For Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History month, we heard from one of our managers, Riley Garnett, about growing up within the New Age Traveller community, and his experience of life on the road.
‘Travellers’ is an all-encompassing term, and it’s helpful in that it allows you to identify us as a group, but within it are a lot of very different communities, ethnicities, belief systems and outlooks on life. There are Romany Travellers, Scottish Travellers, Irish Travellers, Boatees, and New Age Travellers – the group that I’m a part of. My perspective is purely from my specific background.
However, it’s important to remember that Travellers and the wider population really are the same. Whether you were born in a house and had access to running water and electricity, or you were born in a wooden caravan without those facilities, we all grew up with families, dreams and aspirations. As one of the smallest of the ethnic minorities, who are often reclusive, there can be a shroud over Travellers. It’s frustrating when I tell someone I’m a Traveller and I see the presumptions they’re jumping to on their faces.
New Age Travellers, as the name would suggest, are a recent addition among nomadic communities. The term is used to describe a Traveller who’s chosen that lifestyle later on in their life. My mum was born up north and brought up in a house, but when she was seventeen, she saw her parents weren’t necessarily living happy lives and decided that way of life wasn’t working for her. She became a first-generation New Age Traveller as she saw a movement happening and wanted to be a part of its ideas and values.
In simple terms, we’re the hippies of the Traveller community! There are definite undertones of anti-establishment; a lot of the older generation in the seventies were disenfranchised with what society had to offer and saw high levels of unemployment. The New Age movement became a way of trying to make something out of your life, giving yourself options and a route that could lead to happiness.
Riley's family Vardo
As a second-generation New Age Traveller, my experience of being brought up in the community evolved over time, and there were four stages to my earlier life:
When I was very little we were living in wooden carts like you’d see on Peaky Blinders. Shortly after that phase we were horse-drawn; me, my two sisters and my mum would travel throughout the British countryside with our various animals – we kept dogs and goats among others. But in 1996, Margaret Thatcher passed the Public Order Act which criminalised a lot of the elements of the lifestyle. The Act made it very difficult to stop over on public land such as laybys or next to fields, and the police would destroy your property if they found you there. After that, people found being horse-drawn very problematic because you would need to be able to let the horses graze, and you couldn’t move on quickly if you were asked to leave, as the horses would be tired from the journey.
As a result, a lot of people went to motor vehicles, and in the next stage of my life, we lived in a truck and a caravan being towed by a car. There were a lot of humans to fit in there, but I never really paid attention to it. It definitely promoted the family as a very tight unit, and the community around you as well – the sites we lived on weren’t very big, so you lived close to your neighbours and there were a lot of large personalities in a small space. I loved growing up on site, my best mates were people who lived in caravans next to me, and when it wasn’t a school day we’d all meet up and throw sticks for the dogs and go off on adventures into the woods.
It then became even more difficult to live in England as further legislation was passed against Travellers, so many moved abroad, including us. We travelled around Spain, Portugal and France, and I remember feeling really welcomed. There was a big Traveller scene in Europe, and most of my mates who are Travellers speak at least two languages, if not three; it became a very interesting melting pot of our various backgrounds and identities. In England there had always been a certain animosity against us because of the tendency of mainstream media to label Travellers as criminals and wrongdoers. I don’t think they liked the fact people were building successful communities with very little interference from the government.
In the final stage of my upbringing we settled in a house in France. We arrived at an old ruined building in a bramble field, and I remember thinking – we’re rich! In fact, by society’s standards we lived in absolute poverty – my family were street performers, and you only get so much money – but I never saw it that way, because I never went to bed hungry and I never lacked clothes or necessities. If there’s one thing I can say: I lacked nothing as a child. It was simply not a materialist lifestyle; we once found a broken TV in the middle of a field with its screen smashed through, and me and my sisters sat there watching it and telling our own little tales of what we saw. It wasn’t about having loads of possessions and belongings, it was about a certain richness of the soul and developing an open-minded outlook on life.
Riley and family stopping off at a layby in France