It’s only when I’m talking to Morris that I remember a book from my childhood, Rumer Godden’s The Diddakoi which tells the story of Kizzy, ‘a Gypsy girl with rings in her ears’. Growing up, it was one of my favourite books, and I still have it now. Which is perhaps why – I realise, talking to Morris – I feel so honoured and delighted to make his acquaintance.
We meet at the end of the day, when the sun is just beginning to set but the birds are still singing. Sitting outside to talk, the cold draws in hard as the hours pass. Not that Morris appears to feel it.
“I’ve lived in Piddlehinton for twenty year. I’m forty-one now. Pauline, my wife (as good as) she’s born and bred here, lived here her whole life.
Calling us Gypsies is fine, but we call ourselves Romany Travellers, because some of them, like with me, used to roam. We didn’t used to stay place to place, if you see where I’m coming from. So Romany Traveller is what we like to be called.
It’s from the background like my granny and granfer – that’s how it is. Back in those days. In the 80s, it was with the horse and wagon, and a barrel-top. That’s how they used to be. Like on the verge green. And you’ve got the road. And from there you used to travel. You had to move to earn a living – where the living was. That’s not like it is now. It’s not.
When I was a young boy I travelled a lot. I’d stay in one place a week. Now I miss the travelling. Not like when it comes to the winter – there’s a lot of difference then – but in the summertime I loved it. Travelling the road, the horse and wagon and all that. Like when you get the bundles of wood on your back and you had to walk two or three fields to get it and bring it back. It was a bit hard, the life. Any Traveller who you talk to, the old ones, they will tell you, it wasn’t easy, it was hard.
I remember it being really cold in the winter. I would go into a bit more detail but I won’t. Oh, what the hell, I will.
Coz when I was at home, like living in the horse and wagon – the barrel top on a four-wheeled trolley – instead of me brothers or me sisters sleeping underneath there, it was me. I used to sleep underneath, just with one blanket, two other blankets on top, a sheet over the top, like that. Even when the snow was on the ground. Coz there weren’t enough room in the barrel, coz there were seven of us.
So now I’m tough. I just keep doing what I’ve gotta do. If I get ill, I just take a paracetamol. I’ve been in hospital twice, didn’t like it. Not for me. It’s coming from the heart, that’s what was wrong.
We felt welcomed when we turned up in places. It was lovely. We went to the same places every year. Like to a farm. I used to go there… He gets emotional. It’s hard. It makes me sad, talking about my family. It was nice. It’s like I used to go down there to get the milk, to get water – from the farm. It was already milked. The farmer knew all of us, where we used to pull to. Where I used to travel.
At the farm we’d give him a hand, like with the hay bales. Stuff like that. I didn’t go to towns, but mum and dad did. They were welcomed there. They used to do a bit of hawking, tappin’ doors, like selling the pegs and baskets. They’d sell what they made.
What makes me proud is what I’ve got now. Coz I’ve got my family. I’ve got Pauline, Shaun, Valerie and Luke. That’s what makes me proud. I’ve brought me children up the right way. Like I didn’t want me kids how I was bought up. My life now is where I’m settled and I’m not looking back any more. I’m looking forward.
My children don’t know what they want to do yet, because they’re still young. Shaun is 22, he lives with his granny and granfer in the village. Luke is coming up 16 and Valerie me daughter, she’s twenty. She lives at home. She’s a daddy girl.
I do fibreglass trimming, wi’ Shaun, on the Enterprise Park. We make turrets for the tops of supermarkets. Like where the clock is. I’ve worked there seven year. In lockdown I stopped working coz everything shut. I’m back at work now. I went back last month. I got a bit of money from furlough.
I can’t read and write, but it don’t bother me. It doesn’t cause me problems. When me dad used to do his signature, all he used to do was a cross. Me children can read and me brothers and sisters and my mum could. But I didn’t want to ask her to teach me. She wanted to but I didn’t. No. Because I didn’t want to put her under any pressure, if you see where I’m coming from. Because I was her blue-eyed boy. Me. I was her blue-eyed boy. And she wanted to give me more attention. And when I was old enough to understand I was like, look, Mum, spend more time with me brothers and sisters. They learnt by the school. I went to school too, but I ran out, straight home, because I was a mummy’s boy.
