“Vardos:” The Horse-Drawn Wagons of British Romani

The intricately decorated interior space of a traditional "vardo."
The intricately decorated interior space of a traditional "vardo."
The intricately decorated interior space of a traditional “vardo.”

Long before there was a modern trend of minimalistic living, the British Romani, or gypsies knew how to live simply. As a nomadic culture, they traveled only with what they could carry or fit into a cart or wagon.

History of “Vardos”

It is believed that the ornate wagons came from France in the early 19th century and appeared in Britain a decade later. Initially, they were used by showmen and traveling circuses. For many centuries, gypsies traveled by foot and slept in tents. It was not until the 1850s that the British Romani started using them and they became known as “gypsy caravans” or “vardos.”

The brightly painted exterior of a "vardo."
The brightly painted exterior of a “vardo.”

Types of “Vardos”

While all Romani living wagons were traditionally ornamental horse-drawn wagons with sleeping quarters inside, they can be further classified into six main categories:

1. Burton: This wagon is considered to be the oldest type of living wagon in Britain. Early styles were not decorated. Its smaller wheels made mobility difficult.

2. Brush: A standard type of wagon, the “Brush” is known for its half door with glazed shutters and lack of skylight. The exterior typically had racks to carry goods.

3. Reading: This style represents the quintessential Romani living wagon. It has straight sides that slope outward and is sometimes called a kite wagon. Its back wheels are bigger than the front wheels which helps it travel off-road.

4. Ledge: This cottage-shaped wagon was designed to provide more living space than other styles.

5. Bow Top and 6. Open Lot: These two styles are fairly similar. The “Bow Top” is known for its curved design and camouflage decoration. The “Open Lot” differs in that it typically has a curtain covering the entrance.

Modern “Vardos”

“Vardos” still exist, but it is estimated that less than 1% of British Romani live in gypsy caravans today. Instead, the structures are used in other ways. Travelers who want a unique “glamping” experience may be able to rent a “vardo” for a few nights. With the trend toward micro-homes, some couples or families are building their own types of caravans to use as another type of home. However, unlike tradition Romani living wagons, these caravans are more likely to be pulled by car or truck than a horse.