“It used to be a special time when the Gypsy woman came round,” she said.
“It was something people looked forward to and welcomed. They were colourfully dressed, real characters you could say.
“They would sell their wares to the locals and they would never be short of customers.” Somewhere along the way the nation’s fascination with the romance of travelling life got a bit lost. Today’s travelling community is often viewed with an air of mistrust by the ‘settled’ population.
All sorts of negative myths and stereotypes have built up around a group that’s trying desperately to keep its culture and heritage intact in the face of the gradual yet growing influence of modern 21st century life.
Viewers of Channel 4’s recent sensationalistic insight into traveller life My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding – were treated to the spectacle of oversized wedding dresses, bare-knuckle dust-ups and the peculiar custom of ‘grabbing’.
But for Melanie, the truth about Gypsy-life couldn’t be further removed from this televisual spectacle, even if it does make compulsive viewing!
How does she know? Well, Melanie is a true Romany who can trace her ancestry far beyond the first Wigan Borough Travellers’ camps on Miry Lane.
Back to mainland Europe and right to where the nomadic people, who would come to be called Roma, first headed West from India.
“Travelling is in the blood for Roma people,” said Melanie. “Although more Travellers these days are becoming settled and choosing to live in houses, they still want to keep their culture and heritage alive.”
Melanie plays a big part in helping to keep this culture alive and also to break down some of the barriers.
Each June, Wigan celebrates Gypsy Roma Traveller Month and Melanie plays a big part. Visiting the borough’s primary and secondary schools, Melanie runs workshops where she wears traditional Gypsy costumes and dances round a model campfire.
She teaches the ancient craft of paper flower-making and keeps her keen young audiences entranced with her traveller’s tales.
It’s a labour of love for the woman who has grandchildren and great grandchildren in the borough’s schools.
“It’s a real thrill to see the young faces light up,” says Melanie.
“And by teaching the younger generation about our history we can tackle some of the stereotypes that continue to exist about our community.”
Melanie’s other passion in life is the charity she founded in 1990 called The Sunflower Trust, which provides aid to developing communities in countries such as Romania, Hungary, Bangaladesh and the Philippines.
She regularly spends time abroad visiting the various projects she has helped to set up but she promises to be back in time for this year’s celebrations.
Ann O’Shea, who is Wigan Council’s team leader for the Traveller Education Team, said: “Melanie’s a busy lady!
“We are really pleased and proud that she has found time to visit our schools to share her rich cultural heritage with young people.
“We will be putting on various activities during Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month including exhibitions at the libraries in Wigan and Leigh.
“It’s a great chance to find out more about this fascinating culture, to get behind some of the myths and see a little more about the reality of travelling life.”
For more information on events during Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month keep checking Wigan Council’s website page: Diversity Calendar 2011 (external link) (.pdf, 739.97kb). For details on how to book Melanie to visit your school or organisation you can contact Ann O’Shea via email at: A O’Shea.
For more information on the national celebrations you can visit: Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month (external link) which aims to tackle the negative stereotying and prejudices.