Lockdown did get me down. Because I was going through that depressing stage, because where I lost me mum and then after than I lost me nan and then I lost me grandad and so on. It was five year ago and when it come in December of last year, on 12th December, that I lost me dad, everything just come crashing down. And where I wasn’t workin, I did get depressed.
I was that low, it was like a cloud what was around me and I was like in that hole. When I was with Pauline, we was joking and it was okay; but when I was on me own I was nothing.
But other ways, lockdown didn’t feel that different. I was happy because I was talking to people and I was walking up over the back just to ease me mind, dealing with me horses. I’ve got three horses. I drive them with my cart. I get my shopping with it. I love my horse and cart. That’s the best thing in my life.
People love ‘em. Specially when I used to come down the village. They say to me, ‘We don’t see this any more. I wish it would come back again.’ I travel all over, I travel Dorchester, Dewlish. I wouldn’t take me chances going to Poole, because you can only go so far, you’ve gotta stop, have a rest. Then go again.
We have a telly, but I don’t watch the news. I do like to watch Country and Western. When I used to travel, like with the horse and waggon, we had a battery telly, black and white, you know like with the coat hanger you’d bend it up and stick in the telly and you had to twist it to get the channel. But you’d only have four channels.
He coughs, then reassures me it’s a smoker’s cough.
I don’t worry about Covid. I’m not worried on the camp, I don’t know about the rest. You know like years ago with the old remedy, with the medicine, with the open fire and old- fashioned stews, you can’t beat that.
The old ways. We cook stews on the open fire with a kettle iron. It’s like with me, it’s like tonight, when I go home, I’ve got a pheasant stew and I done it last night. Last night I had it too. On Wednesday I had a slice of bread, on Tuesday a packet of crisps. What did I have Monday? Ham sandwich.
I trap rabbits, venison and squirrels and make the stews. We use a catapult for the squirrels. They taste like pork. We grill them on the fire. We catch fish and eat them too. We do get food from the supermarket but me, I like me game.
A lot of our food is what I find. I find mushrooms and greens – like in the supermarket when they have them in packets, called greens – you can find them wild. I get garlic and hazelnuts. Turnips too. If I we went walking now I could find you a fair few things to eat. Like green tea from nettles – but only certain nettles. Me dad taught me what mushrooms to get and I’ve taught my kids too.
There’s also certain trees that if you chew on it, there’s your paracetamol. It’s been a few years, but if I recognise the trees, I’ll find it for you.
With my kids, like and the rest, the other Traveller boys and girls, hopefully they can do what we’ve done. Like travelling. Going to tap door to door. I’d like them to be able to do that. Like with my 15-year-old boy. I’d like him to be able to go to any old butchers and say like, ‘Do you want a rabbit? For a pound coin?’
It takes me seconds to skin a rabbit. Fifteen minutes to skin a deer. I slice and dice it. I use every bit. I make a walking stick with the horns. I make a knife out of the hoof. Respecting the land is important to me. Me, I don’t need nothing. With the skin, if nobody don’t want it, I bury it. You could use it for making socks. Make a coat. I don’t hang things, you won’t see even a pheasant hanging. It’s not my way. It’s not like the Queen does it. Coz I’ve watched how she does it. Because I’ve watched how they hang the pheasants and the deer. That’s not me. But I love me game stew.
We only take things from nature to survive – nothing more. I’ve always lived in nature, and I don’t see it having changed a lot. I don’t see less birds, but I do see less deer. I think there’s as many birds. I think the air is the same.
My life hasn’t been much different this year. Quite a few of us don’t have cars on the camp. There’s no buses now, not been any for two years, and we used to use them. So we did get the food boxes from the village. Every Friday. They had milk, cheese, eggs and meat in them.
