Rubbish Tip, July 1968

Approaching the town of Derby with the wagon and Bess, we had a choice to make. It was already getting quite late in the day and we needed somewhere to stop – a verge – a field – anywhere we could find wood, water and grass.

Should we carry on through the town or take the by-pass around it? Thinking there might be more chance of finding a place to draw on to we took the by-pass. Big mistake. Miles and miles of suburban houses, no verges, no grass anywhere. 

Bess was getting too tired. We took a turning off the main road past the Rolls Royce factory. Behind the factory was a rubbish tip. We had to stop there as the chance of finding anything better was waning with the day.

I remember it as mountainous piles of broken wood and fence posts and wire and bald tyres, fridges and sacking and bent up rusting iron – as far as the eye could see.

As we unharnessed Bess and found her a few dusty clumps of grass we realised we were getting stared at. Little eyes above the wreckage, tiny laughter and shy advance. These five children lived with their parents in a caravan parked on the edge of the tip. The whole family walked across to introduce themselves and we came to understand that the Travelling community already knew all about us. Their systems of communication far out-did those of the police. 

We were pitied for our tiny wagon and the offer was made to there and then take the top off and build a decent living space onto the base, big enough for a stove and a proper bed. Wouldn’t take long they said. So tempting, but we were fond of our old bread van with its oval windows, shaped canopy and sheet-metal covered sides. 

Kindness continued with the family going to the fish and chip shop and bringing us our supper. This was so very welcome after miles of brown rice and lentils cooked on smoky fires, especially as I had just boiled our kettle on some rough wood – wood that had probably been impregnated with some kind of bitumen preservative – and the tea tasted poisonous. 

Their bottle of lemonade tasted heavenly. We spent the evening listening to stories – told with a humour I would come to know as that of a people who understand too much of oppression and hatred.

As we harnessed Bess up again the next morning and went to say grateful goodbyes to our generous hosts, a parade of Sunday dressed children lined up to wave us off. Ribbons and bows, white lace frocks – and the boys with slick hair and bow-ties. 

We were reluctant to leave them.

*******************

Rags and Bones.

Carnforth, Lancashire. Getting along on the flat, Bess walking, with us sitting up on the wagon, mostly sunny, unusually peaceful between us, Blue the dog inside.

Suddenly we were over-taken by a high-trotting horse and rattling two wheeled spring-cart driven by a widely grinning, waving man beckoning us to follow him.

As he swerved off the road into a fenced yard we realised he was a rag-and-bone man. He was also a smallholder with pigs in a pen and chickens around the yard.

Just back from his day’s collecting anything unwanted by anybody around the streets, he cheerfully asked us about ourselves and he laughed when we told him our story. 

He invited me to look through his most recent hoard which he had just tipped out on to the ground from hessian sacks – and said to take whatever I wanted. His wife came out of the house and scowled at me, but he waved her away. I should have bowed to her superiority and let her go through everything first, but I had not learned that kind of grace as yet.

Crisp white linen lace-edged sheets and pillowcases. White Victorian nightdress. An eiderdown quilt, pink and silky. Collarless shirts for Robert.

I could have gathered much more but we were always aware of the weight on Bess, which was why we left possessions here and there up the country, intending to go back and collect them one day. We never did.

I made up the wagon bed with the lace-edged sheets folded down over the pink eiderdown with the lacy pillows placed straight and perfect, ready for the night.

Invited into the house for supper I had to try not to gaze on the many chocolate biscuits lying brightly on the table, and to wait until they were offered. I sang a few songs as I always did for anyone who took us in; we said our goodnights and thankyous and looked forward to climbing into our clean pink and white bed.

Blue the dog had got there first. After a visit to the pig-pen. 

Vashti Bunyan

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