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Punk Kath's story


On a warm, windy day last summer (2022) I wandered, a bit lost, into the labyrinth streets of an estate in Limehouse, London to meet Punk Kath. "It's by a church" she'd said... eventually I found the church, phoned Kath and she came out to meet me. "They don't really let me have visitors in there" she said, gesturing to the modern block of temporary housing she was staying in, "but we can sit in the churchyard."


It seemed very apt somehow these last few days, transcribing our conversation, to hear Kath's voice intermingled with the sirens, traffic and chaos of the city she'd made her home, or at least her base, as we'd sat for a couple of hours while she took me on a journey through her life on the road and beyond.

Tragically, Kath passed away a few months later in December 2022.

I hope these glimpses into the life of this woman, called "Queen of the underground" and "Queen of the road" during the enormous collective outpouring of grief following her death, will bring back memories and maybe some smiles for "those who know", and some insights into what it means to be a New Traveller, and into the world of someone who dedicated their life to anarchy and activism, for "those who don't".



So, can you tell me how you first came to be on the road?

I first moved into a squat in Winchester when I was 17 after going to a gig in London. I was living on the Isle of White, well it’s not a very friendly place so I went to a squat and said ‘Do you have a spare room?’ They said ‘Yeah’, I never looked back after that.


After 6 months I moved to London because they made it difficult for us in Winchester, this is 1982. In 1984 I went to Stonehenge, things weren’t great in the squatting scene at the time and I just thought ‘F*** this, I’m going back to London and grabbing as much stuff as I can and I’m coming back to Stonehenge!’ I only had a little plastic bit of tarp but I moved on and went through Nostel Priory, getting trashed, and the rest…

Can you tell us what happened at Nostel Priory?

The day after the festival ended they brought all the police from the miners’ strike, they’d been trashing the miners, and they sent them to go and trash the convoy basically. My bit of tarp and bender got ripped apart and they arrested loads of people, just for stupid things; I got carted away for a bag of dried chives! I was one of 6 women that got locked up and there was something like 110 men. I think, for the police, it was the beginning of “go and have a go”, you know?


Were people wary of the police before that?

Well, the festival we were at before that in Cumbria, they were in a hut on a hill filming us. We were like: ‘We know they’re up there-so let’s go and egg them!’ So someone bought a load of eggs and they just saw all these people running up the hill at them, and they felt trapped in this little hut! So they legged it!

What was site like in those days?

Well it was a good community, a family, especially when it came to sites in winter. So I stayed around, it was hard work! I got a lorry tarp and had a proper bender which felt good; it was like a flat, a home, I built it! But it got raided at Hay Bluff mushroom festival and they knew they were lorry tarps so they took em away. I got another tarp but most of the time I didn’t get the bender up cos we got moved on so quickly. That was Hertfordshire 84.

So, did you squat other people?

Yeah, we’d all end up in one person’s coach. Basically I needed a vehicle so I came to London and met up with other Travellers here and that’s when I got my FG.

We went from Hertfordshire to Molesworth peace camp. I got there just before Christmas. It was Rainbow Village camp, at a proposed army base. Then Michael Heseltine arrived at half three in the morning with all these squaddies and police! There was snow on the ground, I think it was February.

How did everyone react?

Everyone had to move! They brought us fuel, it was a lot easier for us Travellers because we’d been getting moved on everywhere, but we had to help these people who had come there to the peace camp. A lot of people ended up on the road travelling who had not envisaged that’s what they were doing, cos they were activists.

We became Rainbow Village on the road and we were moved a lot, we were very much watched cos we weren’t just seen as Travellers and convoy, we were seen as activists too, they were kind of like "Oh God these two have met now, double trouble!”

What was the day-to-day like?

Well when it was a camp at Molesworth there was a big kitchen and we’d get lots of people bring us food, we had so many mince pies we couldn’t eat them! Afterwards, we were all over the place, we shared things but we didn’t have a kitchen space in the same sense.

Did you go to Stonehenge 85?

The Beanfield! The police blocked us on the road to Stonehenge and were trashing our vehicles, so we broke into this field. There were around 100 vehicles. They had us trapped there for two hours, we were watching what was happening and then the police came in. My boyfriend at the time drove cos I was a learner driver. So everyone was just driving and driving cos the minute they’d stop they’d get their windscreen smashed and get dragged through it and arrested! All you could do was just drive and try not to hit one another!


I said to my boyfriend: ‘We’re gonna have to give ourselves up cos there’s no way out of this.’ So we got to a point where there were about 5 policemen running towards us. We were lucky cos they were uniformed police, not like the others that were just completely crazy! These others were like bluebottles on a window they couldn’t get out of; they were throwing themselves at the side of our vehicle with their truncheons and bashing it! They didn’t seem to be aware even of their own safety, chasing after moving vehicles even though they knew we couldn’t go far!

We said: ‘Don’t hit us, we’re giving ourselves up!’ I had a crash helmet on and they sort of shoved my boyfriend on the floor and handcuffed him. Then they lined us all up to be taken away and transported to police stations.

After the Beanfield, we were at Savernake Forest. Our vehicles had been trashed and taken away, we got them back reasonably easily but they were in a mess. Some of the things the tow company and police did to people’s vehicles were so petty! They’d taken all the sticky things out people’s cupboards and tipped it into their clothes, and somebody saw them driving our vehicles at each other!   

Do you think people were traumatised by the whole thing?


I took it as a bizarre experience but you get over these things: some people didn’t. But I didn’t get beaten up and a lot of people did. Loads of people left for Europe.


Things were never quite the same after that, there were still free festivals but a lot of people went in a bad direction, drinking loads of Special Brew and fighting.


