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"Gypsy" caravans make a comeback as micro-homes

Photo by Flickr user Anguskirk

Think micro-homes are a new trend? Tell that to the Romani people, who lived in ornate wagons in the 19th century.

Romani living wagons, or "vardos," appeared on English roads in the late 19th century. And although the traditional wagon industry largely died out by the end of World War I, the micro-home and small footprint movements have recently embraced these unique abodes.

Though they are still typically used in similar ways, as a home away from home for travelers, there are some big differences between the old designs and the new ones. Back then, they were commissioned by wealthy Romani or carnival workers and ornately crafted by a team of blacksmiths, wheelwrights, wood carvers, gilders and painters. Now it's typically one small group of collaborators or one family working to create these little homes for themselves in their spare time. Where they were once pulled by horses, they are now pulled by a car or truck.

"I don't know horses, and I don't know how I would convince the beast to pull my wagon around the highways and byways of America," said Jim Tolpin, a wagon builder, author and Port Townshend School of Woodworking faculty member, in a statement. "But I do know how to pull trailers behind my pickup truck, so I built my wagons to be roadworthy for travel at highway speeds."

Children's books like Roald Dahl's "Danny, Champion of the World" and Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows" brought the vardo tradition to Americans like Tolpin, and other artisans worldwide.

"In the part of the world where I live -- the Northwest -- there aren't many Gypsy caravans," he said, "at least not when I became enchanted with them. So the only way I was going to get one was to build it."

Artistry and dedication to craft are still a big part of the caravan industry, which continues to value hand wood carving and the five traditional wagon styles -- Reading, Ledge, Burton, Bowtop and Openlot. But today's wagon makers aren't afraid to bend the rules.

Tolpin, Canadian Michelle Wilson of Hornby Island Caravans, Englishman Laurence Ward of the Gypsy Caravan Company, Englishman Greg Mort of Greg's Gypsy Bowtop Caravans and other modern wagon makers have a knack for creating caravan micro-homes that cater to new tastes without ditching the old ways.

One of Wilson's caravans even has the setup for a small refrigerator.

"My caravans aren't exactly traditional," Wilson said. "I think people might be more inclined toward the modern version of the vardo or caravan just because of the logistics of transporting the caravans on the roads."

"I think caravans and small spaces really appeal to a lot of people, especially those people who loved forts and playhouses when they were young."

Check out these nine traditional and not-s0-traditional vardos.

Reading style

Photo by Flickr user Anguskirk

Now located in The Hyde garden in Hampshire, England, this traditional Reading-style vardo is occasionally opened to the public. It's a good example of the Reading design style, which was established in Reading, Berkshire, according to Journey Folki, an organization promoting Gypsy travel communities.

Reading vardos are known for having large rear wheels and sloping side walls.

Reading style

Photo courtesy of the Gypsy Caravan Company

This purple wagon was built by the Gypsy Caravan Company in the Garboldisham village of Norfolk, England. It's a quaint, contemporary take on the traditional Reading style.

"I have always had a love of Gypsy caravans and good original examples are increasingly scarce -- especially the Reading style," Ward said. "So, having a love of woodwork, I spent years studying them and learning the secrets from a few old-timers that are left and I then perfected a design and started building them."

The main thing that makes this different from other Reading wagons is that it's designed as more of a backyard retreat rather than a traveling home.

"They aren't really intended to be pulled," Ward said. "Our customers use them as a spare bedroom, a garden office or hobby den, somewhere for the children [or grandchildren] to play or simply somewhere peaceful to go and sit with a glass of wine."

Ledge style

Photo by Derek Bradley

This antique Ledge-style vardo is located in the Stitchins Hill area of Worchestershire, England. According to photographer Derek Bradley, many traditional Gypsy caravans are renovated there.

Like the Reading style, Ledge wagons have rear wheels that are much larger than the ones in front. But unlike the Reading, the Ledge style features vertical lower side walls with a horizontal shelf -- or "ledge." According to the Tiny House Blog, which regularly features Romani-inspired micro-homes, Ledge caravans also have narrower floors and more elbow room.

