A WRITER born into a traditional Gypsy family in Sussex has published a book detailing his extraordinary road journey to the stopping places of his ancestors.
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. 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”.
In his debut book, The Stopping Places: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain, he documents a year he spent in a camper van discovering 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 laybys and hidden Gypsy churches.
“I wanted to pay homage to my forebears for surviving and for having such amazing stories,” he says. “Part of the reason I decided to do it was because I wanted to know if I could do it. It was a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down to me by my ancestors.”
Above: The Stopping Places by Damian Le Bas
Top: Damian Le Bas/picture: Charles Moriaty
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.
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, the writer and film-maker captures the places, characters and stories of his ancestors.
“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.”
He tells Pique magazine that people often tie the travelling way of life to “Bohemian wanderlust”. “They think there is a desire of Romany people to travel – and it’s not. They travel for work and for economic reasons,” he says. “We are just like anybody else.”
During his journey, he also learned more about his own identity. “I discovered that my morale was far flimsier than I thought,” he says. “I would get miserable more easily. I had to find the tenacious stuff in myself. Because I was spending more time outside, I became more hardier physically, and I’m now a bit less inclined to acquiesce to something I do not want to do. Coercion does not work on me like it used to. It also made me more eager to please myself.”
He was shocked at how long it took to reach a destination and how his perspective of time changed. “I was removed from the working week and so time passed almost without me noticing,” he explains. “My year of travel also taught me that a place that can be idyllic in the summer becomes a tough place to survive in the winter.”
He was motivated to write the book after working as a journalist on traveller issues for a number of years and growing weary of the general ignorance about Travellers. “I was asked the same basic questions over and over again, such as do Roma come from Romania?” says Damian. “The conversation is of such low quality. I do experience fatigue about the subject. This was a particular book and has fulfilled a specific aim and I have covered it as much as I can in literary terms. I would like to explore it more in fiction though.”
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. Both of his parents were artists; his father, the artist Damian Le Bas, died last year.
He was awarded scholarships to Christ’s Hospital school in Horsham and went to Oxford University, where he studied theology. 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.