'Old age' travellers face a future within four walls

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The Independent Online
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)