”When I first arrived, I thought, ‘Jesus Christ what is this?’ But I wouldn’t leave it now. Everything is good in here. It’s just cosy, comfy, nice. The traffic don’t bother me. I sleep like a baby in the night. Honestly! If I go to Oxford now I can’t really sleep the whole night through because it’s so quiet!”
One of the kids discusses the issue of prejudice against the travelling community at school. “If they ever did, they’d be looking at the fist. They’d be racist. It’s in the blood. We know how to fight, that’s why nobody really say anything. Obviously if I’m by myself they’ll try and say something…”
Pat O’Donnell has lived on Stable Way since 1998. Arriving in England on June 5th 1985, he first spent some time in Manchester before moving down south and living in various parts of London. He has now come to be the head of the community at the Westway.
Two rabbits recently caught on a hunting expedition by Pat and his dogs. Although the Westway community may not live a lifestyle or in an environment typical of the traditional traveller, hints of the old ways of life continue to be found among the settled travelling community.
Jerry (13) sits in front of the site’s makeshift school building. Living on a traveller’s site in Catford, I ask him about his feelings towards living on a site: “It’s good. It’s freedom! Basically it’s all we really know is living on site. I used to live in a house and I was trapped up and couldn’t really do nothing. It’s a lot safer [here]. Here you know everyone.”
”They say when you go onto site you can’t talk to the women, it’s always the menfolk or someone that’s gonna come out and talk to you. Listen, a lot of the women on this site can do more talking than what the men can do.”
An underside view of the complex labyrinth of roads and junctions that interconnect beside the Westway Site.
The family of Winnie Ward (more commonly known in the community as Missy), has lived on the site even since before it became official in 1975. Speaking to her daughter, also named Winnie, we discuss the relationship between the travelling and settled communities. “I was married to a non-traveller but it didn’t work out because we’re too different. I don’t think they understand us. Travellers don’t even understand themselves, so how would you expect somebody else to understand… Anything I say, say mummy says it yeah?”
The younger generation hang out on site during the half term holiday. Despite the differences in age between toddlers, children and teenagers, there is evidently a strong bond formed among them as they spend time with each other - a result of living in such a closely confined community, which is reinforced by their travelling heritage.
Graffiti scrawled across the back doors to the site’s school building.
Every day women on the site can be seen hosing down their caravans and driveways. Residue from the constant flow of traffic around the site builds up quickly and constantly needs to be kept at bay to maintain the sanitation of their homes.
When asking Pat about how he finds life on the site, his first comments are about how it is for the children. ”We’ve got our own community here. Our kids can go out, play around here, up and down, we don’t have to be keeping them locked in. We don’t have to worry about where they’re gonna go: they’re here. Everyone looks out for each other.”
A shrine to the Virgin Mary sits at the far end of the Westway site. “I was born catholic and I’ll die catholic: there’s nothing you can do to change my religion. Same as my heritage: born a traveller, I’ll die a traveller. So I don’t think anyone should force something else down our throat.”
One of the children on the site holds up a toy he found lying around during the half term break.
A common concern among the parents and older residents of the site is where the children will be able to move on to once they’re grown. “The younger ones now, they can’t get sites. When they get married [they have to look] for flats. A lot of them would prefer to be on a site because when you open your door, you’re still a traveller. If you’re in a flat, you open your door, and to what? Nothing.”
Martin has witnessed the prejudice against travellers that try to drink at local pubs like The Pig And Whistle. “It used to be full every weekend. All the travellers used to come from all over the place into that pub. When your man left, Jim, his ex-wife worked there for another year or two afterwards and then her brother he’d just bat us out one by one – he’s an idiot. Now it’s all changed everybody just has their own locals and all just stays in one place.”
Two of Pat’s several dogs which he keeps on site and takes with him on hunting trips.
Taylor Ward pauses as he helps to tidy his family’s driveway.
Pat and the rest of the community believe that the identity of being a traveller comes from more than just moving from one place to the next. ”People from the settled community may want to live like a gypsy or a traveller but you can never be it, you know: you’re born a traveller. Even though I’ve been living on this site for 18 years, I’m still a traveller.”
(2017) According to the 2011 UK census, 24% of the 58,000 people who identified as a gypsy traveller still live in a caravan or temporary structure. Of those who reside in England, many are currently facing a crisis that may seriously damage the future of the travelling tradition. In a 2015 planning policy for travellers sites published by the Department for Communities and Local Government, the planning policy definition of a traveller was changed so that councils now have to consider “whether they previously led a nomadic habit of life, the reasons for ceasing their nomadic habit of life, or whether there is an intention of living a nomadic habit of life in the future…”
'Living on a site you feel a little bit of freedom. In a house I think a lot of travellers would feel claustrophobic – more like to be in prison.' Pat, the head of the site, illustrates this by using his grandchildren 'They’ve been born on this site, they’re going to be brought up on this site, and they’re not gonna have been reared in a house. So when their time comes to leave home… what does the council and the government want them to do? Just move into a house when all their life they’ve been brought up on a site with freedom?'