Off the beaten path: Gypsies, mudders & international friendship
A decade ago, I approached a horseman and asked,"Why is it that I think of Conquistadors when I see you on your horse?" The horseman replied, "You are a student of history, and this horse is the type of horse with which Coronado and Pizarro conquered the Americas."
This conversation started my fascination with many breeds of horses and their relationship with our history.
In the recent decade, our business has allowed my wife, Lauri, and me to travel at our discretion, and because of this we have chosen to exhibit at various horse expos and rodeos. At the Minnesota Horse Expo, I became acquainted with the fabled breed of horse called the Gypsy Vanner. This horse is bred by gypsies all over Europe, used as a draft horse to pull their ornately carved gypsy carts.
Twice each year, gypsies from all over Europe gather in Great Britain to swap and trade these horses. As providence, fate or sheer dumb luck would have it, we were planning a trip to France and realized that we could partake in the fall gathering of gypsies in the Cotswolds of Great Britain. The festival is located in a town called Stow-in-the-Wold and is known as Stow Faire.
The Cotswolds are comprised of a dozen or more villages that have been frozen in time. Pictures depicting thatched roof homes and quaint pastoral settings are often photographed in the Cotswolds. It is an area approximately 25 by 90 miles, and since the turn of the century (1900), it has been an area dedicated to day hikers and bed and breakfasts.
We left our comfort zone of London and headed by the tube (subway), train and buses and eventually freestyled our way to our desired destination. Chippen Campden is as quaint a village you can find in the Cotswolds of Gloucestershire. We set up our lodging above the pub at the Volunteer Inn in "Chippy." We would use this as our base camp for five- to 10-mile hikes each day, leaving our heavy backpacks behind.
The citizens of Great Britain have always defended their right of passage through the countryside, so there are walking paths virtually everywhere, and trespassing is not an issue. The only requirement is that you shut the gate.
We visited with folks along the way and told them we would eventually end up in Stow-on-the-Wold for the Stow Faire. They looked at us, puzzled, and asked if we were going there intentionally or by accident? Considering we had just traveled 5,000 to 6,000 miles, we weren't ready to cancel our plans. We realized that everybody along the way was avoiding the gypsy fair. Undaunted, we continued our journey.
The word gypsy is derogatory, and these people should be referred to as "travelers." It is believed that originally gypsies migrated from India and then splintered into various parts of Europe, including Spain, Ireland, Romania. People take to the notion that they are unwanted newcomers, when in fact they have occupied Britain for more than 500 years.
In our business travels, we have found ourselves going through a wide variety of social biomes, from the tony neighborhood art festivals to the impoverished Indian reservations of Montana and South Dakota. We headed toward Stow-in-the-Wold understanding that gypsies are not romanticized in Europe. However, a gypsy festival fits right into our comfort zone.
When we arrived in Stow-on-the-Wold, most of the retail community had locked their doors until the festival was over. There seemed to be little love lost for these gypsy folks, and the only reason they were allowed in Stow was a gypsy owned the 40 acres on the edge of town. However, with a community completely closed, it left us no place to store our heavy and burdensome backpacks. The bed and breakfast where we were spending the night was even closed until 4 p.m. (the precise time that the festival was over). The festival was a mile away in an open tree-lined field, and we were not prepared to hike with 40-pound backpacks. We had traveled days to arrive at this town at this precise time, and we couldn't just leave our backpacks on the street. We dithered for well over an hour trying to telephone the people at the B&B to no avail.
Finally, we scuttled our packs at a local fish and chips shop (we are indebted!) and headed through crowds of youthful Travelers toward the fair. Though the whole town was closed, the atmosphere was that of a high school parking lot on the last day of school.
Bright-eyed young women revealed their historic past with an eye toward equestrian couture. Wearing fur-trimmed capes, short skirts so high that the air was thin, muddy fields and stiletto heels, they plied the grounds looking for potential mates within their Traveler community. They seldom marry outside the culture. Few Travelers stood out boldly as "gypsies." Most were subtle in their dress, and yet, we slowly developed "an eye" to recognize the Irish, Spanish and Romani qualities of Travelers.
