A vintage 1930s Ruby Bowtop roulotte which can be rented at Roulotte Retreat in the Eildon Hills.
The Roulottes of the Gypsies -May 2016
The history of the gypsies is much like the people themselves – ancient, filled with unbelievable sorrow and yet incredible joy. There is both tragedy and triumph, but always there is music…
Music and dance are the lifeblood of gypsies, the soundtrack of their enduring tale. Frequently unwelcome and always in search of work, the people of the voyage have always been required to travel fast and light. Their traveling homes take on many different shapes across Europe, but perhaps there are none more beautiful than the roulottes of the Gitan and the Manouche of Provence. The Gitan (sometimes called Gitanos) are originally from Spain, but have made their home in Provence for the last several decades, and the Manouche are the French gypsies who also reside there.
In Great Britain, there are unique opportunities to experience this lifestyle firsthand without ever leaving the UK. Set in the Scottish Borders area, near the Eildon Hills, Roulotte Retreat is operated by the husband and wife team of Avril Berry and Alan Fraser. Their six roulottes which can be rented for a weekend or longer, were created by artisans in France and reflect authentic ancient details of sustainable woods but with modern conveniences. They have been built to withstand the sometimes rugged Scottish winters. Each one is special and ornate with delicate wood carvings and decorated in rich jewel tones. One of the roulottes (pictured left) is a Ruby Bowtop and is a vintage 1930s caravan, previously owned by several traveling families in the past.
Avril and Alan are passionate about promoting a simple lifestyle amongst nature in these living works of art which stand in a thriving meadow full of wildlife.
The famous 19th century composer Franz Liszt once said, “It is impossible to imagine a more complete fusion with nature than that of the gypsy.” Spending a weekend or holiday in a roulotte offers a chance to reconnect with nature in a way that was far more accessible to our ancestors. These homes on wheels seem to provide shelter in a non-invasive way with little permanent disturbance of the natural surroundings.
Not all roulottes are meant to be mobile however. In the Great Malvern area of Worcestershire, a company called Fernhills Hut and Wagon Builders are custom building beautiful roulottes that can be used as a weekend retreat, home office, guest accommodation or garden cottage. Though the structures can be moved on a trailer for delivery, they are too heavy to be moved frequently or on a regular basis. Their caravan designs range in size from 4.6 meters in length to 8.3 meters for the Grande Roulotte. They can be built as simple cottages without electricity or plumbing, or totally fitted with kitchen appliances and bathroom fixtures for use as a holiday accommodation.
The Fernhills Roulottes were chosen by Period Living Magazine in June 2015 as one of the top ten best buildings to enhance a garden. Although less ornate than vintage roulottes, the caravans still sport lots of detail work and extra design touches which give them the characteristic French flavour and a welcoming cottage feel. Painted in natural hues of blue and green, they blend seamlessly with the natural landscape.
Owner of the company, Marc and his wife Rose, lived on a boatsman cabin for 18 years. During this time, he built narrowboats for individuals and the boating industry. However, when their children came along, they decided to permanently dock their boat in favor of a more practical lifestyle for the kids, although the longing to wander never really left them. After a visit to a local museum which featured a plethora of gypsy caravans on display, Marc was inspired to create his own caravan designs and the Fernhills-based company was born.
More interested in quality than quantity, Marc designs and builds each one of the bespoke roulottes, which takes anywhere from six to twelve weeks to complete. He produces about five of the caravans each year and the waiting list is currently about one year. He has resisted the urge to hire more workers or contract the work out to others, fearing that the quality would suffer. The caravans are clad in Siberian Larch, an extremely durable timber that can last between 50 to 100 years and the windows are energy efficient with double glazing. But perhaps one of the best features is the design itself which manages to include a bathroom, kitchen and dining area, sleeping areas and tons of storage – all within a maximum of about 24 square meters without looking or feeling cramped.
Though the roulottes are meant as part-time structures, Marc is increasingly asked about the possibility of using them as permanent dwellings. He has received requests from as far away as Hawaii, Australia and even Saudi Arabia! They are not available in flat form however, and are delivered fully built to the site, making shipment to faraway lands impossible at this time. (The structures can be delivered to anywhere in the UK)
If you have your heart set on a vintage roulotte, be prepared that it will not be as comfortable as the roulottes being reproduced today, but this may be a small trade-off for the romance and charm of a vintage wagon that has been restored to perfect condition. Jeanne Bayol and partner, Jean-Marie Marechal take great care in restoring vintage roulottes at Les Verdines, located in Saint Remy de Provence. (Verdine is another word for roulotte) Each one is treated with great respect and lovingly furnished to reflect its own character and personality, while keeping its historical charm. Taking possession of a vintage roulotte is both a joy and a responsibility to continue to care for these pieces of living art. Their roulottes which are available for sale, are viewable online at les-verdines.com.
Jeanne Bayol is also a talented artist with a flair for design of all kinds, including clothing and interior decorating. A visit to his shop will be rewarded with the chance to see exquisite pieces, unique to the Bohemian culture with jewelry, paintings, sculptures, photos and ancient textiles from all over the world. Jeanne and Jean-Marie have a deep love of not only the verdines themselves, but the culture which inspired them.
For now, roulottes are a romantic link with the past when gypsies traveling in the familiar caravans was a far more common sight. At a time when people are returning to a simpler lifestyle that is more about people and experiences than wealth and material possessions, it seems that the gypsies may have known the secret to true happiness all along.
Photo at left – Ruby Bowtop, photographed by Eilidh Berry Fraser, courtesy of RoulotteRetreat.com.