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Written by Irene Soper


Sitting one wet afternoon inside the Bow- top van of a Romany family high on the downs above Shaftesbury, I watched the man preparing the straw for making baskets.  A damp coat was drying beside the hot stove making the air moist which emphasized the smell of the straw.  The Romany woman was sitting at the front of the van beside the open canvas flap.  Her dark hair traditionally parted in the centre and plaited, framed her tanned face.  Her sharp brown eyes twinkled frequently as she smiled when relating a story.  From outside came the contented clucking on the bantams which were roosting on the shafts of the van.  Beyond them further along the drove tethered at intervals were the traveller’s horses for this family had no motor vehicles they relied entirely on horsepower.

Absorbing this scene I compared the life of this Romany lady who originally came from the New Forest, a member of a very large Cooper family, to the other less fortunate New Forest travellers who were herded into compounds when they lost their freedom to camp on the Forest.  Deciding to continue her nomadic way of  life after marrying by travelling away from the Forest, together with her family, she now has an idyllic life style carrying on the Romany traditions, hawking, wreath making at Christmas, attending the horse fairs and above all, being able to camp along the way.

At one time the gypsies of the New Forest were free to roam and camp where they liked.  It is thought that these wild, dark, mysterious people first came to the Forest as far back as the fourteenth century.   However, in recent years officialdom has organized them into compounds, but these soon proved to be unsuitable.  One well known site was Shave Green situated in woodland near Minstead.  A typical dwelling there was constructed of old tarpaulin thrown over a wooden framework.  The inside was hung with pieces of curtain and in the centre stood an iron stove with a pipe going out through the top of the tent.  Another example was a rough shack with perhaps a bed and chair.  The fire here would have been smouldering one on the earthern floor, for this the fuel was usually heather roots or turf.


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