Burton style

Photo by Flickr user Anguskirk

This example of a Burton-style caravan was displayed at the Great Dorset Steam Fair in the village of Tarrant Hinton in Dorset, England.

Burton vardos -- typically about 10 feet long -- are also called "Showman's wagons" because they were often owned by circus and carnival travelers who wanted more floor space and didn't need high wheels to cut through rough areas, according to Gypsy Vans by Roth, a company in Bend, Oregon.

The wheels of Burton-style caravans are the same size in front and back, the sides are straight and vertical and there are typically two windows on each side for extra light.

Bowtop style

Photo courtesy of Greg's Gypsy Bowtop Caravans

According to Daniel Wing, a Vermont-based physician and vardo historian, Bowtop caravans are a good choice for today's builders because their design is relatively stable at high speeds and well suited to modern wheels. Mort at the Bristol, England-based Greg's Gypsy Bowtop Caravans is taking full advantage by selling and renting out Bowtop wagons like these for U.K. travelers.

Bowtops have wooden frames and doors with ledges, but the rounded roof is covered with canvas and felt for insulation. They were especially popular among the Romani because they were hard to overturn and hard to spot. With the right color canvas, they could easily blend into their surroundings -- plus, there were no side windows to attract unwanted visitors at night.

Bowtop style

Photo by Sarah Oros, courtesy of Jim Tolpin

Tolpin built this Bowtop-style caravan, called "Trillium," in 2007. It's now located in upstate New York. Trillium is his sixth wagon, and like most of his other projects he worked with a team: A metal worker, a graphic artist and a stained glass maker.

Tolpin is very familiar with what it takes to thrive in a windowless Bowtop, having lived and traveled in one for several years starting in the 1970s. When he set out on the road, he attached his home to the frame of a 1940 Ford pickup truck.

"[When you travel by caravan] you're living with the essentials -- that's with the nomadic lifestyle too. You really have to bare it down. It's a very rich experience. That's why people are so drawn to small homes. You get the chance to experience your surrounding environment."

Openlot style

Photo by Flickr user Anguskirk

Like Bowtops, Openlot wagons have a rounded top covered in fabric. But Openlots, true to their name, are wide open to the elements with no front door or way to lock up their contents. Typically the front wall structure of Openlot caravans consists of two wooden posts and a roll of fabric for privacy. According to Wing, some Romani would build an Openlot on top of an existing wagon.

West Coast style

Photo courtesy of Hornby Island Caravans

The vardos Wilson builds at Hornby Island Caravans in British Columbia, Canada, don't remain true to any traditional design. They're much less ornate than older wagons with a modern, simple beauty. She calls them "more of a West Coast take" on conventional shapes. Wilson cites many inspirations, including Reading and Bowtop caravans, shepherd's huts, photos in British Country Living magazine, her background as a clay artist, natural materials and her collaborators, Ken Clark and Lawrence Nyberg.

This one, called "Seawright," was commissioned by a family who wanted a place to stay when relatives came to visit. It has patio doors, a queen-sized bed and a space for a small refrigerator -- a definite upgrade from anything the 19th century Romani would've enjoyed.

"Mutant Gypsy wagon"

Photo by Jennifer Morrow

This caravan, called a "mutant Gypsy wagon" by photographer Jennifer Morrow, showed up at the annual Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert region of Nevada last year.

While many antique vardos now belong to museums and collections across the pond, new and innovative designs for handmade micro-homes-on-wheels are being created now. Builders like Tolpin are confident the caravanning tradition will continue for future generations.

"[The look of caravans] is increasingly diverse," he said. "The wagons we picture historically were just one point in time -- part of English and Irish culture. There's much more geographic and cultural diversity now."

He continued, "I think the tradition's going to be preserved as more and more young people get attracted to the small house movement. ... [Caravans are] low-cost and self-built; I think that's the main focus. Some people really want to travel and be a part of that, but a lot of people want to build their own shelter."

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