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e-book After All These Years: Our Gypsy Journey Continues

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The joy of being alive when I woke at dawn on a spring morning, with the songs of the birds and the smoke from our yog. Those spring dawns were a picture. Everything was green and fresh to the yock eye. Beautiful wild flowers covered in early morning dew filled the hedgerows, banks and fields. The best part of the day was lighting a big yog between seven and eight o'clock, cooking a fried breakfast and warming up round the flames: thick bacon sizzles in the cast-iron pan that hangs from the old kettle- iron. Sweet-smelling wood burns brightly on the yog. The kettle sings in the embers, ready to be poured on the tea leaves in the huge enamel teapot.

That teapot's big enough to fill many cups, once the tea has been left to soak, as we say. These are the sights that greeted us each and every day as we climbed out the wagon and ambled to the yog for breakfast. Bellies full to the brim, me and me Mam would set off to hawk the doors of the local house-dwellers, offering our bunches of fresh wild flowers for sale or a few gross of clothes pegs.

Meanwhile me Dad stayed close by our wagon and grys horses , looking after the rest of the family and making the next day's pegs or wooden flowers. Every one of us pulled our weight — and pulled together. The summer months were grand too. We chavvies could stay up later at night and wake up to the perfume of wild honeysuckle and the dog rose, for the wild perfume was best at night and in the early morning. Wildlife is dear to us still: each tree and bush had its own uses for us — to make medicines or on the yog to keep us warm — and of course the wild meat that fed us.

Autumn was the time of year when old Mother Nature thought, 'These Gypsies have had it too kushti [good]. I'll give them a taste of what's to come, give them a bit of cold, wet and frosty weather to train them up for winter. I'll blow the leaves off the trees to take their shelter and harden them up for all the snow I aim to throw their way. Winter could be a wonderland: if luck was with us, deep snow would see us tucked away near a farm where the men of our family group would work for the farmer mush man.

While the older family members grumbled about the snow and its drawbacks, I loved it. I enjoyed its beauty, its crispy glittering whiteness. During the day it would shine in the sunlight, but at night when there was only the glow of the candlelight in the wagon and the yog outside, the snow was a grand sight to see.

After All These Years: Our Gypsy Journey Continues by Maggie Smith-Bendell

It would gleam and light up the land as far as the yock could see. My childhood had its bad times, such as when me Mam forced me and my older brother Alfie to go to school. How we hated being parted from the family wagon and grys, locked away for no good reason within four walls. And to top it all, the teachers never wanted us in their old noisy schools, so it was a waste of good time.

And we had sad times. Death has a habit of visiting my race too soon. Babies died at birth; mothers died birthing; children died by drowning or for the lack of medical help. And the old yog brought many deaths to young chavvies who caught themselves alight getting a warm from the fire. Me Dad lost a young sister to the yog. The death rate was high among Traveller children. Some would fall under the wheels of their wagons as they travelled — because we chavvies saw no danger and trouble often followed our antics.

Accidents happened — silly, tragic accidents, but happen they did, and took the lives of the young. Parents spent a deal of time warning their offspring, 'Don't do this, don't do that, mind the road, don't go near the river, don't climb the trees. But all in all we really did have the best of childhoods. Did we not have good, caring parents and the whole countryside to play in? And all the good life we chavvies had, it was our families that made it so. The second stage of me life was when, at twenty years of age, I met and married a gorgie mush. Fresh out the army he was and full of life.

He had deep feelings for me — he was to tell me it was love at first sight. All me life I had known a love of and for me family, but nothing anywhere near what was happening to me now. This was new to me, this was the love of just one person for another, not the shared family love I was used to. By falling for me mush I hurt me parents to the quick. I had gone against my traditions and culture and married my gorgie mush as quick as lightning. He showed me a different kind of love and a different way of life from that of my heritage, and he helped me to have the best of both worlds.

The third stage of me life, and one that has lasted many years, was when I became a Gypsy activist, working for Gypsy families and trying to gain planning permission for private Gypsy sites. I seemed to be very successful at it and I really enjoyed the work — it also meant that I got to meet the younger generations of families I had travelled with when I was young, renewing old friendships. This gave me Mam a great deal of pleasure while she still lived — and as a result we got in touch with relatives we never knew we had. Such as Denny and Sallyann Smith of Cheltenham — close relatives of me Dad and a wonderful old- fashioned family who still built their own horse-drawn wagons.

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Alas, me Dad had passed away long afore so he never learned of their existence. Had he done, I know he and them would have been drunk as handcarts for a week. It wasn't easy breaking in to the world of planning. It drove me mad at times because I got so frustrated — my lack of knowledge knew no bounds, but I was determined to learn. I was desperate to help my community in any way I could and the best way to start was by helping to provide homes, permanent bases.

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He took me under his wing and taught me right from wrong. And my dear husband Terry gave me all the encouragement he could — and picked me up when it got me down. He would say, 'If you believe in what you're doing, my old gal, learn to roll with the knockbacks. Shake yourself off and get back in the fight. This, then, is my story — told in the hope that by reading it people will see us Gypsies in a new light and come to a better understanding of my race, stop viewing us with suspicion and offer us their trust for the first time since we came to these shores hundreds of years ago.

I would like people to see us as a race apart, a self-supporting community, who live by tradition and culture as far as today's society allows. And I also want both them and my own people to know the price we have paid for being born and bred in the Romani community. The long, dark winter nights and cold days would finally be shook off.

