I have so many happy memories of long, sunny Augusts in the 1950’s that were spent in Bontnewydd, near Caernarfon on the North Welsh coast. It was a friendly little place so I had got to know most people there, seeing them around the village. But there was one gentleman I didn’t know who always caught my eye. He came to the village every morning; small, bespectacled, smartly dressed and with dazzling white hair and moustache and usually wearing a colourful neckerchief. My mother told me she thought he was a gypsy, living in a tent somewhere on the outskirts of the village, but other than that she knew no more than I did.
I’d always had an interest in the lives of gypsies and their histories, so I made an effort to get chatting to the smart and cheery man, and get to know him a little more. His name, I soon learnt, was Uriah Lovell, and he was descended from one of the most famous Romany families. I knew that Romany gypsies tended to be suspicious of “gawjos” so I didn’t rush it, but one day he caught up with me as I was walking towards Maesmerddyn Hill. After chatting some, he pointed to the corner of a field where there was a small tent shaped like half an orange.
“That’s where I live” Uriah told me. “I hope we will see each other again!”
I learnt that this type of tent was the tradition for Romany gypsies, before they took to caravans. The framework was wood, usually hazel, with pieces of canvas or tarpaulin spread across them, all insulated with thick brown paper. A stove was made from an old-fashioned milk churn, burning coal or wood. When it was time to move on, the tent and the furniture were carried in a cart or packed on the back of a mule or horse, and remarkably, Uriah Lovell had spent his whole life in this type of tent.
I began to bump into Uriah more often and he was always a cheerful character, courteous and gentlemanly. I only once saw him about to lose his temper, and really, that was my fault because I was questioning the origins of the Romany gypsies – I thought they had originally come from northern India, but Uriah was adamant that they are from Rome.
In history, the origins of the Romany Gypsies have been notoriously difficult to trace. There are virtually no documents or pieces of literature to tie them to a time or place, with only their language and customs linking them to their past. It was fairly recently discovered that blood groups of Romany Gypsies are very similar to those of tribes from India, and that in fact, the roots of their language can be traced back to the Sanskrit language. It’s thought likely that the Romanies emigrated from India towards the Middle East a couple of thousand years ago. But to Uriah Lovell, the Romanies were Romans and there was no argument.
The Romany gypsies passed down many customs through the generations and one of the crucial ones was medicine. The gypsies would never call a doctor; the mother of the family would know and understand all kinds of natural remedies and cures for all sorts of ailments. She would pass down this knowledge to her daughters so that it was the gypsy’s custom to practice medicine themselves. Uriah Lovell showed us some of this know-how one day when he picked a young dandelion plant from its roots to give to a friend in the village who complained that the medication he was taking was making him ill; the patient soon confirmed that he didn’t need to take the Western medicine any longer, the dandelion root, without any side effects, was working perfectly.
Another custom of Romany gypsies that may be viewed with horror in modern times was to hold newborn babies in cold well water, in order to harden them and toughen them up for life as a gypsy. This was witnessed once by my wife’s uncle, who was terrified of the gypsies and wrongly thought they were trying to drown the baby. Not so at all, but it’s a custom that may raise eyebrows among “gawjos” today!
Sadly, at the age of 81, Uriah passed away in one of Caernarfon’s hospitals. The landowner where Uriah camped kept his promise to burn the gypsy’s tent and all of his possessions, another of the Romany customs.
By now, only very few true gypsies remain, with the exception of those from the countries of mainland Europe. They have married with “gawjos” and those seen on the roads and countryside who are referred to as gypsies, are in fact half gypsies. But Uriah Lovell, the kind and gentle gypsy, holds fond memories for me of long Welsh summers with a fascinating character.
“The Man of the Tent”, Uriah Lovell was my great-grandfather (on my father William’s side), so here is a bit more to add to the story.
Uriah Lovell had two great loves in his life. One was his passion for his life as a Romany Gypsy, and the second was a girl called Rebecca Scamp. Uriah and Rebecca met when they were young, got married and had 6 children – 3 girls and 3 boys. And although their love story is an unusual one because they didn’t live together or travel together, Rebecca was the love of Uriah’s life.
When their children were young, they travelled up and down through England and Wales with their father, setting up camps and meeting other Romany Gypsies along the way. Uriah made a living making baskets and pegs and selling them in the villages and towns they visited. When Rebecca decided to return to Ireland when their children had grown up, Uriah never forgot her, and travelled there to see his estranged wife and son Ruben, just three months before he died. In a tragic twist, Rebecca died just three months after Uriah. We often wonder if she died from a broken heart.
Uriah and Rebecca’s son Ruby stayed in Ireland and his children are still there (including my own father William Uriah Lovell) but Ruby’s siblings stayed in Wales and made their lives here, just like their father Uriah.
And my father William (who’s nickname is “Cockaboy”) remembers Uriah as a strong and fit man, even in his old age. And his secret to a long and healthy life? Every morning, come rain, hale or snow, he would strip down to his waist and bathe in ice cold water. This, he told my father, would keep him young! There certainly would have been plenty of icy cold water for Uriah in Wales!