For more than 500 years, Gyp­sies have roamed Bri­tain, yet they are still of­ten cast as out­siders. Cu­ri­ous about his an­ces­tors, Damian Le Bas set off to ex­plore the ‘stop­ping places’ where they once camped to find out about Gypsy life past and present

Countryfile Magazine - - Saffron -

There’s birds in the bushes, ears and eyes in the sky.” This cryptic say­ing is one of my great-grand­mother’s – my Nan’s – favourites. She uses it when I need re­mind­ing that wher­ever you are in the world, there might be some­body watch­ing or lis­ten­ing in. Half a mil­len­nium of be­ing moved on, har­ried and sus­pected of ev­ery crime has bred sus­pi­cious­ness into the Ro­many mind­set; a res­ig­na­tion to the fact that how­ever you live your life, you’ll al­ways be seen as a vagabond, as ‘one of them’.

There’s an­other side to this say­ing, though: it paints a pic­ture of the world in which Nan grew up. A vista of hedgerows alive with bird­song, of open skies over fer­tile farm­land and an­cient wind­ing roads. Like the Ro­many world it­self, the say­ing is a bit of a rid­dle. It seems to have two faces, one light and the other dark.

Nan was born in a wagon in 1927, in an ‘atchin tan’, a stop­ping place, that her an­ces­tors had prob­a­bly used for cen­turies. When I vis­ited it a few years ago, hop­ing to stay there for the night so I could tell her what had be­come of it, I

found it in­ac­ces­si­ble. A deep ditch had been dug around it. The way in was blocked by a height re­stric­tor bar­rier, perhaps put up with the spe­cific in­ten­tion of keep­ing Trav­ellers out. A sin­gle High­land cow had been put there to graze and was brows­ing among the bram­bles where the wag­ons used to stand.


The loss of the stop­ping places is just one as­pect of the long tale of en­clo­sure acts and the ero­sion of ac­cess to com­mon land, a story that ran par­al­lel to the evo­lu­tion of mod­ern Bri­tain. Tend­ing to live a lit­tle be­hind the times, Ro­many peo­ple re­jected such changes for longer, re­sist­ing a world of sta­sis and rents un­til quite re­cently.

Nan was one of 14 chil­dren, though only 10 of them sur­vived into adult­hood. Her fam­ily trav­elled near the Hamp­shire town of Alton, keep­ing to a well-worn cir­cuit of field­work and ‘stop­ping’ in re­li­able places. As well as wag­ons, they slept in ‘ben­der’ tents – made from hazel saplings driven into the ground and cov­ered with can­vas – that had been the tra­di­tional Gypsy ac­com­mo­da­tion since their ar­rival in Bri­tain at the end of the 15th cen­tury.

Their move­ment was de­fined by the sea­sons and of­ten highly reg­i­mented. They would go ‘hop train­ing’ in the spring, coax­ing the vines on to trel­lises in readi­ness for the Septem­ber har­vest, and ‘potato-pick­ing-up’ once the new pota­toes were in sea­son. The sum­mer meant soft-fruit pick­ing, and in win­ter there was hedge ly­ing, ditch clear­ing and field ston­ing to be done, as well as the long root-vegetable har­vest. For all this work they re­lied on the farm­ers with whom they had a re­la­tion­ship of mu­tual trust and re­spect. They named their stop­ping places af­ter the farm­ers who owned them, places like Mes­sen­ger’s Meadow and But­ler’s Down.

But it was Septem­ber, not Christ­mas or Easter, that was the fo­cus of their cal­en­dar. By ‘hop­ping time’, the hard­ships of the last win­ter were a dis­tant mem­ory; the days were warm, the nights were cool and the hop har­vest meant money in their pock­ets and nights spent around the camp­fire, drink­ing, singing and step-danc­ing. It was this side of the Ro­many life that was ide­alised by painters and po­ets, and oc­ca­sion­ally en­vied by non-Gyp­sies, who hadn’t ex­pe­ri­enced the pur­ga­tory of get­ting moved on by po­lice in the win­ter, with chil­dren to feed, lit­tle money or work and a creak­ing wagon in dire need of re­pair.

The more I heard Nan’s sto­ries about the old days, the less dif­fer­ent she and her fam­ily

“The Ro­mani lan­guage, although In­dian in ori­gin, was spo­ken with a ru­ralHamp­shire ac­cent”

seemed from any­one else who had grown up in in­ter­war ru­ral Bri­tain. Their pre­oc­cu­pa­tions were the same: the sav­ing of their money, the safety of their fam­ily, the survival of their an­i­mals. Their jour­neys were mostly de­fined by prac­ti­cal and eco­nomic fac­tors, rarely by the oft-ro­man­ti­cised ‘Gypsy wan­der­lust’. They were part of the coun­try­side’s fab­ric, though peo­ple rarely de­scribed them that way.


