'Old age' travellers face a future within four walls

IT IS as much a part of roadside Britain as a petrol station or a Happy Eater: a group of caravans parked together in a lay-by, with washing lines strung between them, rusting cars, and dogs chained to the towbars.

But, if the Government has its way, it will not be for much longer. Gypsies claim they are in danger of being persecuted out of existence.

A consultation paper issued by the Department of the Environment last week proposes changes that would threaten their way of life, making it illegal to camp on land without the owner's permission. The Government has admitted it would like gypsies to settle down and live in houses.

Not for the first time, gypsies have said that they will fight back. They expect to survive. 'They have been on the margins of society for 300 years and survived persecution before. You can't legislate gypsies away,' said David Smith, a former academic and consultant on gypsy affairs.

The Government denies that it is persecuting a minority, but there is no doubt that it is taking on a group of people with a powerful cultural identity.

True gypsies are recognised as an ethnic group under race-relations laws, with their own language, customs and lifestyle. According to some authorities, it is still possible to distinguish between gypsy families from different clans and groups.

But other travelling groups exist, such as Irish tinkers and Scottish gypsies as well as the New Age travellers, who would also be affected by new laws. It can be hard for an outsider to tell the different groups apart. Pure- blood Romany gypsies are almost unknown after centuries of intermarriage with other travellers and gorgios (house-dwellers).

'It would be ridiculous to imagine meeting a pure-blood Romany today,' said Mr Smith, 'but that does not mean there is no one entitled to call themselves a Romany gypsy.'

Gypsies are thought to have originated in central India and to have begun travelling west in the eleventh century. The Romanichals, the English branch, reached Britain in about 1480. They got the name 'gypsies' from 'Little Egypt', a fictional Middle Eastern homeland.

In the succeeding five centuries gypsies have intermingled with other travellers and become more British. But they have always refused to live in houses. Gypsies follow trades that are 'portable', such as fruit-picking, building, or laying tarmac.

The romantic image of a gypsy encampment belies the reality of a highly organised business life. 'People like to imagine us sitting round the fire,' said one gypsy spokesman. 'The reality is that gypsies are good businessmen, very astute and highly mobile.'

Gypsies do not necessarily object to buying plots of land on which to park their trailers - as the Government hopes they will. Some already live on private sites. But they complain that it is unrealistic to expect them to do so because it is almost impossible to get planning permission.

Gypsies cherish their right to travel and stay apart from gorgio society. However, their children may attend schools, they have bank accounts and they pay taxes - up to a point. Much of the gypsy economy is cash-in-hand. 'We all pay taxes, but nobody is going to pay more than they have to, are they?' said one gypsy spokesman.

Some picture-book customs remain. Most gypsies are extremely houseproud, great collectors of china and glass and lovers of horses.

True gypsies are often confused with Irish tinkers - a group of travellers with a quite different pedigree, although an equally long history. Tinkers, often with horse-drawn caravans, are a common sight in the Republic of Ireland.

The first great wave of Irish travellers came to Britain in the 1880s during the railway construction boom. Others came in the 1950s and 1960s. They speak a different language from gypsies - Shelta, a form of Gaelic - and usually have Irish names such as Doherty or Connor.

Irish travellers often have red hair, and tend to travel farther than English gypsies. They are also more economically organised: families often band together to trade in bulk, with a banker and accountant. It is often possible to tell a group of Irish tinkers at a glance because they may all have similar caravans and trucks bought as a job lot.

Scottish gypsies are another distinct group. They may travel as far as the English Midlands in summer, but usually spend the winter in houses in Scotland.

But there is little likelihood of anyone confusing gypsies or tinkers with New Age travellers. 'You can tell instantly,' one gypsy expert said. 'A gypsy has a pride in his home. He will have the best car and the finest caravan he can afford. He will never have a battered old bus.'

But whatever vehicles the groups travel in, they may all find their way of life rather more complicated in future.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Image from a flyer at the CPAC event where Nigel Farage will be speaking
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower