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Faith & Reason: Cain and Abel meet for Home Counties rematch

The row between residents of a sedate hamlet and a group of born- again Pentecostal gypsies has its roots in Genesis
THIS HAS been an anxious week for the residents of the Bedfordshire hamlet of Hatch - a mere 50 souls in all, living blameless lives just off the A1 north-west of Biggleswade. Something strange and troubling is happening to their quiet community which is possessed of neither shop nor post office, church nor pub.

They have visitors.

Or, rather, not visitors exactly but travellers wanting to stay: a caravan of gypsies who've become born-again Christians currently outnumbering the fixed population by two to one . . . and rising. For the locals it is a nightmare; as if weekend houseguests had suddenly taken a shine to their hosts' property and decided unilaterally to move in on a permanent footing.

For the gypsies, though, tired of moving from pillar to post, from lay- by to lay-by, this is a dream fulfilled. For them the Woodside Caravan Park is just a place to rest their heads awhile, a Promised Land with mains electricity. Individuals and families would come and go according to the travelling lifestyle but the impression would remain of a permanent community of Pentecostal believers spreading the Word.

Unsurprisingly, this Good News looks pretty bad to the locals. Hence the anxiety. A public enquiry has just wound up and residents hunker down for a nail biting few weeks until the DoE rules on whether the travellers may stay or must go. Certainly the locals would be glad to see the back of them. "It's the sheer weight of numbers," is a common lament. "We're being swamped by people who don't belong here" is another.

On the gypsies' side there is a weariness born out of having seen it all before. "If we decided to stop in the middle of the Sahara desert," said Terry Davies, an open-faced Romany man-mountain, "the council would tell us to move on because we'd be blocking somebody's way".

Of course, the gypsies have a point. They have to stay somewhere and don't they deserve a place in the sun like everyone else? The residents have a case, too. Nimbyism apart (we're all guilty of that and, like the people of Hatch, we all deny it) should they really expect to see their settled ways disrupted by alien incomers, let alone have their property prices reduced by the close proximity of roofing lorries, ladders, outside lavatories and the makeshift untidiness of the peripatetic life?

On the surface this is just another planning dispute. Permission was given, says the prosecution, on the understanding that touring caravans' only would be allowed access, neat camper vans and the like owned by tourists and over-nighters. Our caravans are touring caravans, says the defence, and besides we have nowhere else to go except beneath some dismal flyover on the world's hard shoulder. "I know the sight of so many caravans is worrying," says Terry with touching naivety, "but if people give us a chance we'll show them we're not animals."

But for that to happen people would have to do the unthinkable. To get to know each other and go beyond mere appearance. If the men in suits could see past the seriously rearranged (and partially re-sited) nose of the gypsies' pastor, for instance, they would discover a man who had said goodbye to all his pre-Christian ways and who was content to praise the Lord in a singing voice of enchanting power.

Some of the travellers admit to a past of drinking, stealing, lying, and fighting. But, they say, all that is behind them now.

And yet even such a drastic change of heart will not cause happy coexistence to come to pass. Not because the gypsies spell trouble. Nor because the residents are a mean and nasty bunch of rednecks either, intent on hounding out strangers from their turf. They are reasonable men and women who, just like the gypsies, are ready and open with their hospitality. No, long term harmony between the two camps will not be theirs for one reason.

It is written. True, you will scan the fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis in vain for mention of Mid Bedfordshire District Council bylaws but in outline this dispute was prefigured long ago in the story of Cain and Abel.

One man who would have seen all this coming was Bruce Chatwin. Had he lived he would, coincidentally, have been celebrating his 59th birthday this week and may have just been heading for Hatch to write an anniversary piece on a subject close to his heart. For he, more than most, knew what the current dispute is really all about.

He knew from experience that this goes far deeper than any planning law can fathom. The conflict between Cain, "a tiller of the ground", and Abel, "a keeper of sheep", is as old as history itself. The farmer's suspicion of the nomad, the settlers' apprehension (you could be forgiven for calling it envy) of the wanderer have existed since recorded time. And the collision of these two can only end in tears.

And so it is in Hatch where there is fear without threat, antagonism without malevolence, a kind of cold war with only good, warm- hearted, mutually incompatible folk on either side.

In the context of magisterial Biblical precedent it is easy to poke fun at the prosaic figures in the council planning department. But thank God for rules and regulations or what happened in Eden could happen again - in Hatch on the east of Bedford.