Market town besieged by travellers: School warns pupils not to walk alone


Schoolchildren in a sedate market town were today urged not to walk alone for their own safety and businesses closed fearing they will be looted or attacked by travellers attending a Gypsy evangelical Christian festival.

Residents in Oakham, said the area is in a ‘state of panic’ following anti-social behaviour, assaults, high-speed drag-racing reminiscent of the the Mad Max movies and claims gangs of men were ‘driving around the villages looking for things they can take’. 

Several of Rutland’s supermarkets closed early yesterday amid claims of looting and toilets being left unusable for customers, while witnesses said maskless youths terrorised staff and diners in the local McDonald’s and went behind the counter to grab meals and hurl food and drink. 

The trouble started on Saturday when around 1,500 travellers descended on the Rutland Showground for the Pentecostal Gypsy-led Christian event, called the festival of Light and Life – but organisers admit ‘a lot of non-Christians have attended’. 

The event, run for the growing number of Pentecostal Christian travellers in the UK, ends on Thursday. Its organisers deny there have been major problems and have invited critics in for a ‘cup of tea and a sandwich’ – but many people in Oakham want it ‘shut down’ and believe police are too frightened to do it because it involves travellers and religion. 

Local Tory MP Alicia Kearns today said ‘there were more unacceptable disturbances and further intimidation of our community’ as locals complained to police about assaults and nightly drag-racing on the ring road with no intervention from officers. 

And today Catmose Primary School in the town wrote to parents about ‘social order incidents’ that ‘will inevitably worry families about the safety of children coming to and from school’. Head of School Kelly Jackson said: ‘We would advise that your child does not walk on their own, they should be in small groups and have mobile phones with them. If they encounter difficulties, they should contact the police for support’.

Multiple locals have claimed online that the team running the Rutland Showground [RS] were duped and allegedly told it would only involve a small number of people – but instead hundreds of caravans turned up and a giant circus tent was pitched. 

MailOnline has asked RS if they had expected an event of this size and to explain why the Life and Light festival had been sanctioned at the Rutland Showground when the forthcoming Festival of Food and Farming, beloved by locals, has been cancelled due to the pandemic.

Covid rules allow groups of up to 30 to worship together outside, but footage from the festival shows hundreds together singing hymns together and dancing to a band at services at a time when weddings are limited to 30 people and couples face a £10,000 fine if they flout social-​distancing measures and face masks. 

It came weeks after large groups of travellers descended on Cumbria for the Appleby Horse Fair – despite it being postponed over Covid – and the case of 12 caravans who took over a park in the affluent area of Kew Gardens, west London, but fled hours before an eviction notice could be served. 

The trouble started on Saturday when around 1,500 travellers descended on the Rutland Showground for the Pentecostal Gypsy-led Christian event, called the festival of Light and Life – but organisers admit ‘a lot of non-Christians have attended’ the event that has its own giant tent (left of picture)

The scene inside the big tent at a traveller Pentecostal Christian festival locals say flouts covid regulations and should be shut down

The scene inside the big tent at a traveller Pentecostal Christian festival locals say flouts covid regulations and should be shut down

Festival goers pray and sing hymns with a live band during the event that has caused consternation locally

Festival goers pray and sing hymns with a live band during the event that has caused consternation locally

Festival goers pray and sing hymns with a live band during the event that has caused consternation locally

The travelling community has moved towards evangelical Christianity and away from Catholicism in recent years

The travelling community has moved towards evangelical Christianity and away from Catholicism in recent years

The event, run for the growing number of Pentecostal Christian travellers in the UK, ends on Thursday. Its organisers deny there has been major problems and have invited critics in for a ‘cup of tea and a sandwich’.

Locals say they have been too scared to go out and businesses have refused to open because of claims of looting and intimidation

Locals say they have been too scared to go out and businesses have refused to open because of claims of looting and intimidation 

Local Tory MP Alicia Kearns today said 'there were more unacceptable disturbances and further intimidation of our community' as locals complained to police about assaults and nightly drag-racing on the ring road with no intervention from officers

Local Tory MP Alicia Kearns today said ‘there were more unacceptable disturbances and further intimidation of our community’ as locals complained to police about assaults and nightly drag-racing on the ring road with no intervention from officers 

Business owners in the town are too scared to open and reported CCTV feeds of their premises showed people trying doors after hours, while one man claimed gangs of men were ‘driving around the villages looking for things they can take’.   

Catmose Primary School has written to parents urging them not to let children walk alone while the travellers are in town

Catmose Primary School has written to parents urging them not to let children walk alone while the travellers are in town

Locals say the sedate market town in the UK’s smallest county was turned into a post-apocalyptic ‘scene out of Mad Max’ after some attendees of the Gypsy Christian festival ran amok. 

