I remember coming back from abroad one evening, switching on the TV and seeing images of double-decker buses barreling down leafy country lanes loaded with Dickensian characters sporting battered top-hats and Victorian frock-coats. It felt like Summer Holiday meets A Clockwork Orange.
In fact, these were the New Age Travellers of the Peace Convoy and they fascinated me. A year later, in 1986, when the Summer Solstice came round again, Margaret Thatcher sent in the troops and they smashed up the travellers’ vehicles under the pretext they were damaging Stonehenge. In reality, she was trying to quash this anarchistic Punk Hippie counterculture from fomenting rebellion. She thought they’d all just pack up and go back to their homes, but they didn’t have homes. That was when the liberal British national Sunday paper, The Observer, sent me to photograph their route towards Stonehenge. I leapt at the opportunity. I felt that at last something new and exciting was happening in Britain—a new youth protest movement. I was immediately taken with this idea of punk in the landscape and these larger-than-life characters, who seemed to hark back to the extremes of the Post-Industrial Revolution—a blot on the British landscape. It was Biblical, filmic; these gangs of urban subcultures let loose in a rural setting.
The second time I met them was fifteen years later, in 2001, once more at the Summer Solstice by Stonehenge. I returned there to see how the culture had developed and with the intention of taking some more portraits of people in their rigs (the Hippie buses that they use to travel from place to place). I had been told that at Stonehenge I would find 300 or 400 New Age Traveller buses in amongst other vehicles. It was clearly still a strong subculture movement but, within that ragtag jumble of travellers, I found a small tribe—a newly formed hybrid that had evolved from the bus to the horse and wagon. It felt so surreal, how suddenly the pace of life slowed down. I had stumbled upon a completely different mindset. I found it really inspiring. I realized immediately that I wanted to delve further into this project, but I had no idea I was going to spend the next ten years of my life working on it.
Ironically, I grew up with Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film set in the near future when mankind would find its destiny in the stars. For me, 2001 was when I found the future. My destiny lay not in a state-of-the-art spaceship hovering over Stonehenge, but in a train of rustic gypsy wagons. It was also the summer before 9/11—as Pete, one of the Horsedrawn, said, “It’s Vietnam all over again.” As the Western world went into a time of reflection with war looming on the horizon, popular culture looked to the open road.
The New Gypsies are not completely isolated from the twenty-first century. In fact, they embrace technology. Without mobile phones, for example, there wouldn’t be a community, because they wouldn’t be able to coordinate travels with one another. If someone finds a really good park-up down the A3, near Surbiton, for example, word spreads quickly. There is a grapevine, and it is watered by the latest gadgets. Solar power too is incredibly useful—it’s free after all. That’s why I see the New Gypsies lifestyle more as science fiction than history, because it’s applying new technology—solar power, wind generators, horse and wagons—that leaves no carbon footprint. By the same token, many of the New Gypsies are craftspeople—carpenters or blacksmiths. It’s the eighteenth meets the twenty-first century, and it could point a way forward for a planet in trouble.
I’m very aware of the judgments and misconceptions concerning my friends in the Horsedrawn, but at the same time, I notice that there is also a deep-seated attraction to these people and their alternative lifestyle. Obviously, the gypsy life has romantic connotations, and that is heightened by the Horsedrawn tribe’s renunciation of engines. Maybe it is romantic in the summer when you’re playing around with the horses in the fields, tiptoeing through the lovely long grass and going to sleep under the stars bathed in the warmth of a beautiful summer’s evening, it resembles the virgin’s dream of running away with the gypsies. But when it starts to get chilly, cold, rainy and your friend Martin is found blue in his wagon, dead of pneumonia, it’s hard to be so romantic. I asked one of my friends why he lives this way and he simply replied: “Iain, I couldn’t live any other way. I can’t operate in the city. I just can’t function in society as we know it. This is the life for me. Hard or romantic or just the way it is: it suits me.”
It’s ironic that I see the way of life of the New Gypsies as the future rather than the past. These are modern people—predominantly from cities—who have moved out of largely working-class urban communities and poor accommodation to escape the endless shit being dumped on them. They took Norman Tebbitt’s advice, got their bikes (or wagons in this case) on the road and found freedom. Their freedom is not in this country, but in their heads, where freedom is in the journey.