Gypsy wagons are in my blood. My grandparents were travellers and it was always there in the back of my mind.
I trained as a signwriter when I left school and got into painting wagons and London Trolleys which are, for want of a better explanation, like Steptoe’s wagon. You can shave in them, their paintwork is so shiny. In the early days of Chas & Dave I was too busy. We were travelling around the world and I didn’t have time to touch a brush. When it started to slow down, I’d work on things on my days off. I’d rush back from a gig and get stuck into a job but then have to be off on the road for six weeks before being able to get back to it.
Carving injuries go with the job. I could never get the hang of a chisel, so I carve with a Stanley knife. Like a musical instrument, the more you practice the better you get, but on the way I’ve had a few bad cuts. I remember getting a smashing cut while practising before a gig in Leeds. My finger opened up like a jaw and I thought how am I going to play? You can play bass with a cut finger but banjo or guitar is impossible.
I’m just finishing a wagon that’s taken me five years. It was built in 1912, by a Mr Fairbrother in Halifax, and is a traditional wagon in the Dunton style. There are lots of bow or canvas-topped wagons, they’re more popular in the north than the south. To me, they’re tents on wheels although loads of travellers would disagree. I’m a bit snobbish about what I like. A straight-sided wagon with doors and windows is a palace.
My wagon was in a right state when I got hold of it so I’ve ripped it all out and restored it completely. Wagons like this are ideal for knife work because the sides are soft pine with ash for the unders, to give it stability. The problem is finding the details. The windows are Empress glass, a special Victorian glass with little stars in the corners called Glory stars. I’d tried to find them for ages, then just by a matter of luck popped into a glass shop in Reading on the way back from a gig – they had it all. They make all the windows for the Harry Potter movies and there’s nothing they can’t do with glass.
The one thing they couldn’t do was amber knobs. Amber knobs are so desirable on Gypsy wagons but you can’t get them anymore. Gypsies love their amber glass, but the machines to make them have all gone. I’ve known people buying a dilapidated wagon just to get the knobs. Now I’ve found someone who makes them by hand.
Gypsies are the last of the Victorians. They love their lace curtains, good carpets and Crown Derby china, but the old travelling men are going now. The last heyday for ‘wagon-time’, as they call it, was the 1960s. There are a few hanging on in Yorkshire, but it’s difficult now. You can’t tie your horse up on the verges any more and that’s killing it off.
Not that it’s the end of wagons. They’re everywhere, used as swimming-pool changing rooms for kids or for holidays with built-in gas-cookers, bathrooms and jacuzzis. There’s a load of good wagons stuck by swimming pools, probably needing a lot of work because all that soft wood soon goes.
There are still loads of wagon painters too, but lettering by hand is dying out. It’s all vinyl lettering now. The sort of lettering I do, which is from the turn of the century, called blocking and blending,
isn’t available on transfers. Even if it was available, I doubt the horse-drawn fraternity would want them. They won’t have a sprayed vehicle or transfers. In their world, it has to be painted by hand. It has to be traditional. That suits me. I’m a wagon nut.
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 29 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!