I was sewing the Random Quilt this afternoon, listening to Radio 4, and there was a good programme on about Eric Gill (very artistic, but some very bad family habits . . .) They said something about him turning a box over, and sounds spilling out - voices from gypsies setting up camp on the common. All of a sudden I was transported back over 55 years, to when I was 9 or 10, and Tricia and I had gone up to the rough bit of woodland by the Ivy Tree, which divided our road into a top third section. The gypsies were there - with proper gypsy vardos and horses - though I don't remember the vardos being brightly painted or showy in the way you see them in photographs.
The womenfolk were crouched around a large cast iron cooking pot on a hook over a smoking fire, stirring something in it and smoking stubby wooden pipes, skin tanned and wrinkled. They looked as old as Queenie Goddard, who lived in an old creosote-painted wooden cabin behind the sighing pine trees opposite our house, but were probably only 35 or 40. There were pieces of washing thrown over the bushes, and their children, shabbily dressed in woollen jumpers either too big or too small , and ragged trousers splashed with mud, pulled a reluctant dun coloured puppy about on a length of string, whilst it dug its paws in the mud and tried to bite at the string. Later, they would come knocking at our door, and asking for any shoes or clothes in return for a bag of pegs, or some Primroses in a bed of moss inside a little basked hand-woven from willow. It wasn't begging, as there was always something in return - and something that they had made from next to nothing, just the things they found in the countryside.
We weren't afraid, we knew these folk of old - they would come a couple of times in early spring and summer and camp there, and visit their folk. They were never there at harvest time, when their menfolk would always find a bit of work on the farms, or when it was hop-picking time, and in recent years I have found them up in North Hampshire and Surrey, having babies and hop picking as if the two went together like bread and cheese.
Of course, it was the horses we wanted to see. Big shaggy-legged vanners, half Shire crossed with cob, and in those days, largely whole-coloured dark brown or bay, not like the coloured gypsy cobs you see at Appleby Fair today. The horses would be tied beside the vardos, if they were going to be used that day to go visiting with the flat cart they borrowed from Queenie, or tethered on chains amongst the brambles and brush, manes and tails tangled (we longed for a brush) and coats dirty with dried sweat. Standing floppy-lipped, they would nibble gently at our hands, rubbing their moustachios against our knuckles, and blowing down their big carthorse nostrils, shaking their heads with wobbling ears to get the flies away. They had chestnuts on their legs like giant lumps of rubbery slate and there would often be the clink of a loose shoe when they shifted weight from one hind leg to the other. If they had names, I don't remember them, although the Goddard horses (of similar stock) were Doby, Bill, Julie, and the vicious dock-tailed brown-black mare Mandy who would fly the length of her chain, teeth bared, to see you off. Bill would do the same, only he was loose in the orchard next to the Rec, opposite the cemetery, with piebald Julie and we knew exactly how far we dared leave the Safety Tree behind us if he was up that end of the field.
Just two words, and I am half a century away, seeing it all like it happened last week. A memory which belonged to just Tricia and I, and just me to remember it now.