Out of site

A new age traveller site in Sheffield has provided a secure home for dozens of people since 2005, but their way of life is set come to an end now the council has won a court case against them

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“As soon as I come under that bridge, it feels like I’m escaping,” says Smurf as he leads the way out from Sheffield city centre under a railway arch and uphill to the place he calls home.

Jess says she lives “a metre in and a metre out” of her back door: connecting with nature

That home, to Smurf and some 30 others, is a new age traveller site in Parkwood Springs, where a collection of trailers, horseboxes, caravans and trucks run along roads, little more than dirt tracks now, that cut down and across a large area of hillside.

Smurf, who is in his late forties and sells Big Issue North in the city centre, had been living in a tent before moving onto the site a couple of years ago – reluctantly at first. He’d had bad experiences on traveller sites before but illness had made living in a tent impossible and he’s “never looked back”.

“I like the people here,” says Smurf. “I like the vehicles and the open space. I love the fact that we live here as a community. People help each other out. We all know each other. I mean, how many people can say they know the people next door to them, let alone the people who live down on another road?”

But now this community is under threat. In March, a judge found in favour of Sheffield City Council over its claim of possession of the land, paving the way for proposed redevelopment of the area. The travellers have been told they have to move.

“The council are talking about turning this area into pay for play for people who can afford it,” explains Wayne, who has lived on the site for six years, speaking as he makes scrambled eggs on the stove in the back of his large trailer. Smurf and other residents stand outside his half-open door enjoying the late morning sunshine.

The new plan, put forward by the council and its preferred development partner Extreme Destinations, is for an outdoor leisure attraction, including ski slopes and mountain bike trails, retail units and visitor accommodation, within a country park setting that will transform this rundown area of the city.

Wayne has not long returned from working that morning at a special needs school, running a music group for vulnerable adults. “I’m a community musician,” the 51 year old says. “It’s not like we are separate to the community up here. I am involved in the community – I just happened to live here.”

Indeed, the traveller site is an integral part of the community, Wayne says. The businesses that operate in the nearby industrial estate have been supportive of the travellers, even signing petitions in support of their cause. “We keep an eye on things,” Wayne explains. “There are a lot of problems in the area, like fly tipping, vandalism and prostitution, and we try and help keep those things under control.”

The travellers were first given notice to leave the site in 2017. What followed was, Wayne says, a “long, drawn-out legal process”, during which the travellers argued that they had been given “implied licence to occupy the site” by the council. This culminated in the county court judgement in March sealing their fate.

“One of the problems is many of [the travellers] can’t move because they don’t have the vehicles to do it in,” says Wayne.

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Shaz, another site resident, leans into the trailer. “A lot of the caravans would fall apart if they try to move them,” she says. “And these are people’s homes. There are people who are going to end up with no roof over their heads.”

Wayne agrees. “Basically what the council have done is evict 30 people out of their homes, like they’ve gone onto a council estate and evicted everyone there.”

“That’s what they did back in the 1970s,” says Shaz. There used to be a housing estate on the land, which was demolished by the council when the area was last redeveloped. “The land has been left to rot since then. I’ve met loads of people who have said how glad they are that there is a community back here again.”

Shaz, 46, moved to the camp in 2010 and lives in a caravan with her two dogs, Luna and Sol. She is learning to drive and is doing up a truck that she hopes to live in when the travellers have to move. She is one of many residents who are reluctant to move into bricks and mortar accommodation. “I have lived in a house in the past. I found it very depressing, very isolating. I was drinking a lot, bad coping mechanisms.

“People think we’re the strange ones living here, but we look over there and we see all that violence, hatred and fear of anyone who is different. We offer safety to one another here.”

“One of the reasons that people are here is that they can’t cope with life out there,” says Wayne. “In a world that values things over people, we are the opposite. People are more valuable than things here.”

“People’s anxiety has gone through the roof,” Shaz says about the impending eviction. She suffers with depression and is worried about losing her job at Sheffield train station, and “having to go on the dole and be a drain on society”.

