A WRITER born into a traditional Gypsy family in Sussex has published a book telling of his journey to discover his heritage.
Damian Le Bas was raised with a large and far-flung network of relations who taught him how to ride and drive ponies, tractors and trucks, sing melancholy cowboy ballads and speak the thousand-year-old Romani tongue.
In his debut book, The Stopping Places: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain, he describes their yard – “a place where where all things might, and did, happen” – as a “domain that was half Wild West, half-wild West Sussex”.
Growing up on a diet of Gypsy history, his great-grandmother, Nan, would tell him stories of her childhood in the ancient Romani language: the places her family stopped and worked, the ways they lived, the superstitions and lores of their people.
But his own experience of life on the road was limited to Ford Transit journeys from West Sussex to Hampshire to sell flowers.
Above: The Stopping Places by Damian Le Bas
Top: Damian Le Bas/picture: Charles Moriaty
In a bid to better understand his Gypsy heritage, the history of the Romany in Britain and the rhythms of their life today, Damian sets out on a journey to discover the atchin tans, or ‘stopping places’ – the old encampment sites known only to Travellers. From winter frosts to summer dawns, he travels the country to visit horse fairs, including the Appleby Horse Fair, urban lay-bys and hidden Gypsy churches.
His book shines a light on a group of people and a way of life that has been often hidden and much maligned. Travellers in Britain have rarely been given a voice, but in The Stopping Places, Damian Le Bas captures the places, characters and stories of his ancestors, and learns more about his own identity along the way.
“We had a name for ourselves: Travellers, which was always pronounced with just two syllables – Travlers – as if to differentiate it from the regular sense of the word,” he writes. “In our case, it didn’t just mean anyone who travelled around, regardless of their race: to us it meant our people specifically, the Romanies of Britain.”
The folk singer Peggy Seeger has written of The Stopping Places: “This book moves at the pace of a horse pulling a Gypsy wagon. It’s wonderful. Slow down and relax as Damian takes you on his year-long journey seeking out the places in the UK – the atchin tans – where his people, the Romany Gypsies, have stopped, worked, lived, loved and fought since time immemorial. It’s a delicate balance between romance and history, information and folklore, language, history, keen observations of people, deep love of nature, the minutiae of daily routine and glimpses into his own personal life, all in easy prose that frequently slips into poetry. A breath of very fresh air.”
Damian lives and works mostly in Kent, with his wife, the actress Candis Nergaard, who has appeared in the TV dramas Grantchester, Call the Midwife and Peaky Blinders, and Sussex, where he grew up and where his mum and nan – who taught him the old Romany Travellers’ little-known routes and ways – both still live. His father, the artist Damian Le Bas, died last year.
He was awarded scholarships to Christ’s Hospital school in Horsham and Oxford University. Between 2011-2015, he was the editor for Travellers’ Times, Britain’s only national magazine for Gypsies and Travellers.
The Stopping Places: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain by Damian Le Bas, £14.99, is published by Chatto & Windus.
- Coming soon in Pique: an interview with Damian Le Bas.
- There’s a chance to listen to Damian Le Bas reading The Stopping Places as BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week. In the final instalment on Friday June 9, there’s tension at the festivities of the annual Appleby Horse Fair, which is taking place this (June 7-10). For details, visit bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b62kf9/episodes/guide.