Locals have also criticised what they perceived to be a lack of a serious police presence in the town as the festival continued before a number of arrests were made last night.  

Pubs and restaurants were forced to close early, McDonalds workers were reduced to tears by food fights and anti-social behaviour while 4X4s were seen drag racing on the town bypass meaning some people in Oakham have been too scared to leave their homes.  

But a traveller at the centre of the event, who asked to remain anonymous, has denied there was chaos in Rutland over the weekend, insisting it was ‘nice and peaceful on the field’ and hinted that any criticism may be stoked by anti-traveller sentiment.

He told the BBC: ‘We are inviting the locals to come down and have a look for themselves, listen to what it’s all about and come have a cup of tea and a sandwich any time. Obviously there has been the odd disturbance but it is a minority and they are nothing to do with the organisation. With us being a gypsy and traveller organisation it always comes with the stigma of us causing trouble, but we are just preaching the gospel.’ 

How millions of travellers (including Tyson Fury) have abandoned Catholicism for the evangelical Christianity at the heart of Oakham religious festival  

Travellers have abandoned their traditional Catholic faith in huge numbers for evangelical Christianity.

The Pentecostal movement, which is now Gypsy-led in the UK, has seen an explosion in numbers in the past 20 to 30 years.

Among the newer followers is celebrated heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury (pictured last week), who became a born-again Christian after his  uncle Ernest became a Pentecostal preacher in Congleton, Cheshire.

The move towards evangelical Christianity by travellers has become the subject of university studies, as academics try to work out why it has happened.

Some estimate that a third of Europe’s 12million travellers have now changed to this form of Christianity.

In her recent e-book, journalist Katharine Quarmby said on the subject: ‘In a reversal of roles, it is the Romani people who see themselves as the saved, the preachers of truth, who want to heal a world they see as broken by lack of faith, in a Europe where our politicians are judged to have lost much of their moral authority.’ 

Yvonne Macnamara, chief executive of the Traveller Movement, told the Guardian: ‘It’s a comfort blanket and within these communities it’s also a way of coping with a lifestyle that is constantly under attack and almost completely eroded.

‘When you’ve been such an excluded community, then religion can provide a form of kinship, direction and strength. That’s one reason so many in the community have such a profound faith’.

However, locals say any criticism is well-founded, and many people questioned why the Life and Light festival had been sanctioned at the Rutland Showground when the forthcoming Festival of Food and Farming has been cancelled due to Covid restrictions. 

Elijah Ward, from the church’s Darlington branch which organised the event, said that if there was trouble it was not caused by his church’s followers.

Mr Ward said: ‘We are a Christian community and we are followers of Jesus. A lot of non-Christians have attended. Jesus says we should go into the community and preach the good news of the lord and that is what we are doing. We are trying to preach the gospel to them… to help them change their ways.’  

Life and Light Missions started as Vie et Lumiere in France about 50 years ago, and took off in the UK after French Gypsies brought the Gospel over about 30 years ago.

In 2017, attendees at a similar Light and Life event in Thame, Oxfordshire, were accused of inflicting ‘chaos’ and crime, including theft and abusive behaviour towards local residents. 

Oakham residents say the Rutland Showground either didn’t do their due diligence or were duped.

Zoe Nealson, the town mayor, said the community was ‘on edge’. She added: ‘Residents have endured massive levels of disruption and anti-social and threatening behaviour.

‘It’s extremely worrying. This is an organised festival which went through the proper channels but it appears to have got out of hand very quickly.

‘Lots of people have reported police disinterest but I have also seen pictures showing lots of police vehicles on the bypass.’

One woman writing on social media told how she had been forced in to the curb as she drove her children home after swerving to avoid ‘two big trucks racing each other along the bypass’.

Another resident said his 17-year-old daughter had endured her worst ever shift at the local McDonalds, where customers thought to be attending the festival ignored mask and social distancing requirements and began throwing food around the restaurant.

Among hundreds of angry comments on Rutland Showground’s Facebook page was one from Dean Collins who warned that ‘shops are being looted and closing down early to avoid trouble’.

Meanwhile Ian Stewart wrote on Saturday night: ‘Just walked the dog down the bypass, it’s like a scene out of Mad Max, the bypass is more like a drag strip tonight. A brand new Range Rover almost pulling a wheelie, Mustangs letting rip, trucks turning round in middle of the highway, hundreds and hundreds of caravans.’

Martin Underwood added: ‘It’s 21.40 and there are clearly drag races on the roads, alcohol and more and more vehicles arriving. No police, no responsibility by the showground and this will cost a fortune to clear up.’ 

