Explorer Ed Stafford’s surprise personal discovery at Appleby Horse Fair


Explorer Ed Stafford made a shocking discovery about himself at Appleby Horse Fair.

The former Army Captain entered the gypsy community for his latest Channel 4 documentary.

The 46-year-old was fearful as he prepared to spend 60 days on the road in a caravan, living on the fringes of society.

During this time, there were some confronting moments – someone defecated on his windscreen, kids showed off knuckle dusters and used catapults to kill squirrels for dinner.

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But Ed admitted that he had his preconceptions smashed during filming, discovering an ancient culture, with multi-generational families living in the great outdoors and simply struggling to survive against an unwelcoming society, Mirror reports.

It was at Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria, the biggest event in the gypsy calendar, that he made a shocking discovery.

One of the women Ed met, Sherrie, decided to Google him, discovering that his birth name, Lovell, is a common gypsy name.

“Welcome to the family!” she declares, leaving Ed stunned.

The dad-of-three, who is adopted, said: “She just had an instinct that I was a gypsy. I was really interested because I had felt quite a connection to the community.

“Suddenly, when I recognized that there was a possibility that I did have ancestral gypsy blood, I decided that it was a good thing to look into. The production team found an ancestry gypsy lady to dig into my history and find out where there was any truth in this.

“She came in and quite theatrically gave me my family tree, revealing that my four-times great grandfather Anthony Lovell and his wife Jane Light, who married in 1833, were both from Romani gypsy families. “The moment I found out it made me smile, it gave me almost a sense of pride. I am adopted and that was a little door that was unlocked in terms of unlocking my past.

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“It also answered questions. I didn’t necessarily fit in with my upbringing in Leicestershire and going to boarding school – I got into all sorts of trouble and I ended up channeling that energy into something inherently quite nomadic, walking along the Amazon and doing expeditions.”

Ed on 60 days with the Gypsies
Ed on 60 days with the Gypsies

In 60 Days With The Gypsies, Ed spends time with Romani gypsies and Irish travelers across the UK, discovering an uncompromising world steeped in tradition and a community viewed with mistrust.

Toughening laws mean they could face instant evictions, loss of property, fines of up to £2,500 or even three months in prison if they stop in the wrong place, but common land is fast disappearing and space on permanent sites are like gold dust.

Ed says: “I was naive. All I knew about gypsies was negative or hearsay. Like a lot of people, I had prejudices, but it is so difficult to live as a nomadic person in the UK.”

Ed admits that he did encounter some of the stereotypes, with some groups blaring dance music until late, leaving litter, and kids tearing around on noisy motorbikes.

“They bring a lot on themselves, they don’t always play by the rules,” says Ed, “But society doesn’t make it easy to do that.”

In Manchester, Ed meets a group of gypsy lads who were using catapults to kill squirrels and pigeons for dinner. “Put a load of seasoning on them!” explains one kid, while Ed hangs off a tree to break a branch for firewood.

Ed says: “We may think it’s slightly naughty behaviour, but they were absolutely crack shots. It appears a bit rough and ready, but it’s quite wholesome as well.

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“To be able to step out of the caravan, you’ve got your cousins, your auntie, your grandma. To have multigenerational families living essentially outdoors, there’s a huge amount to be said for it. They also don’t lean on outsourcing other people for support, they support each other. There are a few answers in this nomadic way of life. There is a sense of community.”

Horses In The River Eden At Appleby Horse Fair
Horses In The River Eden At Appleby Horse Fair

Ed also heard terrifying stories of abuse. “Farmers run us over with tractors, spray us with s***,” said one dad. “Somebody tried to rip a window off a caravan and tried to stab one of our friends. He wanted to chuck a kettle bomb in while the kids were inside.”

At one camp, Ed had a taste of what can happen when a community is marginalized, discovering his van had been vandalized.

He says: “There is confrontation and there are people out there who are prepared to do nasty things. Who wants to have human faces sliding down the f***ing windscreen? It angered me at the time.

“I genuinely don’t know who did it, it could have come from within the community or outside. I didn’t point fingers, it’s just not a nice thing to happen.”

Ed admits he struggled to understand why anyone would choose such a hard life, often living hand to mouth with no electricity or water – but he discovered a deep-rooted culture that abhors the restrictions of houses.

Ed says: “It is weird that if you’ve got four walls and a bed, you’re a human being, and if you haven’t you’re treated quite differently. People are people and should live how they want to live.

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“People don’t often realize that gypsies and travelers are an ethnicity, it’s a bloodline not a lifestyle. We should be more accepting.”

*60 Days with the Gypsies is on Monday, February 7 on Channel 4 at 9pm.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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