So, when did you move back into London?


I ‘spose I’d found it a little bit quiet on the site I was in Exeter; at the end of 86 there was a New Year’s Eve party in London so I drove my truck back there. I ended up at Bovey place squat which was really good, I like to say we were the 2000 dirty squatters that 2000DS named their band after!


There were 60 people living there, I was in my truck in the courtyard and I had to open the gate for everyone, but I didn’t know who anybody was!


Then they cut the electric off so quite a few moved out. I had all these Tilly lamps and a burner, I knew how to survive without electricity. We had a substation but the owners said: ‘If you connect to it we’ll come in and trash you.’ The people living there had an agreement with them that when they needed the building back they’d move out; when I heard that I thought: ‘We don’t do that!’  

After we got evicted from there, in 87, I was living at Orpington site for nearly a year. That’s when they brought out the first Public Order Bill which said you could only have so many vehicles. We were more than 100 but they couldn’t do anything about it because they brought it in after we’d moved there.


Anyway, I had too much tat and I’d been trying to sell some of it on a friend’s market stall. I met a bloke who told me he’d buy some of it, and to come to his shop on the Old Kent Road. When I went there I was like: ‘You’re squatting this!’ and he said ‘Yes!’ I said, ‘I really need some storage space’, he said, ‘There’s a couple of shops just across the road there.’ So I squatted in one of them and I had a few others after that.


Was that a good business?


Well, I wasn’t as focussed as some people were, I spent more time digging through rubbish to stock the shop than I did actually opening it!


And, what did you do with your truck?

First of all, I had it parked on a site in Evesham Street. I wasn’t living in it, and when the squat got evicted I made space for it in the back garden. After that, sometimes I’d be living in the same place as my vehicle and sometimes I wasn’t.

One time a boyfriend I had opened a squat shop; I moved in as well but he couldn’t cope and he started demolishing the building around me, and told me if I didn’t get my stuff out, the building was gonna come down on top of me! Somebody said ‘Store your tat here’ [Kath gestures to a row of old buildings across the road from where we were sitting].

Looks like a nice place?

Yeah, I think it was a nice place, I just garaged all my stuff there. My truck was in a real mess then, it had got trashed (a newer one, a Q4). They’d tried to tow it off the street, so I’d gone to the council and said: ‘It’s taxed!’ But I was too late cos they were in the middle of f***ing it over when they got told to stop. They’d grabbed it by the cab roof with the scrap yard grab and it was really mangled! I got to the scrap yard but when I saw what they’d done to it, I was like, ‘WHAAAT?!’ and I just broke down and cried. I had to sit on the bonnet and steer from there to drive it out of there, cos there wasn’t enough room to get on the seat; it had all been squashed together.

So, what did you think of the rave thing when it started?

I knew a lot of people squatting in the buildings where the early parties were being put on. I was kind of into it, but to begin with I wasn’t into dancing - I was unscrewing the door handles! There were a lot of old hippies who would say: ‘Ooh a lot of this music is s**t’, and: ‘I remember in my day.’ I was like, ‘You sound like my nan!’ But to me it kicked a bit more life into the dying festival scene.

Did you still take your truck to festivals?

I got a flatbed and built a bender on the back of it, well it was a bit of a shack really. I wanted to have a space to carry passengers in and sleep when I was at festivals. But not my FG cos that meant a lot to me, but it got stolen off the street, then I got the Q4.

How about the Criminal Justice Act 1994, would you say that affected the scene?

Yeah, they’d only be allowed to have five vehicles parked together, for a while they enforced this so people were like: ‘You can’t bring your car onto site cos it’ll take us over the limit’, but then the police stopped bothering. They’ve brought out more laws now again, but they already have so many laws they could use but don’t. They’re trying to criminalise trespass, they got it through cos they made it directly to do with Travellers. To my knowledge it hasn’t been used yet though.

The police said they don’t want it. But they’ve also got special laws-injunctions- brought by in by some councils to ban Travellers from the whole district. They got thrown out in court, but now they’ve got the PSPOs in Somerset, these affect Travellers cos it bans people staying in their vehicles overnight.

A lot of this is to stop people living by the side of the road, even though they’re taxed and everything. They just don’t want people to get something for nothing, but they’re not really doing much harm. I suppose if there’s a whole street full of people living in vehicles people complain, but they don’t provide anywhere else.

I mean I lived in Hackney Wick in my truck by the side of the road, it wasn’t legal for me to drive it but it had tax so I could live in it; that was hard work. I used to come back sometimes after I’d been to a party and I could tell someone had had a party in my cab. It had no windows so they couldn’t drive it anywhere but they used to leave cans in it.

What do you think about this new generation of people living in vans, are they the same as New Travellers?

You do get these odd posh ones, but I think they’re basically the same people in the same situation just a different generation, there were plenty of people that joined the festival scene that needed to get out of the city who thought, ‘Ooh great! I’ll get a truck, I’ll get a bender, whatever, and travel!’

Is there anything important we haven’t spoken about?

Well, after I broke my hip they wanted to put me in for housing; people said to me ‘You might as well do it.’ (I had turned it down when I had a broken ankle.) So, I live in temporary housing now, but I feel more comfortable when I’m with Travellers. I feel cut off from people now.

Has it been hard?

I still get out to festivals, probably more in some ways cos I don’t have to think about the bailiffs coming while I’m away. But sometimes it’s like, ‘If only I could just go and ask my neighbour’, but - it’s different.

So, what do you think the future is for the whole thing?

Well they can do what they like but there’ll always be people that don’t fit in, there’ll always be something out there, I think there always has been. The population everywhere is so big, they’re not going to be able to iron out all the square pegs that don’t fit into the round holes.

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