What made them stand out were the quirks of their eth­nic­ity. There was the Ro­mani lan­guage, which, although In­dian in ori­gin, was spo­ken with a deep ru­ral-Hamp­shire ac­cent. When I was lit­tle, it sounded like Nan and her broth­ers were speak­ing a form of English that I couldn’t un­der­stand, and it wasn’t un­til my teens that I learned the far-flung ori­gins of their words.

They had a love of par­tic­u­lar foods: rab­bit, pheas­ant and, in my great-grand­dad’s case, hedge­hog. But most of all, they loved steam­ing suet pud­dings filled with ba­con or chunks of meat: the per­fect nour­ish­ment for the back­break­ing out­door work they did.

They paid close at­ten­tion to clean­li­ness and avoid­ing what they called mokkadi ways: mix­ing ar­ti­cles used for wash­ing the body with any­thing used to pre­pare food. So I was

con­fused to dis­cover that many peo­ple re­garded the Gyp­sies as dirty.

By the time I was born, many of the old ways of the Gyp­sies had been lost or sub­sti­tuted for skills that would prove more lu­cra­tive in the mod­ern-day econ­omy: driv­ing, tar­ma­ck­ing, fix­ing cars. Nan’s fa­ther had been an ex­pert in weav­ing reeds and could even weave a bas­ket ca­pa­ble of hold­ing wa­ter. He gath­ered plants to make medic­i­nal poul­tices for horses as well as peo­ple and was skilled at liv­ing off the land, set­ting del­i­cate snares for rab­bits and fix­ing his own equip­ment when far from a town. He would use leather boot­laces to mend his har­ness and use the har­ness as a strop to sharpen his knives and ra­zors.

His de­scen­dents shared much of his at­ti­tude: they be­lieved in self-em­ploy­ment, self-reliance and self-de­fence. Be­ing a small mi­nor­ity who weren’t uni­ver­sally liked, they be­lieved you should be able to stand your ground in an ar­gu­ment or a fight. But like their non-Gypsy com­pa­tri­ots, they had lost touch with the hand­i­crafts that had once de­fined ru­ral life. And as the wag­ons and tents be­gan to dis­ap­pear, the mis­taken be­lief grew that ‘true Gyp­sies’ had dis­ap­peared along with them. When I set out in my van on a year-long jour­ney to see what had be­come of the stop­ping places of Bri­tain’s eth­nic no­mads, I wasn’t sure what to ex­pect. I knew that many had been blocked off, with banks raised or stakes driven into the ground to keep out any­one, or any­thing, on wheels. But the fate of the stop­ping places was more com­pli­cated than that. Many had been seized for de­vel­op­ment and were now home to su­per­mar­kets, re­tail parks or hous­ing es­tates. On what is now the car park of a large Mor­risons in Re­druth, gen­er­a­tions of Ro­many fam­i­lies once ‘pulled on’ with their wag­ons and, later, mod­ern mo­tor-drawn car­a­vans.

Mirac­u­lously, a few atchin tans are al­most ex­actly as they al­ways were. Bramdean Com­mon in Hamp­shire re­mains open-sided, sweep­ing and beau­ti­ful, and al­most in­vites vis­i­tors – Ro­many or not – to pull on for just a while. I walked from the com­mon to a tiny greenand-white church in the woods nearby, built for the lo­cal ‘com­mon­ers, char­coal-burn­ers and Gypsy itin­er­ants’. Silent and empty, it stood for a time when ru­ral peo­ple had much in com­mon; more than some of us nowa­days like to think.

MAIN Dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions work, rest and play at a Gypsy en­camp­ment in Es­sex, c1899 FROM LEFT TO RIGHT Car­a­vans make their way through Sur­rey in 1914; a Gypsy ma­tri­arch; hard at work pick­ing hops

TOP Young, flex­i­ble hazel saplings and heavy can­vas were used to build ‘ben­der’ tents for shelter, 1890 ABOVE A young Damian Le Bas with Nan, his great-grand­mother

FAR LEFT Ap­ple pick­ing in East Anglia in the 1970s LEFT A Ro­many fam­ily gath­ers for meal time, c1930 BE­LOW Songs, cel­e­bra­tions and cer­e­mony: Gypsy fam­i­lies and friends gather for a wed­ding in Mid­dle­sex in 1934

LEFT Trav­ellers cook break­fast ahead of a busy day’s trad­ing at the an­nual Ap­pleby Horse Fair BE­LOW The Gypsy church on Bramdean Com­mon in Hamp­shire BE­LOW LEFT Damian Le Bas’s ex­plo­ration of his Gypsy her­itage takes him to a stop­ping place in the Lake Dis­trict

Damian Le Bas is a film-maker, jour­nal­ist and au­thor of The Stop­ping Places: A Jour­ney Through Gypsy Bri­tain (Chatto & Win­dus).

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