Mandylion - "little handkerchief" (the early name for the 'Turin Shroud') is a showman Burton-type vardo from about 1910. The builder's name etched on the wheel hubs is H. Jones & Son of Hereford. Henry Jones built burton and ledge vans and carts at his yard in Blue School Street from 1870 to 1924 (by which time he was over 80!). When his business closed down, his apprentice George Cox started his own yard nearby and traded until the 1960s.
Jones was a master craftsman and wheelwright, and his vans were noted for their carvings; sometimes they were called Welsh waggons because of dragons found sheltering on the crownboards beneath the front porch. Jones sold his vans to Gypsies and hawkers, and he was also the main supplier to showmen in the south-west. Mandylion must be one of these, specially built for a fairground family in the golden years of travel.
In the 1920s and 30s traction engines and motor vehicles began to take over, and the showman was probably sold on to a travelling Romani family. Gypsies often purchased burton waggons from fairground folk and used them right up to the late 50s/early 60s, which is when the travellers themselves moved into dwellings or into motorhomes.
Sadly, the often tatty and well-used vardos finally met their fate, sold on to anyone who would have them or just left to rot in some corner of a garden or farm yard.
For several years in the late 1960s the showman stood outside an antique shop in Long Buckby, Northamptonshire. It was owned by the antique dealer, Lewis Mays, who sold it on to George Buckland.
From 1970 the vardo belonged to a well known fairground family called Buckland, who lived in Northamptonshire. Around 1970 George brought in master signwriter Kenneth Bethell to restore the paintwork. The waggon then stood around for about 5 years as an attraction.
Once a little boy nearly hung himself playing beneath the timber work, but the Bucklands managed to save him. After being outside in all weathers, the seasons again took their toll on the green showman vardo, and it lost its colourful glory along with some timbers.
Last paintwork restored by K E Bethell, Plumpton
Ken Bethell died in 2000 but his son, Alan, clearly recalls the restoration work. Alan remembers helping his father paint the vardo in a barn at Oakley Bank Farm, Woodend. It took about 10 weeks, and the vardo was finished off in gold leaf by his father.
Sharnford in Leicester
About 1974 haulier John Brindley bought the waggon off the Bucklands. He intended to completely restore the waggon but never got around to it.
So the vardo spent the next 30 years of its life standing in Sharnford, stored and collecting dust in the corner of a large shed in a transport yard, mystically watching modern waggons come and go. Luckily, it was well preserved by the dryness of the building.
A new century in Wales
Mandylion was finally sold at auction to a family with Welsh Romani and fairground roots.
One cold March day the vardo was loaded onto a trailer in the Sharnford yard ready for the journey to its next home. Covered in a bright blue tarpaulin, the waggon resembled a small terraced house on wheels as it coasted 150 miles to North Wales.
The restoration of Mandylion is being filmed for an archive programme, and within two weeks work had started on the vardo.
The first facelift was simply to clean it out and give it a good wash, which is when we discovered it was still lived in by travellers after all! Gypsies with wings.
Tucked away in corners of the 'bedroom' we found eight small tortoiseshell butterflies, who went into hibernation before Christmas in Leicester and woke up, like the vardo, to a new life in a Welsh woodland in spring.
Mandylion is in the lengthy process of being fully restored. She now has a newly restored mollicroft, main roof and van sides, and the shutters are stripped and primed. The paint has been stripped from exterior carvings by Valentine Wood of Colwyn Bay. The exterior work on the upper section is now being glossed in Brunswick green tekaloid enamel paint.
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