We eventually found ourselves immersed in a sea of people and slowly, like an epiphany, realized that most everybody was of gypsy heritage except ourselves. We were completely engulfed by this community; everyone was enjoying the annual reunion with their kinship. Horses, ducks, geese and canaries in cages were being bought, sold, swapped and traded.
Hundreds of tents and vendors were hawking all manner of merchandise -- the very latest fashion statement in purses and watches, certainly all bootleg and knockoff merchandise. The event site was a bit unregulated, and the vanner horses were hitched to surreys and raced at break-neck speeds up and down the pedestrian walkways.
With regard to romanticizing the gypsy culture, we understand that these people can intimidate and are known for less scrupulous behavior. There had been an act of violence the previous year, and the place was almost under police lockdown (a Bobby every 50 meters) as a helicopter soared above.
The Stow Faire was a promotional opportunity unrecognized by much of the local community. We found the festival to be a highlight of our Cotswold experience.
Mudding the Thames
We taxied back to Moreton-On-Marsh and caught a train to London-Paddington Station; from there, we took the tube to St. Pancras/Kings Cross. Our backpacks were still heavy, but allowed us to hike thru the city with relative ease. Our hotel was only eight or 10 blocks from the station, so there was no need for a taxi. We seemed to be getting rather fit after all this trekking.
We love London. It is easy to find your way around and has the cleanest subway system (the tube) known to mankind. Five years ago, we spent 10 days in this city and felt we didn't get enough of London. We visited many of the museums the city has to offer, which are free (donation only). As we headed to my favorite statue, Boudicea (the Iceni Queen who valiantly tried to fight off the Roman intruders in approximately 64 A.D. -- it's kitty corner from Big Ben), we were sidetracked and headed down steps to the water's edge.
People have been throwing their garbage into the Thames for thousands of years, and if you walk down to the water's edge at low tide you can become a "Mudder" -- the term given to people who hunt and collect artifacts from London's past. We encountered mudders searching for copper handmade pins perhaps 200 to 400 years old. We did not have rubber boots in which to muck about, but were overcome by the sense of adventure and given to hunting anything that looks curious. We reached down and pick up a neolithic stone scraper -- pre-Londinium. We could easily have picked up a shoebox of discarded pottery, but quickly realized there were old pipes and pipestems everywhere. Pipes were very fragile, and they were also some of the first disposable items of mass manufacture -- all at the water's edge.
With pockets full of muddy pottery, we got back on the tube and headed to Bond Street, wanting to explore the stores. But Bond Street is for the rich; we felt like we might be the only people on this street without an extra 10,000 quid in our pockets. It was getting dark, and we couldn't afford to eat in this part of London, so we headed back toward Cartwright Gardens. We have our own treasure -- dirty, broken, ancient dishware.
Bienvenue en France
Our original reason for this trip was to reconnect with our French friend and intern Louise Robino. With a day's rest we repacked for St. Pancras International Train station, just blocks away. Our backpacks are still no lighter because our friends like peanut butter, maple syrup, Grapenuts and various items that have greater gravitational impact.
The EuroStar is a shining example of the cooperation between Great Britain, France and the rest of Europe. The train travels at speed of 190 to 240 mph. It glides as smooth as glass, and the Chunnel portion of the trip takes approximately 25 minutes.
We harbored a little apprehension at this point in our journey because we did not have an address for Louise and her family in Paris; everything including our travel schedule/itinerary was emailed back and forth, but no phone or street addresses. When arriving in Paris at Gare Du Nord Train Station we trudged about looking for a familiar face in the crowd when a few recognizable faces popped out behind a welcome sign. It is our kindred French family.
Bill Keitel is the proprietor of the Cows' Outside and Buffalo Billfold Co. in Worthington, where he will share more of his travel stories with customers upon request.