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Gypsies Then and Now

When I was around 6 or so, and very new to Britain, some children asked me if I would like to play with them and I said 'Yes.' So the oldest one took me by the hand and we all went down Station Hill to pick blackberries. We had fun and I forgot the time.

At some point my father appeared, furious. He walked up to me and slapped me on the backs of my legs. It was the only time in my life my Dad hit me, except one other by accident. He grabbed me and pulled me away from the group.
'And what's this rag on you?' He roared, tearing off this cardigan one of the girls had given me and throwing it to the ground. After that he had little to say, til we got home where my tearful mother was barely recovering from hysterical visions of my abduction.

'Playing with gypsies, no less!' Explained Dad, and then both of them tried to tell me that leaving home the way I did, not telling them and then not coming back for hours was one of the worst things I could do. This was while my mother plonked me in a bath and was scrubbing me with everything short of household bleach. They never said, 'Don't play with gypsies,' but kept me focused on a simpler lesson; 'Don't ever go off with strangers, even if they are other children.'

I liked the gypsies.

Saturday morning, a few caravans turned up on part of the local nature reserve. Late afternoon,the common was covered in caravans and cars; they had already had a few campfires; it is very likely that the wood they used came from Oxleas, an ancient deciduous wood and site of special scientific interest. Sunday the common was covered nose to tail with vehicles, there was litter everywhere and men could be seen urinating in the grass. My neighbour is furious and has emailed her MP already; and me? I feel terrible but wish they hadn't chosen this spot. Years ago in the 90s I was one of the campaigners who worked towards stopping the road developments affecting Oxleas wood and its environs. No, we don't want it turned into tarmac or a rubbish tip. Having it ruined by private individuals is no better than having it ruined by corporations. The police are already on the case, I have no idea what the council is doing.

I always wanted to live on the open road and I hope I am not expressing bigotry towards the same kind of people who were so kind to me when I was a little girl. Am I kidding myself? Is this some kind of Hyacinth Bouquet barely sublimated snobbery?

It would be easier for me if they had chosen Plumstead Common, which is larger and as far as I know, has no preservation issues. I don't know why they chose to pitch right next to the forest unless it is to use the wood.

UPDATED TO ADD: Well they have been moved on, and though I'm relieved for the sake of Oxleas wood, other concerns remain. I am pleased to see that every London borough has to have adequate camping sites with good facilities for travellers, but I wonder if generally there are enough such places. The Greenwich one appears to be full, so I find myself thinking, What do they do then? Where do they go?



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