Heritage Matters: Restoring Romany Culture

A year ago, the Heritage Matters Organisation purchased a Romany wagon or ‘vardo’ that dates back to 1908. The traditional wedding cart was the focus of a project designed to create an educational resource through which young people could learn about their own culture, traditions and practices and to enable them to engage with their own search for their individual personal narratives related to this item of cultural heritage.

The wagon was restored using traditional techniques, materials and paints by the experienced Romany wagon restorer Henry Stanford, who is based in Cranbrook near Staplehurst in Kent. Inside the wagon, artists Emma Blackwood has produced designs for 46 roof panels. The panels act as a way of recalling and remembering a range of diverse social and cultural groups from East Kent and act as a source of artistic and creative recollection and remembrance by offering a unique perspective on the past. All the figures in the cultural narrative encompass figures as diverse as smugglers, fruit pickers, hop pickers, agricultural workers, miners, Romany travellers, dreamers, dissenters, visionaries, performers, entertainers as well as motifs and themes taken from the land itself.

Woodcarver Martin Brockman created 46 specially handcrafted carved roof panels echoing and reflecting traditional themes and motifs from within the local countryside. Many of the panels also reflect the complex cultural, social and historical aspects of Kent, and there are references to a whole range of characters from the past, many of whom came to the county from abroad, fleeing persecution and discrimination in Europe. These images are at once subversive and represent the micro-histories of the everyday person who inhabits the margins and edges of history, who are forgotten and whose cultural legacies are blown upon the winds of time and memory into oblivion.

The intention is to use the wagon as a way of challenging many of the prejudices and preconceptions that people have about Romany travellers by celebrating our common heritage and inheritance through the shared cultural experiences and practices that are embedded within the culture of East Kent and are largely derived from a series of strong Romany sources based upon agricultural cycles, seasonal cycles of planting and harvesting as well as stories that are closely tied to the landscape of East Kent itself.

In phase II of the project, the wagon will be developed as a thinking and dreaming space for creative writing and young people will become involved in the marketing of the heritage item to local communities who will take part in the production of their own cultural responses to the wagon restoration and to the stories contained within the fabric of the wagon itself.

The Heritage Matters Organisation was established in September 2008 with the intention of making local heritage and culture more attractive to young people in the Kent area. The vardo project was generously supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. As well as the vardo, we have, with the help of the artist Gareth Polmeer, created the Heritage Matters website (www.heritagematters.net) and produced a film documenting the restoration process called ‘Harry Bacon’ that was shown in the Turner Gallery in Margate in the summer of 2009. As a result of the stories that arose from the restoration, we contacted the well-known Romany storyteller William Lee, and his stories, tales and folk memories were also published on the website and also on a set of CDs for educational purposes and to capture his voice for posterity.

It is hoped that the wagon will become a living resource to teach all age groups about their own culture and will also be used as a cultural lens to filter and to focus the creative writing process and the imagination for future generations to learn from by adding layers of meaning and importance to the cultural processes and experiences of every individual who visits it.

The vardo is currently situated in Cranbrook, but will re-locate to New Romney from January onwards. Schools wishing to arrange bookings can email me.

Richard Robinson
Creative Director
The Canterbury High School
Founder, The Heritage Matters Organisation

copyright © Runnymede Trust and individual authors.