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A gipsy encampment-A puzzling matter — Farming and farmers
past and present-An ancient market-town—A picturesque bit of old-world architecture-Gleaners—Time's changes—A house in two counties—A wayside inn—The commercial value of the picturesque.
On one of the grassy wastes by the roadside, a sheltered corner overhung by branching elms, we espied a gipsy encampment. A very effective and pretty picture the encampment made with its belongings and green setting of grass and foliage. There were three brilliantly - coloured caravans drawn up in an irregular line and partly screening from view the same number of brown tents; in and out of caravans and tents sun-tanned and gaykerchiefed children were noisily rampaging; from amidst the brown tents a spiral film of faint blue smoke lazily ascended, to be lost to sight in the bluer sky above; and to complete a ready-made picture, the gipsies' horses were tethered close at hand, grazing on the rough sward. Truly the gipsy is a picturesque personage, though I have to confess he is not much beloved in the country ; yet I should regret to have him improved entirely away, for he does bring colour and the flavour of wild, free life on to the scene, well suiting the English landscape.
The gipsy, for reasons best known to himself, is apt to resent the advances of strangers, even when made in the most amiable manner. The artist, who, for the sake of his picturesqueness and paintable qualities, is inclined to overlook the gipsy's possible sins of commission on other people's property, finds it difficult to sketch him ; for myself, I am content to "snap-shot” him photographically on passing by, as I did on this occasion ; which proceeding, however, he was prompt to resent with some gruffly muttered exclamation, to which we chaffingly replied, in the blandest of voices, “ But you know a cat may look at a king.” Upon which he shouted after us, not in the politest of tones, “Yes, but a photograph machine ain't a cat, and I ain't a king, nohow," and we felt that after all the gipsy had the best of the skirmish in words. The gipsy is manifestly no fool, or, with so many enemies on all sides, he would hardly have held his own for so long, and be extant and apparently flourishing as he is to-day. “It's the gipsy against the world,” as a farmer once remarked to me, “and bless me if the gipsy don't somehow score in the struggle.”
As we passed by the encampment, the incense of burning wood, mingled with sundry savoury odours, came wafted our way on the quiet air, and it appeared to us that a gipsy's life in the summer time was a sort of continuous picnic, not without its charms. Such a charm it has indeed for some minds, that we have more than once on previous expeditions actually met imitations of the real article in the shape of lady and gentleman gipsies (the term truly seems
rather a misnomer), touring about in smartly turnedout caravans, driven by liveried coachmen. But all this seems to me far too respectable and luxurious to be quite delightful. The dash of Bohemianism about it is absurdly artificial ; moreover, the coming of a caravan, both from its size and unfamiliar appearance, of necessity invites an amount of attention that is not always desirable, and is frequently very annoying. Speaking for myself, I must say that when I travel I endeavour to attract as little notice as possible; I go to observe, not to be observed. Still, every one to his taste. If I have not become a caravannist myself, it is certainly not from want of having the charms, real or imagined, of that wandering and expensive life on wheels instilled into me by a friend who owns a pleasure caravan, and has travelled over a goodly portion of southern England in it, though he had to confess to me, under close cross-examination, that there were certain “trilling” drawbacks connected with the amateur gipsy's life : first, there was the aforementioned unavoidable publicity that a large caravan entails; then there was the slow pace such a cumbrous conveyance imposes on you at all times; the heat of the interior caused by the sun beating on the exterior in hot summer days; to say nothing of having to go, at the end of a long day's journey, in search of camping ground for the night, entailing often a loss of time and a good deal of trouble before suitable quarters are found and permission to use them is obtained; besides this, there is stabling to secure, and a foraging expedition has to be undertaken, hardly a pleasure should the weather be wet! Whilst a simple inn is all that the more modest and less encumbered driving-tourist needs.
As we proceeded on our way, our attention was presently arrested by something strange and quite novel to us : on the telegraph wires, that stretched forth in long lines by the roadside, were suspended numerous little square bits of tin, and this for a considerable distance. The bits of tin, as they were swayed about by the wind, made weird music on the wires. Had we chanced to have driven that way at night, and heard those sounds coming directly down from the darkness above, without being able to discover the cause, we should have been much mystified; indeed, some hyper-nervous people passing there in the dark, under the same circumstances of wind and weather, might have come to the conclusion that this portion of the Great North Road was haunted. Such reputations have been established from lesser causes.
We were at a loss to account for the strange arrangement, so we looked about for somebody to question on the subject, and to solve the mystery for us if possible. There was not a soul in sight on the road, far off or near; for that matter, there never is when wanted. However, another look around revealed a man at work in a field near by, and to him we went and sought for the information desired, and this is the explanation we received in the original wording : “What be them tin things for on the telegraph postes?” They were really on the wires, but I have long ago discovered that you
must not expect exactness from the average countryman. “Why, they be put there on account of the partridges. You see, the birds, when they be aflying fast like, don't always see them wires, and lots of them gets hurt and killed by striking themselves against them. You know, sir, as how partridges is partridges, and has to be taken great care on; if the quality only took the same care of the poor working-man, we should be happy.” The poor working-man, or labourer, in the present case did not appear very miserable or poorly clad, so we ventured to remark : “Well, you don't seem particularly unhappy anyhow.” At the same moment a small coin of the realm changed ownership in return for the information imparted, and we went our way, and the man resumed his work, after promising to drink our very good healths that very night, and we saw no reason to doubt that the promise would be faithfully kept. The one thing you may positively rely upon the countryman doing, if you give him the opportunity, is “to drink your health.”
I may note here that during my many chats with the English labourer, in different counties far apart from each other, I have found their chief complaint (when they have one and venture to express it) is not so much the lowness of their wage, or the hardness of their work, as the poorness of their dwellings. Even the farm - hand begins to expect something better than the too often cold, damp, and draughty cottages that for generations past, in some parts of the country more than others, his “rude forefathers” had to put up