Bed and breakfast Wallingford Oxfordshire

Bed & Breakfast

Ewelme, Wallingford
Oxon, OX10 6HU

Self Catering Cottages


Chapter 9


No account of Ewelme and its characters would be complete without a mention of old Nancy Smith, the gypsy woman from Nettlebed Common, who used periodically to wander down from the hills to visit Ewelme for pecuniary purposes, for like all Romanies Nancy was past-mistress of the art of begging. She used to spend her time in making flowers out of pith, which was splayed backwards from the stem, so as to form petals, which were then dyed in bright colours, and very decorative the result was when mixed with dark foliage for a winter bouquet. To her more practical customers Nancy used to sell wooden pegs. With her swarthy wrinkled skin, her lithe figure striding ahead, her bright kerchief tied on black hair twisted in thin plaits round her ears, and with her scarlet bodice and shawl over a dark skirt, Nancy night have stepped straight out of the pages of “ Lavengro ” or “ Romany Rye ”.

When we first knew her Nancy was accompanied by her brother - who played plaintive gypsy airs on his fiddle, though sometimes he would break out into wild dance music, reminiscent, no doubt, of his younger and more lively days. He followed Nancy on her rounds like a shadow for some years, till one day Nancy appeared alone, and when we asked her about her brother, she told us the sad news that he “ had been took with the cancer ” and could go no more on his rounds or help her with her “ silver collection ”. For Nancy's begging technique was masterly: she timed her visits usually about six weeks before Christmas, Easter or Whitsun, or the harvest celebration, as the case might be. “ I've just come to wish you a Merry Christmas, lady ”, (or Easter or whatever the approaching festival) “ and I shan't be round again no more, lady, before Christmas-time, so I just called to bless your pretty face and to wish you all a Merry Christmas - and do give a poor old woman just one other sixpence now, darlin', won't you? ” This after the gift of a first sixpence and the purchase of some of her decorative flowers, which was regarded merely as a preliminary business to the crossing of her pain with silver and the reading of my hand

- “ You've the lucky face, darlin' ”, she would say, “ and ‘tis a grand marriage you'll make to be sure, you mark old Nancy's words ”. (Sixpence in those days was, it must be remembered, still of some value!)

Compliments flowed easily from Nancy's lips and of her it might truly be said that “ gratitude was the lively expectation of favours to come ” - “ Good luck to you, darlin' ” she would croon in her wheedling voice, “ Lord love your pretty face, dear, and it's the lucky eyes you've got to be sure ”, and such-like assurances were agreeable to the young and inexperienced mind till one learned in later years to be sceptical of the Romany's pro­phecies and of the good fortune that never seemed to arrive!

Nancy, in her cunning way, usually paid a second visit nearer the actual date of the coming festival, just to assure herself, as she would say, that she had not forgotten to wish us all the joys of the season! And this, of course, demanded at least another sixpence! It was on one of these occasions that my brother and I passed Nancy in a lane and she startled us by calling admiringly to my brother as we approached -“ Lord love you, darlin', but you grows every time I sees you !” (He was well over six feet in height, and as it was barely three weeks since last we had seen Nancy, the remark was premature to say the least.) When reminded of this Nancy was ready with her reply - “ well, and if ‘twas but three weeks ago, that don't matter, do it? You grows just the same!

One fine day Nancy brought young lass with her to our front door - a stranger.” Well, Nancy”, I asked, “And who is this?” - “ Tis a young Romany chi, now, dear”, she answered , “she hasn't got no popper nor no mommer belonging to her, poor young thing ”. (The girl, with reddish hair, was evidently no full-blooded Romany like old Nancy.) “ Well, Nancy ,” I asked again, “ Your girl doesn't look to me like a right Romany chi all through. I should have thought that her mommer had been a Gorgio?

Nancy admitted this at once - “ Yes, darlin' ”, she rejoined, “ You're quite right now. Her popper was the right Romany breed, but her mommer was a Gorgio sure enough, and she's my granddaughter you see ,” “ Now what is her name ?” I went on. “ Victoria, lady, Victoria Smith ” (This with a fine gesture.) A magnificent name for this wild-looking child of fourteen! Shades of Borrow!

Poor old Nancy Smith, living in those remote days in her painted caravan on the lonely common with her sick brother, I never knew what was your end - But it is sad to think that the Romanies of today are no longer allowed to follow their tribal nomadic way of life, for something free and elemen­tal will be lost if the true Romany breed is allowed to die.