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NEW FOREST GYPSIES (continued)

Page Two

Written by Irene Soper

 

Another site was Millersford Bottom near Fordingbridge.  As the word ‘Bottom’ indicates, it was in a valley between two heather-clad hills.  With the water running off the clay the camp was surrounded by bog.  It was here that the Sheen family lived, still using the old gypsy bell-type tents. 

These camps became quagmires when it rained.  Eventually all the compounds were condemned and the gypsy families moved elsewhere, some were even housed.

Fordingbridge is still a stronghold of many gypsy families particularly the Coopers.  One dear lady, Annie Cooper who lived in the village of Hyde was fortunate enough to be able to follow her old way of life to a certain extent by living in a caravan, albeit a modern one opposed to a traditional Romany vardo, tucked away in a corner on a piece of common land adjoining the Forest.  Her water she had to draw daily from a well on the common and for her stove she collected dead gorse wood.

The old gypsy lady remembered as a child sitting around a campfire eating deer stew and she said she still had her bender tent, cooking pot and kettle from the days when camping on the forest;  her dream was to erect the tent again and light a campfire.

Although in her eighties Annie walked every day into Fodingbridge and back, an overall distance of three miles.  Always colourfully dressed with traditional apron and headscarf she carried a big calling basket filled with flowers.  At Christmas you could see her walking along the lanes pushing a pram brimming over with holly.

November the 26th is the traditional date on which the gypsies are allowed to start picking holly to sell at the markets to make wreaths.  At one time they filled their sacks with moss gathered from the boggy paths on the side of the hill above Abbots Well.  This they used as the foundation of the wreaths.  But it is no longer permissible to pull moss or any other plant.

In my early days at Abbots Well an old gypsy lady called occasionally to collect rags and old clothes.  Her name was Eiza Cooper, she came she said from the Black Coopers and was known as Black Liz.  The term, black blood (Kaulo ratti), means the purest type of Romany.

Eiza possessed the gift of prophecy and also a belief in charms. A charm which was worn only by the New Forest Gypsies was a ring made from plaited horse hair.  Eiza Cooper told a fascinating story as to how she would spend hours trying to approach the wild ponies close enough to pull strands of hair from their manes and tails.  But the ponies had to be either skewbald or piebald, as rings made from the hair this colour were believed to bring good luck in the wearer.

 

 

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