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NEW FOREST GYPSIES (Continued)

Page Three

Written by Irene Soper

 

The custom among all gypsy women hawking from door to door was to ask for a drink.  Eiza was no exception and she always came in for a cup of tea.  Her suntanned face furrowed and lined with years of living and working outdoors, was framed by two grey plaits looped and fastened behind her ears.  Whilst she sipped her tea which was always tipped into the saucer first, she would relate stories of the old days when they could camp on the forest.  She said she loved to sit by the campfire smoking ‘baccy’ and with a ball of string and a hook, weave nets for the men folk to use when rabbiting.  Sometimes she said the nets would be over a hundred yards long.  They were placed over the rabbit burrows; then on a windy night when the rabbits could not hear, the gypsies set their lurchers on them.  The rabbits, being unable to escape down their holes, fell easy prey to the dogs.

A forester neighbour remembers back to the days when gypsy women with their long dark hair carried wild produce from the forest in their big calling baskets and hawked from door to door.  There would be heather, rabbits, bunches of wild watercress and of course clothes pegs.  Wild flowers in season would also be found in their baskets, such as the early snowdrops, then primroses and wild daffodils gathered from the woods bordering the forest. Although they picked and sold snowdrops the gypsies themselves were not fond of these flowers and would never take them inside their vans as they feared to do so would bring them bad luck.

Apart from the traditional items such as clothes pegs and paper flowers the forest gypsies also made ash casks for the foresters’ mead.  The New Forest was once famed for the Old English mead that was brewed by the foresters.  To make this potent brew it was necessary to keep bees to produce the honey.  At that time the traditional type of hive was the round straw skep.  These were also made by the gypsies who with agile fingers wove and plaited the straw and bramble.

In former days when the gypsies lived on the forest they picked wild blackberries for the jam factories in the area.  Lenn Witt, a forester neighbour, said he used to carry the filled baskets on his horse and cart to a  reception depot at Romsey.  Here he was given payment – sometimes as much as seventy pounds – to take back to the gypsy workers.

 

 

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