You call it a disgrace, we call it home: New Age travellers and gypsies should be respected, not hounded, says a surprising champion of their way of life. Harry Pugh reports

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Farmers spread dung on fields to stink them off. Local authorities dump rubble in lay-bys to prevent them settling. The police keep convoys moving from one area to the next. Most of the nation threw up its hands in horror at the Castlemorton gathering in Herefordshire two summers ago.

But the travelling people, traditional as well as new, have at least one doughty champion. The writer Jeremy Sandford campaigns for their rights and encourages them to park their buses, bangers and battered caravans in the grounds of his rural home in north Herefordshire.

Mr Sandford is best known for his television play Cathy Come Home, broadcast in 1966, the watershed drama that shocked the country with its exposure of the traumas of homelessness. He feels just as strongly about the plight and persecution of travellers today.

'In a way they are helping to deal with the problem of homelessness,' he argues. 'They are doing what the Tory government urges people to do - solving their own problems by providing homes for themselves. All right, these may be converted buses, horse boxes or bender tents, but it gets them off the waiting lists for houses. Yet the authorities try to criminalise them by talking about bringing in these new trespass laws. It strikes me as one of the dottier examples of government behaviour.'

Last week, several travellers who were at the week-long rave at Castlemorton went on trial at Wolverhampton Crown Court. The case is expected to last several months.

Cathy Come Home was inspired by the eviction of a neighbour, a young mother whom Mr Sandford knew in north Battersea in the Sixties. It followed her tawdry life in Newington Lodge, an infamous sorting hostel for homeless women and children that was run on Dickensian workhouse lines. Husbands were not allowed to visit their wives and children, and families were put out into the street in the morning and not permitted to return until evening.

Mr Sandford still becomes angry when he thinks about it. 'That was society's way of dealing with homeless people just quarter of a century ago,' he says. 'The drama had immediate effects, forcing the authorities to relax the rule on husbands' visits and giving birth to the housing charity Shelter.'

In Cathy's day 1,000 people were sleeping rough on city streets; now the figure is 6,000. In 1966, there were 3,000 homeless families in England. Now more than a million people are homeless. For many young people with nowhere to live, life on the road, Mr Sandford says, is the embodiment of a dream.

'Most are highly educated and have a sophisticated view of society,' he says. 'Often they are the children of Labour voters, but if they voted at all, it would be for the Green Party. They have learnt to look quizzically at the values of a work life that wouldn't be there for them anyway. The mortgage, the bricks-and-mortar house, pensions and commuting have no place in their philosophy.'

His own introduction to the travelling life came through his grandmother, who brought her horse- drawn gypsy caravan from Ireland earlier this century. It is still parked in his garden, along with an assortment of New Age vehicles. He became so intrigued with the gypsy lifestyle that he wrote a book on the subject and became a member of the National Gypsy Council.

Mr Sandford, an Old Etonian in his mid-fifties, and his wife, Phillipa, spend much of the year busking in Spain. She is an expert on folk dancing, and teaches circle dancing, now popular at New Age raves. He plays the piano accordion. The pair join travellers at New Age festivals held in various parts of Britain every summer. They spend evenings sitting around campfires singing, swapping stories, discussing green politics, eating vegetarian snacks and chatting.

New Age travellers and gypsies do not happily co-exist, however. 'The old-style gypsies look down on the new travellers,' Mr Sandford says.

'They believe the newcomers don't know how to live properly on the road. A typical example of the difference is the attitude to sex. With traditional gypsies, there would be fearful retribution for those who might vary their sexual partners. But the New Age traveller has the sexually permissive mores of the rest of the population.

'There is also a different attitude towards authority. The old-style gypsy, if told to move on, tends to go quietly. But New Age travellers know about their rights and kick up a fuss. Nobody is going to push them around.'

Sadly, even when travellers encounter people who welcome them, they cannot be sure they and their mobile homes will be permitted to stay. Mr Sandford's most recent campaign was in support of a farmer, Robert Grayburn, who allowed a group of 33 adults and 14 children to camp in a field at Yoke Farm, near Leominster in Herefordshire.

Mr Grayburn saw the travellers as a diversification from his farming activities and their rent as a useful source of income. But his neighbours thought otherwise: 90 of them signed a petition urging Leominster District Council to evict the visitors. A public inquiry was held recently at which Mr Sandford gave evidence. It resulted in what he calls 'a tremendous victory'. The eviction order was quashed and the travellers given permission to stay for two years until the situation is reviewed.

There have been complaints about Mr Sandford playing host to travellers at his own home, a former 14-bedroom hotel set in three acres. But he has managed to stay on the right side of the law by inviting the visitors inside at night so they do not sleep in their caravans.

One snooper who reported him came unstuck. Peeping over a surrounding hedge, the man saw 13 women gathered around a fire on which a cauldron was bubbling. It made the front page of a local newspaper: 'Witches coven at home of author'. But Mr Sandford pointed out that the women, led by the vicar's wife, were from the local church and were having an open- air discussion on caring for the environment.

Why is there such hostility towards travellers? Mr Sandford says settled people have always felt uneasy with wanderers, ever since Cain slew Abel and took to the road. 'People who have worked hard all their lives are suspicious of the apparently carefree life of the traveller. To the man saddled with family, mortgage and work responsibilities, it becomes a philosophical question: 'Is this what life should really be like? Am I missing out?' '

Traditional camping spots, commons, mountains and beaches, have been slowly restricted, so travellers are now forced to resort to public places such as village greens. Even lay-bys are often barricaded to keep out caravans. This angers Mr Sandford: 'We have always been able to turn into these places for a variety of reasons - a picnic, an amorous tryst, having a pee, changing a wheel - now they are denied to us. It's quite illegal.'

He says the situation is becoming impossible, as the Government mandates local authorities to provide sites for travellers, while the authorities put up a variety of objections. Laws to move travellers on are being strengthened, with threats that vehicles will be seized if their owners refuse to move. Legislation is also being framed that will make the parking of caravans on roadsides a criminal offence.

'For God's sake, give them sites,' Mr Sandford says. 'Most of the new travellers are young people of cannon-fodder age. In another time in history they would be fighting for their country. We should be responsive to their needs and accommodate them, not persecute them.'

(Photograph omitted)

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