Police fight a 'pitched battle' with travellers

POLICE in Hampshire were last night locked in a stand-off with thousands of New Age travellers, hippies and ravers after a day of 'pitched battles' to stop them holding a 'Torpedo Town Festival' at Romsey, near Southampton.

All weekend police leave in the county was cancelled and reinforcements were drafted in from Sussex and Surrey. By last night the number of travellers' vehicles had reached 1,000.

More than 12 police officers were injured and treated for cuts and bruises after clashes with the travellers. Three, including a woman constable, were admitted to hospital on Friday night. According to a police spokesman they were hit by bottles and stones.

Six police vehicles were damaged, and a pounds 5,000 police motorcycle was run over and crushed by a traveller's lorry. Two police roadblocks were rammed by convoys.

According to police, the ravers had swept through the county breaking villagers' fences, stealing from shops, and driving their buses and lorries on the wrong side of the road. But to begin with, the travellers' approach was leisurely. 'We only want to party,' their war cry this summer, echoed across the fields as vans, three-ton trucks and 40-seater buses, packed full, started arriving on Friday for the 'Torpedo Town' festival - a reference to the county's arms industry.

Two hundred police officers, in cars, vans and on motorcycles had encircled Romsey to prevent the travellers from stopping.

The travellers, however, were not easily dissuaded.

Early yesterday, after a night of being pushed around narrow lanes by the police, they advanced on a field on the outskirts of Romsey where a group of about 1,000 travellers had set up camp.

The police refused to let them pass and a pitched battle flared. Bottles and sticks, torn from residents' gardens, were hurled at police in riot gear. Three officers were wounded and one was taken to hospital with 'severe cuts and bruises'. By midday 30 arrests had been made.

Travellers claimed one of their party had been beaten by the police. A police spokesman denied the allegation.

By lunchtime yesterday the travellers had consolidated their advance and established two camps, one outside the town and inside on Cupenham Lane, each containing about 400 vehicles.

As the day wore on, the travellers' determination to congregate on the Cupenham Lane site increased.

'Things have been very nasty,' said Inspector Barry Jakeman, of Winchester.

'Officers have been physically and verbally abused. This afternoon a police motorbike was driven over and crushed. They want to hold an illegal festival and it is our job to stop them, but we have only 200 men and there are perhaps 10,000 of them. If they want to drive at us, obviously we have no choice but to get out of the way.'

He said the strategy had been to herd the travellers into small groups and prevent them joining the festival.

'With every hour that goes by without a full-blown festival, we're winning.'