She refers to their home as the “travellers’ retirement site, because a lot of us have come here to settle down. There are people here with medical issues or are on waiting lists for treatment, people here with kids in school, or elderly and vulnerable parents nearby.”

One of those people with local ties is Jess. She and her seven-year-old son Deri live a little further down the hill, in a large truck with patio doors that look out onto the trees at the edge of the site. Jess, a self-employed dressmaker, is proud of her neat and tidy home. There’s a raised cabin bed at the back, a desk and soft furnishings, pictures on the walls, a rack of brightly coloured shoes and a rail full of dresses that she has made.

Forty-year-old Jess has lived permanently on the site since last year but stayed here many times previously. Like many residents, Jess had an introduction to travelling at festivals and free parties as a teenager. And also like others, she has had stints of living in fixed accommodation, especially when her son was younger.

Deri has autism, Jess reveals. “He has pathological demand avoidance (PDA) and he’s a school refuser. But he’s going to lots of home education groups and he’s doing really well.”

She realised that she too had autism when her son presented with the condition. Now she has to stay in Sheffield for assessments for both herself and Deri to be completed, and so she can continue to receive medical treatment for another condition. Moving far away is not an option, and neither is moving into a house or flat.

“PDA means normal everyday demands of life make things more difficult to cope with,” says Jess. “And living in a house presents lots of those unnecessary demands. This kind of lifestyle suits us both. It’s one that I can control.”

Jess talks lovingly about how she lives “a metre in and a metre out” of her back door, connecting with nature: the foxes, badgers and birds that visit the site. “A tawny owl, buzzards. Someone said they saw a goshawk recently. And it’s all going to be bulldozed,” she laments.

“We want to stay together – just go somewhere where we have our own boundaries like here. We can’t just stay on the streets as it would be dangerous for Deri. Here he knows not to play in the woods alone, not to go out of the top gate or out of the bottom gate without me. He can wander around here and talk to people. We know everyone here. It’s safe.”

Deri interrupts her to show some pictures of the mousetraps that he’s been busy drawing – his current obsession, Jess explains. What does he love about the camp? “Bird feeders and walkie talkies!” he says before running off to play on nearby swings.

“If I live in a house, I just become unhappy,” says Jess. “I need to be somewhere free and so does Deri.”

Jess wasn’t a defendant in the court case, so her reason for staying at the site wasn’t heard – a situation that is both unfair and perverse, she says. “You’ve got to prove that you’re a traveller by the fact that you’ve travelled, but if you weren’t resident on the site on the particular day that the case was brought, because you were travelling, then you are not involved in the case.”

Walking around the site, it’s easy to see why the travellers love it so much. There are great views across the city and although one can hear the traffic on the roads, the sirens and motorcycles, there is, as Smurf points out, space and light up among the newly budding trees and the birdsong.

It’s far from pristine: a small mountain of discarded tyres sits near one fence; some of the caravans have fallen into total disrepair, their rotting shells long abandoned; and there’s a pile of beer cans in one area of the site, waiting to be recycled. But there’s a sense of ordered chaos too: composting toilets, a ramshackle library in an old caravan where people can borrow and lend books. Many of the trucks and trailers have solar panels propped against them, to charge mobile phones and radios, power kettles and even provide hot water for those who have the right gear.

Dave – Bolton Dave as he’s known – is a friendly bloke with his hometown’s accent and a cheeky grin, who describes himself as a “musician in waiting”. As he chops wood outside his caravan, he explains how he was one of those who started the camp back in 2005.

“I was sleeping on a couch here before there was any of this,” he says, though he hasn’t always lived on the site during the intervening years. “I was going to get married last year. But then it went wrong and I came to what I call home. This is the only home I’ve got. What else am I to do?”

He talks openly about the mental health problems that he and many on the camp have. “I was watching One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest this morning,” he laughs. “I think that’s kind of appropriate. I would have checked myself into a psychiatric ward years ago if I’d not been here.” And then he wells up as he explains how he actually did consider admitting himself on hearing
the news of the camp’s impeding eviction on his birthday.

