Up hill and down dale: the joy of traversing the Lake District in a gypsy caravan

Some travel the world seeking once-in-a-lifetime thrills and adventures, but for Naomi Tolley, it was a meeting with a remarkable family and a beautiful, humble journey across Cumbria in a handmade gypsy caravan that really set her heart racing

Uninterrupted views of Saddleback Mountain stretch out before us as our horses Bob and Charlie slowly plod to a halt.

We settle at the roadside on an elevated grassy clearing, bordered by hedgerows and a dry stone wall – the most perfect, flat spot to watch an April sun sink over the northernmost part of the Lake District National Park.

“We’ll sleep here,” says our softly spoken guide Barny Maurice, a prolific traveller and gypsy caravan builder, who is already happily preparing his beloved horses, one a Cob and one a Clydesdale, for camp.

It’s our first night on the road in ‘Roma’, one of Barny’s beautiful handmade horse-drawn gypsy caravans, or ‘vardos’. We’re journeying west from his family home near Penrith, across the Eden Valley into Britain’s largest, and perhaps most beautiful, national park.

This charming, undulating, romantic landscape of fields, fells, lakes and mountains has inspired poets, writers and painters for generations, including John Ruskin and William Wordsworth. It’s a land synonymous with creativity, inspiration and wonder, so it comes as no surprise that Barny and his half-Czech partner, Katus (pronounced ‘Katoosh’) Young – herself a beautiful, multi-lingual, world-famous musician who has performed alongside the likes of Seth Lakeman and The Levellers – have set up their family home not far from here, where they also run their unique, completely off-grid business, Wanderlusts.

As we veer off the long winding road, I can think of no better way to experience this magical English Eden than from the seat of a traditional gypsy caravan, just as the Romany gypsies have done for generations (albeit higher spec).

“The need for home comforts has already begun to melt away. Breathing in the fresh air, and taking in the views of the fells, I feel a deep sense of gratification for the simple things in life”

A former circus trapeze artist (including a period with the Mongolian State Circus), life ‘on the road’ is in Barny’s blood and his love for sharing the experience is infectious. His grandfather also travelled in these caravans as a teenager, and it seems Barny is as comfortable sleeping under the stars, being in the thick of nature and working alongside horses, as he is in his own skin.

As we settle in for the night, put the candles at the ready and set the fire to gather around for an evening of good food, live folk music and merriment with newfound friends, I feel a sense of privilege being here with such wonderful people.

“We hope to offer couples, friends and families alike a truly memorable, unforgettable experience, sharing in the same simplicity of travel,” says Barny. And after just one day on the road, plodding no faster than Bob and Charlie will allow – even through traffic-clogged Penrith town centre (which raised more than a few eyebrows) – I can wholeheartedly say I’ve collected memories that will last a lifetime.

Each gypsy caravan is a complete work of love with each vardo featuring ornate paintwork, rich and luxurious upholstery, a double bed with a bay window, and a small wood burner to take the chill out of the British air.

The need for home comforts – from televisions to kitchens with all the mod cons – has already begun to melt away and breathing in the fresh air, and taking in the views of the fells, I feel a deep sense of gratification for the simple things in life: fire, food, music, wonderful company and a vardo in which to rest my head. What more could I want or need?

“This is the life,” says Alex, who has been working alongside Barny to offer these gypsy caravans as overnight accommodation at his base, Wild in Style, at Low Wray National Trust campsite near Ambleside. From here you can stay in one of Barny’s caravans in situ, which come complete with an Andrassi tent housing a fully stocked kitchen, comfortable seating and a table and chairs.

But if you’d prefer an authentic experience of country life on the open road, I couldn’t recommend Wanderlusts highly enough. I can still hear the rhythmical plod of Bob and Charlie’s hooves as we wind our way through the Eden Valley, and feel the real sense of adventure, not to mention the freedom gained from living a simple life.

And if I close my eyes, the view of Saddleback Mountain from the open door of the vardo is as clear in my mind as the memory of sitting around the campfire at night, mesmerised by the flames and the sound of Katus’ singing voice.