Elsewhere, other people took to social media to question whether the mass outdoor gather should have been allowed amid a national spike in Covid-19 infections and a four-week delay to remaining lockdown measures lifting.

One asked the Rutland Showground: ‘How have you allowed a huge event to take place which threatens a community which has obeyed the rules and kept covid levels low? This beggars belief. Time to shut the event down.’

Another tweeted: ‘It’s all kicking off in #oakham, the local showground has taken a booking of 30 for a religious gathering and 3000 ‘travellers’ have descended. Drag racing, looting and anti social behaviour.’

A third fumed: ‘Disgusted to see a mass gathering on the Rutland Showground this morning- 700 caravans (and rising) on site for a ‘religious event’… I can’t see my son compete in his sports day because of covid rules’.

Residents in Oakham said the town is in a ‘state of panic’ following reports of physical and verbal abuse of staff and locals after travellers came to attend a religious event at the Rutland Showground (pictured)

Residents in Oakham said the town is in a ‘state of panic’ following reports of drag racing after travellers came to attend a mass event in Rutland Showground (pictured) in Leicestershire

Organisers said that it was ‘peaceful’ at the site and suggested criticism could be because the locals are anti-traveller 

Residents claim some attendees attempted to steal from nearby shops or break into premises, while there have allegedly been reports of fighting. Pictured: Caravans at the showground

Residents claim some attendees have been attempting to steal from nearby shops or break into premises, while there have allegedly been reports of fighting in the area, according to The Sun.

One resident told the publication: ‘We’re scared to leave our houses. They have blocked one of the bypasses with their trucks and some local staff in shops have been physically and verbally abused. 

Police confirmed that they made a number of arrests on Sunday evening following reports of ‘anti-social behaviour’ at the showground. 

Oakham residents have claimed that anti-social behaviour linked to the religious festival has caused deep distress, while one resident described cars racing along the Rutland bypass as like ‘something out of Mad Max’. 

Rutland Showground issued an apology on its Facebook page after a ‘minority of people’ disrupted the religious event and caused ‘significant problems’.  

Their statement read: ‘We are currently hosting a religious festival on our site which we are aware is causing disturbance to our neighbours. We wholeheartedly apologise for this. 

‘We agreed to the booking after assessing the organisers risk assessment and with the belief that this was an event primarily about Christian worship. 

‘However there is a minority of people who are disrupting the event and causing significant problems in around the showground. 

‘Our priority is to help maintain public order and minimise disruption and allow the event to refocus on its Christian worship as quickly and quietly as possible. We have been in contact with the police who have been onsite today.’ 

Supt Adam Slonecki, from Leicestershire Police’s Specialist Support team, said the force had received reports of anti-social behaviour relating to the ‘private event which is legally authorised’ on private land.

‘With permission from the organiser we will be regularly going into the event and continue to engage with the event co-ordinator to ensure they are Covid safe,’ he said.

‘We would like to reassure residents that we have extra foot patrols, a dedicated roads policing car and a specialist drone team operating in the area. In addition, local officers will be engaging with local businesses and licenced premises.’

In a statement, Rutland Showground said the booking for the event was accepted after organisers produced a risk assessment which covered the management of Covid risks and other issues.

The statement added: ‘It is being managed by 90 pastors supported by a team of 40 stewards. In addition, we have a team of security staff on site.

‘The event which has around 1,500 adults and children in their own motor homes/caravans has also attracted a minority who have been causing a disproportionate amount of antisocial activity.

‘We are working closely with the organisers and liaising with the authorities to minimise and contain this antisocial activity.

‘We regret the disruption that has been caused and apologise to all those affected.’

Leicestershire Police said officers would be regularly going into the event to speak with the event co-ordinator and ensure the private gathering remained Covid safe. 

While Rutland Agricultural Society CEO Kevin Tighe said the outdoor event was self-contained and using no onsite facilities across the 45-acre fields and was being managed by 90 pastors and supported by 40 stewards.

Mr Tighe said a risk assessment had been done prior to the event, which covered issues including Covid risks, and said this was being implemented ‘to the best of his knowledge’.

He said the event attracted 1,500 attendees in caravans and motor homes, but insisted it was a ‘minority’ of others who caused a ‘disproportionate amount of antisocial activity’. 

Responding to concerns on Twitter, Alicia Kearns, MP for Rutland and Melton, said: ‘I’m aware of concerns around reckless driving and incidents in Oakham today related to a large event at Rutland Showground. 

‘I am liaising with the Council and the Police regarding compliance to COVID regulations and monitoring concerns.’ 

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