Romany Day celebrated in Surrey!
On Sunday the 11th of June 2023, a line of vans and motorhomes pulled onto the grounds of the Rural Life Living Museum Tilford Surrey. Driving through the large stable gate was a familiar feeling, but one I had not had since 2019.
The pandemic had put pay to our much-loved Romany day, a day that has been laid on by Surrey Gypsy Traveller Communities Forum for some 12 years. The Rural Life Living Museum combined with Romany day, holds a special place in the hearts of many. We in the community call it our happy place.
It holds special memories of our late dear friends and loved ones, Ryalla Duffy and Ann Wilson MBE, and that of their families. It is a place where Ryalla, Ann and I, felt welcomed over the years, a stopping place for a weekend, where we not only put on a show for our communities but for all to attend and be welcomed to immerse themselves in our lifestyle and culture and celebration of history and heritage to celebrate, Gypsy, Roma Traveller History Month.
The museum is a beautiful place to visit, tucked away down a small country lane in Farnham, it is awash with history from yesteryear and has Wagons, a Gypsy camp and history boards of Romany families, nestled under dappled shade in woodland surroundings, a peaceful place, where on our early morning arrival to set up for the day, only birdsong could be heard. Off the beaten track away from busy roads, out-buildings sit with classic cars, there’s a small village hall and a tiny church.
We always said we would come back here, that we would make it bustle with song and laughter as we had all done together and so 2023 was the year, we returned and the families of Ryalla and Ann came to be part of the day, to keep the memories of these strong women alive, so their legacies will live on.
With a fantastic line up, we began to set up for the day, first to arrive was Billy Pidgley and I. Billy is a much loved and well know country singer one that always brings much value to the day, with much loved songs, such as Three Wooden Crosses, Forever Amen, and the Gambler. Not far behind our arrival, Britannia and Queenie arrived, setting up the fire and getting the bacon puddings cooking. Grafters like their mam, Queenie full of energy set up my yog for me, helping her old aunt out by putting on my stew pot ready for a busy day ahead. Dolly Romany Arts set up her stall, filled with artworks representing our communities beautifully, and I set up my history stall full of my ancestry.
It wasn’t long before our Florence Joelle arrived with guitarist Dave Wilson and Radio Director and presenter George Talbot, her sweet tones of Gypsy Jazz and skill on harmonica only added to the richness of the day. New to Romany Day, the very talented steel guitar player John who accompanied both Billy and Florence, to give a unique sound. Also joining us was step dancer Janet Keet-Black, with Dermot Crehan on fiddle playing traditional music.
NHS stalls, conducting instant tests nestled around the edges, joined by Surrey History and Mary Frances Trust. Even Surrey Police brought out a police car for the children to explore. Jake Bowers brought his mobile forge to build a fantastic sculpture of a horse that has been commissioned by the National Trust and will sit high on the hills of the South Downs, each piece forged by a different hand of our communities. Jake’s daughters set up the craft table and it wasn’t long before the crowd arrived, adding to the community family friendly fun day.
Raine Geoghegan, told stories and gave us beautiful poetry readings from her book ‘The Talking Stick: Oh Pookering Kosh’, and Simon Callow played whilst Raine gave us stories by song. I followed with a couple of readings from my new little poetry and memoir book ‘The Gypsy Tales Collection’, reading Romany Queen and Born by the Roadside. Then Billy opened with a song before handing over for open mic, where we heard the fantastic voice of James Turner, who wowed the audience with his rendition of ‘The Auctioneer’ that got the crowd to its feet clapping and dancing. James’s 5-year-old son Reuben James took to the mic with a Kenny Rogers song, called ‘Reuben James” that he is named after. Next up we had Donna Searle who silenced the crowd by beautifully singing acapella and Steve Issacs who got the audience moving and swaying with ‘That’s Life’. Livvy Smith, niece of Lisa Smith sung “Once I was 7 years old” and it was a joy to look around and see the sea of happy faces, dancing and laughing, just like old times. James Hawkins drew us in with his stunning vocals singing songs by Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith.
A community spirit of love and laughter was shared with all ages. Imogen Bright Moon, took us back in time teaching both young and old the technique of spinning yarn, with her graceful movement and knowledge, a heritage craft that she is a master of.
The guests were fed on rich beef stew and crusty bread and garlic mushrooms cooked in a skillet over an open fire. Britannia and Queenie cooked a melt in the mouth bacon pudding, which I am certain will draw the crowd back for 2024! Old friends got together, and new friends were made, perceptions changed and people from all communities danced, laughed, and ate together.
A sense of pride washed over me as I looked around our happy place which once again bustled with life and laughter.
The event was put together by Dee Cooper and Jeremy Harte, on behalf of the Surrey Gypsy Traveller Forum. We would like to thank Nikki at SCC for all her support in making this day happen and special thanks to Rob Bentley and Ed Fagan at the Rural Life Living Museum and Photographer Mark James for capturing all this year’s beautiful memories.
See you all next year!
By Dee Cooper
(All photographs by Mark James)