy evictions, recovery and possession of land from Travellers’.) Then there is the bailiff’s camp in front of the site, and journalists from Sky and ITV have rented the fields behind it.
There were messages on some of the walls and trailers: ‘A beautiful family owns this land’; ‘lady with difficulty breathing’; ‘If not a scrapyard then where?’ On one wall someone had written: ‘Vandalism: beautiful as a rock in a bailiff’s face’. Another hand had added: ‘depends on the context’. A toddler in a bright pink dress walked along with her mother. A group of boys pushed each other around in a plastic car. It was quiet. After a while Kirsty told us it was time to go. As we left, a group of old men asked if we were from the council.
Damian said the site felt different this time: ‘Quieter, more like a camp than a village. You could feel their readiness to move. Plots had emptied. Decisions had been made, painfully.’ We didn’t try to interview anyone. Damian said he didn’t want to bother people who are facing eviction: ‘I’ve dealt with council visits at home, and everyone puts a brave face on it and gives it the hard Traveller, but once the gate shuts there are tears. It’s shit knowing nobody wants you near them because of what you were born as.’
When we got back to the Belvedere Golf range to get a cab back to the station, two security guards asked us what we were doing there. We told them we wanted a drink at the bar, but one of them, noticing Damian’s gold chain and Chelsea boots, said he thought the bar was closed on Sundays ‘because of the Carvery’. We wondered why that would stop us getting a drink, and he checked with his colleague, who seemed content to let us in. Inside a couple ate their anaemic roast dinners in silence. We asked the barmaid why a golf club needed such tight security. ‘Do you know Dale Farm?’ she said. ‘It’s because of that, because of the gypsies, because of the evictions,’ as if that was explanation enough. Damian held his tongue.