No one quite knows why, but tribes of people left the Indus Valley in the Indian sub-continent in the 9th century and written records suggest that they made their way across Europe first arriving in the UK in the early sixteenth century. It was initially assumed that these dark Travellers were from Egypt and today’s word ‘Gypsy’ is a shortened version of ‘Egyptian’.
Most Travellers stayed together in large family groups, parents, grandparents, children, uncles and cousins would all work and travel together. The older ones would look after the babies and toddlers while the rest of adults and older children were out working. Life was lived outside and in the evenings the whole family would gather together around the fire to discuss the day’s events and to entertain each other with songs, music and storytelling.
The painted wooden caravan or 'vardo' that has come to symbolise the Gypsy life only came into use in the middle of the nineteenth century, until then Gypsy Travellers were tent dwelling people who travelled with light horse drawn carts and traps. The traditional Gypsy 'bender tent' was made from hazel rods pushed into the ground and covered over with tarpaulin or sailcloth. Some of these tents were quite sophisticated structure with a central area in which a fire could be lit above which was a hole to allow smoke to escape.
The wagon provided a cosy living space. Across the back was generally a raised double bed with cupboard beneath which could double up as another bed. A small stove was usually installed on the right hand side as you went in, complete with mantelpiece with a mirrored door to the airing cupboard above. On the right there was perhaps a table and cupboards. The interior and exterior decorations were always very personal and the caravan was a status symbol. The wealthier the owner the more ostentatious it was. Ornate carving, complex painted designs and an abundance of gold leaf would signify a very well to do Gypsy.
Horse fairs are an important part of life for anyone who leads a horse drawn lifestyle. Not only can you buy and sell there but it is often an opportunity to see old friends. The Stow-on-the-Wold Horse Fair has taken place twice a year since 1476. It attracts hundreds of visitors and Gipsies from all over England who come to trade horses and meet old friends.
Numerous stallholders sell everything from decorative cushions to house signs, decorative lamps and paintings. A lot of saddlery gear is also for sale. Horses too are traded! There are some modern caravans but a large quantity are traditional Romany caravans. Palmists ply their trade. Several campfires keep the gypsies warm. Over some a tasty stew or water for tea is brewed. It all makes for a colourful and splendid scene of a way of life little changed over the centuries.
Horses at their ‘best bib and tucker’ (groomed to perfection) are tied to the outside of horseboxes. The ‘trotting of the ponies’ is a sight in itself with owners riding bareback or on small chariots parading their horses at their best. Deals are being done all around with groups of men huddled conspiratorially, haggling over price, and the atmosphere is charged with tension as prices are raised and lowered. This is mostly a closed world, but fascinating for an outsider, so long as you don't get in the way of a deal!
“As a general rule of biology migratory species are less aggressive than sedentary ones. There is one obvious reason why this should be so. The migration itself. Like the pilgrimage it is the hard journey: a ‘leveller’ on which the ‘fit’ survive and stragglers fall by the wayside. The journey thus pre-empts the need for hierarchies and shows of dominance. The ‘dictators’ of the animal kingdom are those who live in an ambience of plenty. The ‘anarchists’ as always are the ‘gentlemen of the road.’” - Bruce Chatwin.
The horse drawn way of life is harder than travelling in a bus or truck. Tat (general stuff) space is very limited and the weight has to be kept down. Many daily chores are outdoors which is hard in winter. Horses move at a slower pace and need grazing places and plentiful water supplies. Horses have to be fit, healthy and regularly shod for road work. This form of transport is environmentally and ecologically sound and there is now a substantial number of New Travellers living this way.
Iain was a horse drawn traveller for a number of years in the 90's, here's his take on it:
Horsedrawn lifestyle...hmm...basically has pros & cons as follows (and many more besides):
FOR: Loads more tolerance from the public as far as places to park are concerned. I've been at the same place on the side of a main road for months with horses and wagons, and had no trouble from locals/lowlife types. People have stopped in their cars while I’m walking down the road and said "Fair play to you mate! Here's £50, have a drink on me!"...Which is nice! Love the horses!
AGAINST: Traffic, traffic, traffic and traffic! Come close to death frequently, the tolerance that people feel for your way of life while they drive past a quaint Gypsy caravan, doesn't extend to when the bastards meet you on the road! Numerous people I've heard of being wiped out by twats in vehicles, people, dogs, horses, lock, stock, the fuckin' lot!.
Here's some of Iain's pictures from that time... Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.
In the 00s some horse drawn New Travellers came up with the idea of putting on their own little gathering based on the free festival ethos of the past. The first one I went to was in 2007, I’m not sure if there had been one the year before but it was certainly in its infancy. It was £1 to get in, there was a small marquee with a low stage, a handful of bands on and a van selling teas, coffees and snacks. I don’t remember if there was a bar at this stage or if everyone just bought their own but I imagine there was.
The gathering was on the early May bank holiday known as Beltane and became the Beltane Gathering and grew in size. I went every year, it went from a 2 day event to a 3 day and more people started hearing about it in the travelling community. There were more stalls, more bands and more toilets! The entry fee went up from the original pound to £5 and starting increasing most years.
They also started putting on a second gathering on the August Bank holiday weekend known as 'It's Not the End of the World'. With the rise of social media the festivals grew even more as more people heard about it. By 2019 the cost of entry was £35, there was two stages, numerous stalls, a kid’s area, workshops, horse and wagon rides and three bars. It has always been my favourite festivals of the year. It is brilliant value for money compared to other similar sized festivals and faithfully retains its old school free festival vibe.
If you want to see and read more there are some photos and reviews of the Beltane Gatherings and It's Not the End of the World gatherings in the festival section of this website.