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Long road from India

Jonathan Croall on gaining insight into Romany culture

Just to be a Romany Gypsy was punishable by death or deportation in Elizabethan England. Today, although the Romanies are better accepted by mainstream society, there's still plenty of ignorance about their history, traditions and culture, not least among children and young people.

The new Romany Experience exhibition at Paulton's Leisure Park, near the New Forest in Hampshire, offers a valuable glimpse of the English Gypsy way of life between 1880 and 1930, when the Romanies travelled the road in wagons in small family groups, following the trades that suited their nomadic way of life.

An earlier exhibition focused on the park's extensive collection of wagons. Now the emphasis is on the Romany community itself, its customs, its language, the crafts they practise, and the distinctive roles played by juvvals (women) and chavvies (children) in everyday family life.

The exhibition uses state-of-the-art moving figures, talking models and sound effects to demonstrate the Romany lifestyle. There's running water and Gypsy music, and even smells around some of the displays, such as wood burning on the camp fire or a whiff of hay at the annual Appleby Horse Fair.

The Romanies spread throughout Europe after 1200, arriving in Britain around 1490, claiming to be the descendants of the Pharoahs (the word Gypsy comes from Egyptian). Perhaps one reason for their long-term survival in so many countries is their practice of adopting the religion of the country in which they decide to settle.

Their original ancestors are thought to have lived in India more than 1, 000 years ago: the Romany language has many words that match up with their Hindi counterparts. There are traces of this ancestry in the ritual, now discontinued, of burning a wagon's contents at the funeral of a Gypsy.

The exhibition shows the wide variety of crafts the Romanies practised, such as pot-mending, knife-grinding, making pegs, baskets, and brooms, all activities that brought them into contact with mainstream society though many of these have since been obliterated by mass production.

There is also coverage of their traditional medical skills, and the closely guarded secrets passed down from mother to daughter, whereby herbs were used as remedies for everything from warts (dandelion) to jaundice (shepherd's purse) - and sometimes also to cast spells or curses.

Romanies lived for a long time in bender tents, which were eventually superseded by the wagon (vardo). This was a prized possession, and the many beautiful and elaborately painted and carved examples on display at Paulton's underline how important "show" was to the Gypsies.

The interiors are also fascinating, with their miniature black-lead stoves and small-scale mahogany furniture ingeniously fitted into the restricted space. One from 1915, which cost Pounds 850 when to build a house cost Pounds 300, has glass sliding doors for a bunkbed, and an astonishing Ben Hur mural on the ceiling.

"It's the best resource about the Romanies that I know of," says Brenda Downes, an adviser for Hampshire's traveller education service, who has helped the park put together a useful background education pack for teachers, with ideas about how to link a visit with preparatory and follow-up work.

The exhibition is attractively presented and carefully researched, with one surprising omission: there are no interactive displays or exhibits. The park also has a village life museum, an outdoor dinosaur exhibition, and a large collection of birds and animals.

Paulton's Park, Ower, Romsey, Hampshire SO51 6AL. Tel: 01703 814442 * Traveller Education Service, HIASS, Winsor Road, Bartley, Hampshire. Tel: 01703 814603

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