It was a new beginning, waiting for the wild flowers to spring into life: snowdrops, daffies, bluebells, primroses and cowslips — all would be gathered in turn, bunched up and hawked round doors. And the little wild strawberries would be picked and used to colour and flavour medicines, as would the wild, sweet-smelling violets, especially the white ones.

All through the year something or other would come into season to be picked and used for the good of all of us. Sometimes we'd sell nosegays of buttercups and dandelions tied up with herbs - these two plants which everyone seems to think of as weeds but which should be given at least a second glance at close quarters. They really are beautiful flowers and so bright in their colours. The dandelion can be used in all sorts of ways which I am not at liberty to disclose. The reason I'm not at liberty to disclose these ways is that the herbs and plants we blend with them to make medicines and potions are known to us Romanies by different names from those of the settled community.

If folks tried to copy a recipe they could very well pick the wrong plants and make themselves really ill instead of better. I can tell you that the old dandelion was used to make drinks, and the flower stem, which contains a sticky milky substance, was used with a mixture of other plants to make potions for horse ailments.

But I don't think my community would be very happy if I wrote down any of these recipes. They have been closely guarded for hundreds of generations. It's their private knowledge and it's not for me to tell their secrets, so this knowledge will stay in the past, as it should. But we made full use of it when travelling the roads. Knowledge is a wonderful thing and Gypsies had a great deal of knowledge, especially about plants and their healing powers. This knowledge was not shared with the house- dwelling community; it was secret to the Romanies and a great deal of it is still closely guarded today.

There is still so much people could learn from us, if we shared our secret knowledge. The joy of being alive when I woke at dawn on a spring morning, with the songs of the birds and the smoke from our yog. Those spring dawns were a picture. Everything was green and fresh to the yock eye. Beautiful wild flowers covered in early morning dew filled the hedgerows, banks and fields. The best part of the day was lighting a big yog between seven and eight o'clock, cooking a fried breakfast and warming up round the flames: thick bacon sizzles in the cast-iron pan that hangs from the old kettle- iron.

Sweet-smelling wood burns brightly on the yog. The kettle sings in the embers, ready to be poured on the tea leaves in the huge enamel teapot. That teapot's big enough to fill many cups, once the tea has been left to soak, as we say.

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These are the sights that greeted us each and every day as we climbed out the wagon and ambled to the yog for breakfast. Bellies full to the brim, me and me Mam would set off to hawk the doors of the local house-dwellers, offering our bunches of fresh wild flowers for sale or a few gross of clothes pegs.

Meanwhile me Dad stayed close by our wagon and grys horses , looking after the rest of the family and making the next day's pegs or wooden flowers. Every one of us pulled our weight — and pulled together. The summer months were grand too. We chavvies could stay up later at night and wake up to the perfume of wild honeysuckle and the dog rose, for the wild perfume was best at night and in the early morning.

Wildlife is dear to us still: each tree and bush had its own uses for us — to make medicines or on the yog to keep us warm — and of course the wild meat that fed us. Autumn was the time of year when old Mother Nature thought, 'These Gypsies have had it too kushti [good]. I'll give them a taste of what's to come, give them a bit of cold, wet and frosty weather to train them up for winter.

I'll blow the leaves off the trees to take their shelter and harden them up for all the snow I aim to throw their way. Winter could be a wonderland: if luck was with us, deep snow would see us tucked away near a farm where the men of our family group would work for the farmer mush man. While the older family members grumbled about the snow and its drawbacks, I loved it. I enjoyed its beauty, its crispy glittering whiteness.

During the day it would shine in the sunlight, but at night when there was only the glow of the candlelight in the wagon and the yog outside, the snow was a grand sight to see.


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It would gleam and light up the land as far as the yock could see. My childhood had its bad times, such as when me Mam forced me and my older brother Alfie to go to school. How we hated being parted from the family wagon and grys, locked away for no good reason within four walls. And to top it all, the teachers never wanted us in their old noisy schools, so it was a waste of good time.

And we had sad times. Death has a habit of visiting my race too soon. Babies died at birth; mothers died birthing; children died by drowning or for the lack of medical help. And the old yog brought many deaths to young chavvies who caught themselves alight getting a warm from the fire.


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  6. Me Dad lost a young sister to the yog. The death rate was high among Traveller children. Some would fall under the wheels of their wagons as they travelled — because we chavvies saw no danger and trouble often followed our antics. Accidents happened — silly, tragic accidents, but happen they did, and took the lives of the young. Parents spent a deal of time warning their offspring, 'Don't do this, don't do that, mind the road, don't go near the river, don't climb the trees. But all in all we really did have the best of childhoods. Did we not have good, caring parents and the whole countryside to play in?

    And all the good life we chavvies had, it was our families that made it so. The second stage of me life was when, at twenty years of age, I met and married a gorgie mush. Fresh out the army he was and full of life. He had deep feelings for me — he was to tell me it was love at first sight. All me life I had known a love of and for me family, but nothing anywhere near what was happening to me now.

    After All These Years : Our Gypsy Journey Continues by Maggie Smith-Bendell (2013, Paperback)

    This was new to me, this was the love of just one person for another, not the shared family love I was used to. By falling for me mush I hurt me parents to the quick. I had gone against my traditions and culture and married my gorgie mush as quick as lightning.