Deep down, I found it hard. Coz I thought like, I was like a charity. Vickey, who lives in the village and sorted it all, said what goes around comes around. But if I’ve got five pound in my pocket, I’ll give it to you. I’ve never taken help before. And I didn’t take help, because I donated back. Because that’s the way I think, if they give to me and my family then I’ve gotta give something back. That is me. To me I’ve got a heart. I like to help people, not to hurt people.
So Vickey and me did have this bit of a barney, when she first came. I’m a man of my principle. That is me. And Vickey understands now, because I did offer her something but she wouldn’t take my money. So I had a little fire going and I said, if you don’t take the ten pound, I’m going to put it in the fire. And I did. Now she sees.
I love living here, on the camp. Because it’s like travelling. It’s like when you get out from your trailer, you’re out and walking about. I would never want to live in a house. Because I’m used to living in a trailer. When you open that door, you’re out in the open, that’s it. What can you see? You go out, not only grass, you see the view… it’s fresh air. It’s not like you’re looking at four walls.
I’ve got a wood burner in my trailer. I’ve a separate wash house with a bath in it. I’ve got a boiler and we have hot water, but no heater in there. All I do is run me bath, have me bath, up, out. I’m fine.
Because I’m used to what I’ve got around me. There was another camp – but they open it and then shut it. I didn’t want another camp. The thing is, why would they want to build another traveller sight when they’ve already got one? Who would they wanna put on there? All of us was on edge. We didn’t know who they was gonna put there and who they wasn’t.
But I do think Romany Travellers have a bad reputation that’s not deserved. Some people treats Romanies the wrong way. All they’re trying to do is earn a living. They’re not bad people. To me, if you give them respect, they’ll give you respect, that’s the way I think. I’ve done hawkin’ – you meet different faces and that’s nice, to see different faces. Yes. There’s no more to say.
I’d always say I’m a Romany Traveller. And I say I’m no different from you – the only difference is the blood. I’ve got travel in me blood, but we’ve got the same skin. I’d love to travel now, and that’s no lie.
But I feel part of the village, it’s good people. We’re all one community. I always come to the fete, and I go to the Thimble for a drink sometimes. Like with M-J and Mike. (Emma Jayne and Michal).
I walk everywhere, say hello, d’you want any help, or anything like that. People talk to me. I know lots of people. I have lots of friends. I know Becca and there’s another lady what was doing something to her house – I told her me name, and if she wants help, let me know. When a branch from the beech tree fell onto the road – in me yellow jacket, I was stopping the cars. I cleared it off the road.
Pauline (above, in black), her sister, Valerie got married, last October, in Piddlehinton church. Lots of people were there. She used to live next door to us. She married Adam – her cousin. A lot of cousins marry. And then we went to the Trinity Club. I went to that bit but I didn’t go to the wedding. It’s hard for me because I’m a loner. I’m going back now, but it’s like, when I used to travel, I used to be just with me mum and dad, brothers and sisters. Nobody else.
Me auntie Eileen passed in lockdown, she was a lovely woman. She was in her seventies and had lived on the camp for a long time, but she didn’t want to. She wanted to be on the road. With the barrel tops. That was her. Her husband, David, wasn’t a gypsy. He was in the war, had a bad time, and then we welcomed him. We had her funeral in Poundbury. There were four or five horse-drawn carriages. But I didn’t go. If I’d have went it would have brought back too many memories.
I miss the travelling but I’ve crossed that crossroad. And I’m not going back to that crossroad. I’ve crossed it. That is me. I’ve settled now.
NB: From my travels through the village, I remembered someone showing me the photo of a Romany Traveller birth. I wrote to Alan Neades, thinking it was him, and although it wasn’t he sent me this:
“Sorry, not me this time! I don’t remember ever seeing that photo although I have seen some photos (I think) of a Gypsy wedding which took place at Piddlehinton years ago. When I was a child, Romany Gypsies visited regularly and had recognised stopping places. They did seasonal work and everyone pegged their washing to the line with ‘Gypsy clothes pegs’ which they made with hazel and strips of tin. While staying here the children would attend the village school. They were always dressed as well as the rest but inevitably carried around the scent of wood smoke from their open fires”.