The Travellers Who Live Under One of London's Busiest Roads
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The Travellers Who Live Under One of London's Busiest Roads

Photographer Alex McBride spent some time with the Traveller community that lives under the Westway, a stone's throw from Westfield.
July 27, 2017, 12:00pm

Drive to Westfield – that buffed marble monolith dropped onto Shepherd's Bush almost a decade ago – and you'll spot a micro-hamlet of caravans and bungalows nestled below the tangle of flyovers that link the Westway to two more dual carriageways. A home to Travellers since the 19th century, it wasn't until 1976 that Stable Way was officially designated a Travellers' site by the council, in a bid to keep Travellers in the area – contradictorily – off the highways.

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There's a mixed opinion onsite about what it's like to live under a motorway. Some have grown so accustomed to the noise that they claim to not be able to sleep without it. Others, like Martin O'Donnell, complain that "you get tossers driving up there and chucking anything [at us] – bottles, on numerous occasions handfuls of screws…"

Taylor pauses while helping to clean the family's driveway

There are also worries about pollution. While numerous tests have been carried out to demonstrate that there's no more air pollution onsite than around the houses on the North Circular, O'Donnell knows that's no real victory. "If the caravans were washed down today, you come tomorrow with a hose and you see there's soot and pollution [on them] coming from the exhausts and that," he says. "A couple of hours [after cleaning] you can get a cloth and you'll see the black [has come back] – it's that bad."

Though the living conditions may not suit the standards of many of London's residents, there's a resounding attitude onsite that keeps its residents from moving on. While cradling one of his newborn grandchildren, head of the family Pat O'Donnell says, "Living on a site, you feel a little bit of freedom. In a house, I think a lot of Travellers would feel claustrophobic – more like being in prison."

Below is a photo series looking at how life runs on the Westway site.

"When I first arrived, I thought, 'Jesus Christ what is this?' But I wouldn't leave it now. Everything is good in here. It's just cosy, comfy, nice,' says Kathleen Maughan as she fixes a cup of tea. "The traffic don't bother me. I sleep like a baby in the night. Honestly! If I go to Oxford now I can't really sleep the whole night through because it's so quiet!"

One of the kids discusses the issue of prejudice against the travelling community at school: "If they ever did, they'd be looking at the fist. They'd be racist. It's in the blood. We know how to fight – that's why nobody really say anything. Obviously if I'm by myself they'll try and say something…"

Pat O'Donnell has lived on Stable Way since 1998. Arriving in England from Ireland in 1985, he first spent some time in Manchester before moving south and living in various parts of London. As the head of the O'Donnells, the family that occupies most of the Westway site, he has come to be recognised as the head of the community, giving him the final say about much of the day-to-day running of the site.

Two rabbits recently caught on a hunting expedition by Pat and his dogs. Although the Westway community may not live a lifestyle or in an environment typical of the traditional Traveller, hints of the old ways of life can be found among the settled community.

Jerry, 13, sits in front of the site's makeshift school building while visiting mates who live onsite. He lives on a Traveller's site in Catford, so I ask him about his feelings towards living there. "It's good. It's freedom!" he says. "Basically, it's all we really know, is living onsite. I used to live in a house, and I was trapped up and couldn't really do nothing. It's a lot safer [here]. Here you know everyone."

"They say when you go onto site you can't talk to the women – it's always the menfolk or someone that's gonna come out and talk to you," says Pat O'Donnell. "Listen, a lot of the women on this site can do more talking than what the men can do."

An underside view of the complex labyrinth of roads and junctions that interconnect beside the Westway site.

Although the residents at Stable Way live onsite permanently, rather than living in typical English brick housing, they still opt to live in a mixture of modern and static caravans.

The family of Winnie Ward (more commonly known in the community as Missy) has lived on the site since before it became official in 1975. Her daughter, also named Winnie, discusses the relationship between the Travelling and settled communities: "I was married to a non-Traveller, but it didn't work out because we're too different. I don't think they understand us. Travellers don't even understand themselves, so how would you expect somebody else to understand…"

Graffiti scrawled across the back doors to the site's school building.

Every day, women on the site can be seen hosing down their caravans and driveways. Pollution from the constant flow of traffic around the site builds up quickly and constantly needs to be kept at bay to maintain the sanitation of their homes.

When I ask Pat how he finds life on the site, his first comments concern the children. "We've got our own community here," he says. "Our kids can go out, play around here, up and down, we don't have to be keeping them locked in. We don't have to worry about where they're gonna go: they're here. Everyone looks out for each other."

A shrine to the Virgin Mary sits at the far end of the Westway site. Martin O'Donnell holds his religion in just as high a regard as his heritage. "I was born Catholic and I'll die Catholic – there's nothing you can do to change my religion," he says. "Same as my heritage: born a traveller, I'll die a traveller. So I don't think anyone should force something else down our throat."

Martin has witnessed the prejudice against Travellers who try to drink at local pubs, like The Pig And Whistle. "It used to be full every weekend. All the Travellers used to come from all over the place into that pub. When your man left, his ex-wife worked there for another year or two afterwards, and then her brother, he'd just bat us out one by one," he says. "Now, it's all changed; everybody just has their own locals and all just stays in one place."

Two of Pat's several dogs, who he keeps onsite and takes with him on hunting trips.

Pat and the rest of the community believe that the identity of being a Traveller comes from more than just moving from one place to the next. "People from the settled community may want to live like a Gypsy or a Traveller, but you can never be it, you know. You're born a Traveller," he says. "Even though I've been living on this site for 18 years, I'm still a Traveller."

@alex.mcbride