The shock of finding that I belong to Middle England

The romance of travelling folk is, almost always, more savoury and attractive than the reality
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The Independent Online

There are, according to Stephen Fry, two circles of unofficial courtiers who are on hand to give advice to the Prince of Wales at times of difficulty. The larger group, to which Fry belongs, is an occasional think-tank that provides the heir to the throne with tips and the names of contacts as he goes about his royal business. Then there is a sort of crisis cabinet on hand for trickier, more delicate matters.

There are, according to Stephen Fry, two circles of unofficial courtiers who are on hand to give advice to the Prince of Wales at times of difficulty. The larger group, to which Fry belongs, is an occasional think-tank that provides the heir to the throne with tips and the names of contacts as he goes about his royal business. Then there is a sort of crisis cabinet on hand for trickier, more delicate matters.

It will probably have been this inner circle which has had to help the Prince to establish where he stands on the great gypsy crisis, which has divided the model town near Dorchester that he helped to create through the Duchy of Cornwall in the early 1990s. Poundbury, it will be remembered, was a pioneering initiative aimed at uniting the old and the new, traditional rural values with the demands of modern life. Above all, the new town aimed to be socially inclusive, and to provide homes for local people who had been getting priced out of the housing market.

The quandary now faced by the Prince and his advisers is that a group of 40 people - impeccably rural, undeniably in need of homes - has turned up without invitation in the model town. Romany gypsies, they were on their way to a fair when a two-week-old baby became ill and had to be taken to Dorchester Hospital. So the gypsies set up home in Poundbury.

The liturgy of worries and complaints that have followed will be familiar to anyone who lives in the country. At first, there were reports of barking dogs, rabbit hutches, unsightly washing-lines. Then rumours began to circulate concerning late-night parties, disrespectful children, theft, rubbish and a distressingly alfresco approach to matters of personal hygiene. "This is not what we bought into," a resident who retired to Poundbury has said to the press. "The Duchy should secure the site."

The problem here - a community that would like to be considered socially inclusive but not too much so - has acquired added piquancy given the Prince's involvement, but is also likely to become increasingly familiar over the coming months. For while the Poundbury Romanies have adopted the traditional approach of gypsies, bagging a bit of public ground and staying there until they are evicted, travellers elsewhere have become considerably more sophisticated in their approach.

In a direct and unofficial way, they have joined the property revolution. In places like Cottenham, near Cambridge and, more recently, Woolpit, a village in Suffolk not far from where I live, groups of travellers have found a farmer willing to sell a field near to a village. Using the Human Rights Act to establish a temporary right of residence, they have moved in and have quickly transformed the land into a building-site with fencing, concrete pads, lighting and even drainage. Those tempted to trespass are warned that they will be prosecuted.

These are not small incursions. According to a website called middleenglandinrevolt.co.uk, around 800 travellers have taken up residence in Cottenham's Smithy Fen since the diggers first arrived there in February last year. Over £300,000 has been spent buying plots on a 20-acre site. While the planning office of the local council is wrestling with the problem, the encampment has increasingly taken on an air of permanence.

Middle England in revolt on one side, moneyed travellers on the other: it is difficult to know whom the liberal-minded onlooker should support. After all, by buying up land and developing it at breakneck speed in order to make some quick cash, the travellers are embodying the values promoted by countless TV property programmes. They are also, in their way, drawing attention to the fact that remarkably little has been done to find places to stay for the estimated 300,000 travellers in the country since laws forcing councils to provide sites were repealed in 1994.

Here I should declare an interest. Land-grabs and housing developments make me nervous. The truth is that if, tomorrow morning, I woke up to find that the field of which I am a proud owner had become an encampment, I would do anything, within the law or possibly outside it, to reclaim it. If a local farmer was persuaded to sell one of his fields, and it then became an instant village of mobile homes, I would be similarly alarmed.

The romance of travelling folk is, almost always, more savoury and attractive than the reality. I may enjoy the sight of piebald ponies, dogs, smutty-faced children and painted caravans on a quiet country road, but only if they are heading away from where I live. Sometimes their stay adds a bit of colour to local life, but more often it brings problems and discord. The idea that they might find common cause with greedy farmers and accelerate the transformation of parts of the countryside into new towns is profoundly depressing.

It is no fun to discover that one is plumply situated in a land called Middle England, where the attitude to outsiders is apprehensive and ownership of property is paramount, but that, it appears, is where I live.

terblacker@aol.com

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