‘The New Gypsies’
London’s Pagan Counterculture Kings
During the ’70s, a group of people took to the U.K. countryside, adopting horse and buggies and a simple, nature-focused way of life. Some still remain, albeit now with mobile phones.
They gather and sleep in open fields, surrounded by nature and the stillness of the night. They show up at pagan celebrations, such as Stonehenge, and environmental rallies like Big Green Gathering. You may have seen them setting up camp among the thousands of music fans that gather every year at the Glastonbury music festival, their horses slowly guiding their canvas covered wagons.
These are the new age gypsies that live simplistically amongst the landscape of Britain, as documented by British photographer Iain McKell, who first discovered the group of nomads in 2001, during the annual Summer Solstice celebration at Stonehenge.McKell has spent his entire career exploring and documenting the lives of the people involved in history’s biggest counter culture movements. In 1986, he was sent on assignment for The Observer—a liberal British national paper—to photograph a group of eccentric new age travelers and their band of double-decker busses as they traveled to the Summer Solstice celebration. Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the U.K. at the time, had deployed her troops to intimidate the community and force them to disperse, hoping fear would turn them back to their former, more civilized, lives.“She thought she had smashed the opposition, the miners and the unions, but new opponents were taking their place—road protesters, rioters, gypsies, outlaws, subversives,” McKell writes in the intro for The New Gypsies. “I leapt at the opportunity. I felt at last, something new and exciting was happening in Britain, a new youth protest movement.”Fifteen years later, the same communities had returned for the annual celebration, as most had year after year. The Summer Solstice typically brings over 40,000 travelers from all over the world to watch the sun align with the stones on the longest day of the year. As the sun set and the motorcades cars and buses transported everyone back home, McKell was left alone with a small group of bohemians, whom he befriended. Little did he know that he would spend the next ten years photographing their lives.The New Gypsies is a new age family photo album—one that welcomes strangers to the subjects’ nomadic existence. The portraits show the wide range of people that dwell within the culture. Both young and old, infantile and elderly, they co-exist among a mostly barren landscape, only marked by a few sparse trees and speckled with wagons of various shapes and sizes, and all the prized possessions they can fit within the canvased quarters.“They are keeping alive a valuable tradition and an alternative way of life,” McKell writes in the book. Different from the motorized travelers he had met earlier in his career, the horse-drawn wonderers live with a relatively invisible environmental footprint. They build their wagons by hand and teach those interested in learning their crafts at various festivals throughout the country.
“It’s kind of seductive and attractive and surreal, like stepping into another time,” McKell told The Daily Beast. Many of the community members practice age-old trades such as carpentry or blacksmithing to make extra cash, and their wagons are the only form of shelter they have. Their life may seem reminiscent of the Oregon Trail—which it is—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t plugged into the 21st century: solar power and mobile phones are ubiquitous, and the occasional laptop can be spotted. McKell is even friends with a few of the horse-drawn travelers on Facebook. It’s 18th century living combined with 21st century technology.
After all, the nomads like to keep contact with the wider community of new age travelers—bohemian communities, hippies who live and work on farms, and those who produce certain goods, like canvases for their hand-crafted wagons. If someone finds a great spot to set up camp miles away, they can alert friends from other groups. Some, like Pete, who McKell has become quite close with, have migrated to and from other types of nomadic communities.
Pete stuck his thumb out at the age of 17 and hitch hiked out of Birmingham, England. He was initially with a group that traveled by motor vehicles, but has spent the past two decades with a horse at his helm. He’s formed a family and raised two kids from his wagon.
Life for those born into the community isn’t much different from the day-to-day lives of typical suburban youth. Untraditional, yes, but they are socialized, taught skills to survive, and even get their own wagon when they hit puberty. At 17 or 18, they are free to adopt a more settled life—possibly moving into a flat with a friend—or choose to stay on the road. Either way, they remain a part of family life, a part of the community, and often return for brief visits.
McKell has also incorporated the community into his other projects, like high fashion photography. Soon after being introduced to Kate Moss at Glastonbury—a five-day British music festival that inspired by the hippie, counterculture, and free festival movements in the 1970s—McKell was offered the chance to photograph her for V Magazine. He thought the mix between the two would be a perfect combination. “She has a particular passion for the culture,” he said. “She has been a huge fan of the festival for years … and there has always been that traveler crossover with Glastonbury.”
So, he approached his nomadic friends to gauge their interest in the collaboration. They agreed to let McKell and Moss join their tribe for a few days. “They are almost exclusively working class and that’s how they saw Kate since she comes from a very modest background,” he said. “She’s an outdoorsy girl and she’s very rock and roll. That’s what they are all about it—it’s a counterculture from the [punk] music scene. The whole thing just fit.”
Moss even found a place among The New Gypsies. In one image, she stands unrecognizable against barren landscape with only a few trees and a handful of small wagons in the distance. She holds a young girl closely inside her oversized fur coat; both gaze into lens. A small boy holds the supermodel’s hand and peers off into the distance. If Moss wasn’t one of the biggest models in the world, you’d never know she wasn’t one of the travelers. And that was the point: “I didn’t want someone of such iconic status to contract to them. I wanted her to sit within it.”
Moss isn’t the only famous face McKell has worked with. He has also photographed Madonna in 1984 for her first international magazine cover, with pop magazine Number One. “The covers were always what was number one on the charts that week,” McKell recalled. “Madonna was maybe number 20 that week, but they thought she was really interesting and had this sort of confidence in her.”
As McKell would come to find out years later through Madonna’s publicist, the iconic singer had a not-so-welcome introduction to London’s music scene. The night before the shoot, she had performed at the historic Camden Palace music venue which, as the publicist recalled, left the singer feeling depressed. “London audiences can be really, really critical and hostile,” McKell stated. “[The publicist] said that the shoot really gave [Madonna] confidence.”
The following week she was number one on the charts.
He also met George O’Dowd before the rest of the world knew him as Boy George, when the singer was working in the coatroom of a little club in London’s West End called Billy’s, which hosted a weekly David Bowie-themed night. McKell, whose first big project was documenting London’s skinhead scene in the late 70s and early 80s, was there following the cultural shift that began to give way to the Blitz Kids counterculture of the New Romantic era.
“That was the beginning of Boy George and the New Romantic era,” McKell recalled. “They were all being inspired by Bowie and his cross-dressing, craftwork and electronic sounds. You could see the influence on Boy George and a lot of people of that movement.”
Sub- and counter-cultures are what have driven McKell throughout his career as a portrait photographer. Whether it is documenting the seaside towns where he grew up (his first project) or living on a greyhound bus from New York to Los Angeles (his most recent voyage), the photographer has seen and met some of the most fascinating people that we will only ever know through their portraits.