Travellers on the Cotswold Edge

Ever since my unfortunate encounter in Athens last year I’ve been on the lookout for another opportunity to find out more about travelling people and to see for myself whether there is anything left of their vanishing culture that will counteract the usual negative stereotypes of anti-social behaviour and campsites turned into sprawling rubbish tips. A little background reading reveals that there are places in Eastern Europe where families of Roma (Gypsy) people do indeed live on rubbish dumps, pushed into ever more desperate circumstances and banished to live on toxic land-fill by an ever more complex set of rules. The labyrinthine regulations that make it so difficult for traditionally nomadic people to cross national borders encourage individuals to “lose” any documentation which might prove a place of birth, thereby depriving them of citizenship when they are forced to settle in any one particular country. It does sound complicated doesn’t it? Well, if I haven’t explained it properly we can just blame Brussels. Everyone else does.

Before I attempt to follow the path that has funded hundreds of sub-committees and spawned a thousand doctorates let’s just stick with what I can relate from my own personal experiences and start with yesterday’s delightful encounter on the Worcestershire/Gloucestershire border. When I first drove past the little huddle of round topped caravans, grazing horses and neatly piled timber I thought I must have drifted off into some sort of fantasy and upbraided myself for lack of concentration. No, the rear-view mirror confirmed that what I had seen was not imaginary so I turned back at the next roundabout and stopped to say hallo.

Not having any cash on me for the purchase of a lucky horseshoe turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I was able to arrange to return a couple of days later when the gift of tea, biscuits and, of course, a treat for the three-legged dog named Scrappy secured me a chat and some lovely photographs. As “authentic” as they may look, this family were not born to the travelling life but took it up about twenty years ago, learning traditional caravan building skills and subsistence living as they progressed. It is ironic that most of the true bloodline Gypsies that they have met over the years are now settled as “house people” although the daughter married a real traveller and is now on the road somewhere over Tewkesbury way.

Darren, his son Crusie and wife Sandy do not travel particularly far, restricting themselves to the surrounding counties where they can still find suitable stopping places, in fact, when the children were young they stayed around Cirencester for a few years to be near enough to a school. They live by scrap-metal dealing, bartering and furniture making and, of course, selling decorated handicrafts to silly women all the way up from London. When they find someone who will let them, they try to stay put for a few weeks but I couldn’t help noticing how much colder it was where they were camped at the top of Fish Hill than it was down in the Vale of Evesham. The proximity to the main road didn’t look particularly commodious either but I suppose they need to be easily seen in order to carry out their trade.

It turns out that Scrappy did not lose his back leg to the A44, he was simply dropped of by a stranger who drove up one day and said he didn’t want him. Because of the snow and the predicted freeze I asked about the horses staying out all night. Preparation begins with extra feed in the Autumn, their coats are allowed to grow and several layers of blankets are added as it gets colder. Plentiful hay is provided and they certainly looked happy enough to me. This was an unexpected but fascinating encounter and I was very grateful for the opportunity to have a few questions answered. There may even be a specially commissioned, hedgerow-sourced, handmade garden bench waiting for me in a couple of weeks when I pass that way again.

Now, back to the traditions. All those erudite papers that attempt to explain the origins of the Roma Gypsies use linguistic studies and DNA samples to map a thousand year diaspora all the way from Rajasthan in Central India where they probably began their journey as itinerant entertainers. This explains much of the traditional folklore associated with their appearances in Europe since the fourteenth century: dark complexions, painted wagons and strong musical traditions to name but a few. However, this was never a straightforward subject and the name “gypsy” has long been applied to Irish Travellers, some of whom found their way to America in the nineteenth century. There was even a group of so called “White Gypsies” in Central Europe who turned out to be descended from a group of Scottish Travellers. Other travellers: Barge people, Circus people and latterly even tree-dwelling environmental protesters have adopted or inherited many of the outward characteristics.

This vein of study becomes more and more historical as people and lifestyles mingle in the modern world but I’m not terribly keen on the categorising of groups of people anyway. It calls to mind too many tedious inter-agency meetings where “the problem” went endlessly and fruitlessly around the table while no-one was actually prepared to make any sort of compromise. And even more seriously, it sits under the shadow of the Brown Triangle, the badge worn by upwards of half a million Gypsies who went to their deaths during the Great Devouring (their name for the Holocaust of World War II).

Although it is important to remember such negative things in a world where support for the extreme right wing appears to be on the increase, I am hardly qualified to speak on the subject. Anyway the number of published works now probably outnumbers the individuals concerned and I already have enough letters after my name. Instead let me celebrate, in my own completely unscientific way, the exuberant artistic and cultural heritage which traces an unbroken line all the way back from England’s wintry hillsides to the baking plains of Central India. AND THESE PICTURES ARE ALL FROM MY OWN TRAVELS.

Categories: Britain, West of England

2 Comments

  • Chris says:

    Paulina could almost be the sister of the woman you photographed in Helsinki

  • nicola ainsworth says:

    Pictures 67-69

    Yes, the resemblance is remarkable but, like I said, I’m not chasing after any complex academic studies. It was only when I was sorting out all the pictures from my travels that I realised how much our friend from Tooting (who sells the Big Issue magazine for the homeless and often takes care of Molly when I pop into the shops) looked like the musician I’d seen in Finland.

    Paulina hasn’t told me much about her background but she had a very difficult struggle to get here from Eastern Europe with her children a couple of years back. She works hard at her pitch in all weathers and has made lots of customer friends who buy from her regularly , including Molly who adores her.

Leave a Reply