THE ROMANY ROAD
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
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.
MOVING WITH THE SEASONS
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.
SPEAKING THE SAME LANGUAGE
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).