Whatever Happened to the Romantic Travelling People?

British Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has called for swifter clampdowns on illegal ‘traveller sites’, responding to an overwhelming anti-traveller public opinion in the UK. ‘Normal’ people cannot build extensions on their property without planning permission, so why should travellers be able to create new homes for themselves wherever they see fit? That is the argument of the government.

The government is fed up with ad hoc traveller settlements
The government is fed up with ad hoc traveller settlements

The Gypsy Council, however, which represents travelling communities, argues that legal provisions for traveller settlements are insufficient and traveller rights are not enshrined in UK law.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that many ‘travellers’ don’t actually travel very much. An illegal community at Dale Farm, Essex, was finally evicted from the land it occupied in 2011 after over a decade of tenancy. The fierce confrontation between residents and policeman helped turn public opinion further against the obdurate travellers.

Perhaps traveller is not an apt term for the people it supposedly defines. It is certainly a far cry from the notion of the free-spirited wanderer of the eighteenth century.

Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and Thomas Gray littered their works with natural imagery and participated in marathon walks across Britain’s untamed countryside, professing the moral virtues of those that freed themselves from the sedentary lifestyle. Wordsworth’s most famous poem, Daffodils, is officially titled: “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and was inspired by a walk he took with his sister at Ullswater in the Lake District.

Ullswater by J.M.W Turner
Ullswater by J.M.W Turner

The imagery in the poetry of the Romantics cries freedom. Ewan MacColl, writing in the 20th century acknowledged this, with his own take on The Travelling People:

I’m a free born man of the travelling people

Got no fixed abode and no man is my master

Country lanes and byways were always my ways

I never fancied being lumbered

A comment on the constraints of industrial living, MacColl’s lyrics reignited the romantic imagery of the traveller just when such sentiment had all but died out. In a country of increasing urbanisation, the lives of the travellers and the sedentary no longer cohabited so easily. A bias towards city dwellers forced the travellers into urban territory in search of vital services.

It was hard to retain a notion of Romantic freedom as urban slums evolved
It was hard to retain a notion of Romantic freedom as urban slums evolved

Meanwhile, across Europe, anti-Gypsy prejudice rose and widespread persecution continued, even after Hitler’s annihilatory efforts during WWII. The term traveller became used as a convenient cover for Gypsies keen to avoid the prejudices wrought upon their kind.

Simply, there is no easy place for the true traveller in modern society. There are just too many of us. The glorious wanderings and sightseeing of the Romantics could only be sustained by an eccentric few withdrawn from mainstream humanity.

Other so-called travellers despoil their reputation by leaving filth and ruin in their path as they move to the next abode. In paying respect to the land they supposedly cherish, it would be easier to accept their nomadism, however illusory it may be.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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