A visit to a “traveller’s” home at Smithy Fen, Cambridgeshire in 2005

by Stephen Hewitt | Published 26 October 2020

Patrick McCarthy, aged 69, standing in the pot-holed road that leads to his home on Victoria View, Smithy Fen, near Cottenham, Cambridgeshire on 5 December 2005.

A 2005 visit to the home of Patrick McCarthy, 69, and his wife, residents of Smithy Fen, Cambridgeshire who were threatened with eviction from their own land and not allowed to maintain their road.

When I visited them on 5 December 2005, Patrick McCarthy and his wife were two of the residents at Smithy Fen, a so-called “travellers” site in Cambridgeshire (See Map). Married for 45 years, they told me they had 8 children and 23 grandchildren. Sitting in his immaculately-kept home, on his own land, Patrick McCarthy explained that he has six heart bypasses and suffers from angina, yet he is not allowed to maintain the road over which an ambulance might have to come in an emergency. A few weeks ago he had been taken to hospital by ambulance. He had to be held onto the stretcher in the ambulance because of the holes in the road. His wife, who was in the ambulance, added that the heart monitor kept cutting out because of them. A high court injunction prohibited maintenance of the road.

Patrick McCarthy had mentioned the pot-holed road the day before at a Cambridge public meeting about “travellers” and I had cycled out to Smithy Fen to photograph it. But he told me much more than this. Spotting the familiar Cambridgeshire wheeled bins, one green, one black, in his yard, I asked him if the Council collected his rubbish. Yes they do, he told me, and, in common with others on the site, he pays Council Tax.

The home of Patrick McCarthy and his wife at Smithy Fen, Cambridgeshire on 5 December 2005.

He and his wife gave a glimpse of a more conservative and traditional way of life than that of the majority of England, where according to his wife, the girls are virgins until they marry and drink alcohol only when they are married, when they might have a drink or two with their husbands. Despite the presence of a television in their home, both of them objected to the foul language of the film (Gadjo Dilo, directed by Tony Gatlif, France, 1997) shown in Cambridge the day before and said that although they could not tell whether it accurately portrayed Romania, it certainly did not portray travelling life here.

Without attempting to clarify the legal labyrinth I listened as he told me that he was given a “licence” that was then revoked in February 2004, mentioned two public inquiries, spoke of attending a high court case in London, and said that injunctions are posted up around the site every Tuesday.

“We're not allowed to travel and we're not allowed to settle down”, he said. “At the moment we are under the fear of eviction every day and it's not doing my health any good.”

The Smithy Fen site is a 10 minute cycle ride out of Cottenham, away from permanent houses. “This site in Smithy Fen is costing them nothing”, he said, commenting on the proposals of Cambridge City Council to spend £250,000 pounds of taxpayers' money on a site near the “Park and Ride” car park on Cowley Road, and he added that if they closed Smithy Fen there would be a lot more people stopping illegally in Cambridge because they have nowhere else to go.

In 2005, there was a repetitive “action on travellers” slogan in the local campaigning tabloid (Cambridge Evening News) which editor Murray Morse claimed was not campaigning against travellers.

As I was about to leave Patrick McCarthy asked me to add that other locals would be welcome to telephone him to arrange a visit. He then hesitated and asked me whether I thought that he might get abusive telephone calls if his telephone number was published. In the end we agreed that I would pass his number to anyone who contacted me from the article.

(A previous version of this article was first published in 2006 on Indymedia.)