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The gypsies who lost their homes to make way for the Olympics

The construction of the athletes' village broke up a community that had been on the site legally since 1972.

The athletes' village at the Olympic Park in East London
The athletes' village at the Olympic Park in East London. Photograph: Getty Images

As athletes settle in to the Olympic Village in East London, a “home away from home” for officials and competitors, some may wonder who lived there before them. The complex now is studded with luxury flats for the 17,000 Olympic athletes and the 4,500 Paralympians who will follow them. With karaoke facilities, an on-site gym with more than 50 treadmills and a 5,000-seat dining room, the architecture has a watery theme “accentuating the closeness of the River Lea”.

The site’s previous inhabitants also prized the proximity of the Lea, as well as the meadows where they used to graze horses, the cycle track where the kids played and the hill where the older residents sat watching the horizon. More than 15 families of Gypsies had lived here legally – on land no one else wanted – since 1972, paying rent to the council and for all their utilities.

“Clays Lane weren’t much to look at,” says Esther Smith, 31, a mother of four whose extended family had lived on the site for over three decades. “But it was home. There was a strong sense of community. You had room to think.” Her cousin Lisa Smith, 36, nods. “It wasn’t like living in London. It felt very safe.”

For the Clays Lane families, the journey since London won the Olympic bid on July 6th 2005, has been one long nightmare. “The first thing we knew about it was a big notice stuck on the gate,” says Tracie Giles, a mother from Clays Lane who became a campaigner for the families evicted by the Olympics. “It was a compulsory purchase order from the London Development Agency.”

Alternative sites proposed by Newham Council horrified the residents. “They wanted to put us on Jenkins Lane, a terrible place underneath the A406 by a sewage gully and facing Burger King,” Tracie remembers. “Another one was directly under the flight path for City Airport.” For a while, the families were poised to move to Chobham Farm, next to Westfield Shopping Centre. But after months of consultation, the offer was withdrawn.

“Meanwhile, Clays Lane was getting worse,” Tracie says. “Demolition was going on all around. We were fenced in, choking with dust, surrounded by massive machinery. There was nowhere safe for the kids to play.

Backed by the London Gypsy and Traveller Unit, Tracie and the other families fought the closure of Clays Lane with a legal challenge in the high court and a judicial review. “I really thought we’d win,” Tracie says. “But we didn’t. They said we were moving to Parkway Crescent.” In July 2007, five months after the building work had begun, families were given a month’s notice to move. “We packed up all our belongings,” Tracie says. “The council cut off the street lighting and stopped the postman coming. But still we didn’t move.” Their leaving date was postponed 11 times. “The new site wasn’t ready. We were prisoners on a building site.”

The families finally moved in mid-October 2007. “I remember waking up the last morning,” Tracie says. I just felt this huge sense of loss, looking at all the empty pitches.” The new site was next to the athlete’s entrance to the Olympic complex, surrounded by busy roads. Each family had a pitch with space to put a caravan and a ‘shed’ – a prefabricated block with a bathroom and kitchen.

“The water comes in the windows when it rains, the rain was coming in the front door,” Esther Smith says. “The boiler went, I had a water leak that went on for months. Plug sockets were held on by an elastic band. Baths aren’t sealed properly. There’s no privacy. The tube runs underneath – it’s so loud!”

Tracie’s sister Lisa shakes her head. “We’ve been four and a half years now living on Europe’s biggest building site. I’m 36, and I feel 100. I’m out of breath. Two minutes after you’ve cleaned it’s dusty again. Kids round here have developed asthma. The stress has been unbelievable. Just for two weeks of sport.

“I was happy about London getting the Olympics, but we haven’t been treated right as a community. They wouldn’t have done it to any other people. No-one’s even offered us a free ticket.”

Once the Olympics and Paralympics end, Parkway Crescent will be prime land for legacy development. “We’ve never been given a permanent licence, they’ve just kept renewing a temporary one for four and a half years,” Tracie says. “Will we get moved somewhere even worse?”

Newham Council declined to comment on the families’ future at the site or their experiences since being forced to move from Clays Lane. Elsewhere, speaking about the Athletes' Village, British Olympic medallist Colin Jackson called it “the heart and soul of everything… a place that you feel comfortable, where you feel there’s a sense of belonging.” Five years after London won the bid for the Olympic Games, the Clays Lane Gypsies can still only dream of such a place.