What’s he going to do when the bailiffs move in? He smiles. “That’s a state secret,” he says.

Tim is on his way up the road to see a friend but stops and chats. Another gently-spoken man – everyone seems chilled and happy here – Tim has been on the site for 11 years. He offers an invitation to visit his own truck on the bottom road.

Inside, sitting on a battered red leather seat and basking in sunshine streaming in through a large window in the side of his truck, Tim finds the full court report from the recent proceedings. In it, the judge describes the 22 defendants, Tim included, as “delightful people” and says he “discerned a real sense of community” among them.

“I’ve lived like this for 25, 30 years now,” says Tim, 58. “We have seen laws change throughout that time, with tighter and tighter controls and less and less traveller sites.” It’s a point backed up in the court report, which notes a shortage of new age traveller sites in England and “certainly none in Sheffield”.

“The council offered other sites but, when we went to see them, they were already sold, developed or unsuitable, like next to a main road,” Tim says. The court report also notes tensions between different types of travelling communities that make Gyspy sites unsuitable for them.

“Not all travelling communities are the same,” says Tim – something he thinks the council doesn’t fully understand.

Tim started travelling when he split up from his wife. He echoes what many others say that day. “Living here keeps me sane. Put me in a house and I’d go mad.”

As he looks around his cluttered truck, he’s content with his surroundings. He worked as a draughtsman for 20-odd years, he says. “I was drawing up plans for studio flats in London that weren’t much bigger than this truck. They were selling for 250 grand and that was in 1985. They’d be worth millions by now.”

Other residents include Daisy and her boyfriend Jim, who live in a corner of the site in a caravan and who are, like Shaz, doing up a truck to both live in and drive. Daisy, 25, had been living in squats but as the places to stay became harder to find, she moved onto the camp with 27-year-old Jim.

“It completely changed my way of life, this place,” says Daisy. “The freedom is what we like. We can be who we want to be.”

The plan is to hit the road in the renovated truck as soon as they have to, hopefully towing their caravan behind them. They have their sights set on Bulgaria.

Daisy says: “For the young ones like us it’s easier because we are ready to go and live the traveller life, to explore and do it all. But there are a lot of people here who have already done all of that and they want to settle down here. They’ve got kids in school or have jobs that they have held down for years. And this is going to bugger it all up if they have to pack up and leave.”

Back up at the top of the site, Roy, 51, stands against his caravan, drinking from a mug that has a print on it stating: “Mermaids have more fun”. The afternoon is drawing on. Outside his horsebox, Smurf is chopping wood to make a fire. Roy has been on the site for nearly 15 years now but travelled for many years before settling here.

“The council [used to] let us be here,” he says. “I think they forgot about us for a while, to be honest. I’m trying to see things in a positive light. It’s like a team-building exercise. We’ll just have to deal with it.”

He doesn’t expect that they will be evicted immediately, but he says, at some point “they will run out of patience and we will have to go”.

Sheffield City Council response

In response to questions, Sheffield City Council offered this statement from Janet Sharpe, director of housing services.

“We have always said that we wanted this case to be heard fairly and impartially for the benefit of the community who live at Parkwood and for the wider population of Sheffield.

“Our work with the community at Parkwood continues to be fair, sympathetic and balanced with the needs of the wider Sheffield population and we have been continuing to support the people who live there since the court’s decision.

“The judge clearly upheld our view that the land belongs to Sheffield and we simply cannot give public land away. The council has a duty to manage its assets and this is not an appropriate site for the travelling community.

“Any steps to move the community on, and respond to their individual needs, will be communicated fully and in accordance with our duty to them all as Sheffield citizens.”

Bolton Dave

5 March 1968 – 30 March 2019

On Saturday 16 March, Bolton Dave, the musician in waiting, was found unconscious at the site. He died two weeks later.

Shaz says: “Dave was a very capable bloke, there was very little he couldn’t fix, and he would tell you 10 stories while doing it. He was the heart and shining light of this site and is terribly missed.”

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