It is Friday night. I'm 30 years old, alone on a fake-fur blanket in the back of a cold Transit van. Most of my generation are out there in pubs, or indoors by the telly, canoodling, arguing or cooking, or going across to the thermostat to turn the heating up. I'm parked on a Cornish industrial estate with no warmth except the tiny, wavering plume of heat that rises out of my lantern. This place is so lonesome that even the doggers, boy-racers and stoners have spurned it. I curse myself silently. You're not a Traveller, my mate, you're a div. What sort of Traveller would come and sleep here on their own? I have covered thousands of miles in my van in a bid to uncover the history of Gypsy Britain. But the road is proving tough.

Gypsy reality is partly composed of fairgrounds and showgrounds, picturesque lakeside halts, sheltered commons, bright heaths. But it also comprised frozen copses and hilltops. Old maintenance roads with potholes and bad light. Scrapyards. Council waste ground. Lay-bys near the edges of tips. Slag-heaps and drained marshes. Fen ends. Chalk pits, yards and quarries. These are the stopping places, these fringes and in-between places. They are the places that nobody lives except Travellers - or nobody but those who share ancient connections with them: gamekeepers and poachers, scrap-metal men, horsewomen, rangers and shepherds. They are the old nomads' haunts of the island. Many are smashed and built over; some - magically - are still more or less just as they were in centuries long past. They form the hidden Gypsy and Traveller map of the country we live in: they are the bedrock of our reality and, perhaps, the antidote to the unending cycles of romanticisation and demonisation.

I had conceived a plan to visit these places, to live in them in my own way, and see what I might learn. Perhaps I might even solve the bizarre contradiction of Britain's love affair with caravanning, camping and glamping, and its hatred of those who were born to this life, and who largely inspired its adoption as a non-Gypsy pastime. As one Scottish Gypsy Traveller put it: "There are 80,000 members of the Caravan Club, but I'm not allowed to travel?"

There is more to this Gypsy geography than a list of physical places. The stopping places themselves are an outgrowth of something non-physical, something that is ancient, unseen yet important, precious and reviled, envied and feared. This thing is the Gypsy belief - the core belief of the culture - that it is possible to live in a different way: in your own way, part of the world, but not imprisoned by the rules. That you can know the ropes and yet not be hemmed in by them. That you can dwell alongside the mainstream, while not being part of it. Otter-like, you can live in the bank of the river and swim and hunt there when you need to, and then climb back out with equal ease and alacrity. There is no better symbol of this belief than the network of atchin tans (stopping places) laced across Britain; they are historical, topographical proof that the Gypsy philosophy has existed here, that it still does, that it still can. By staying at the traditional stopping places, I hoped to answer the questions that had been following me, on and off, all my life. What is left of these places? What might we learn from them? What redemption might lie there, in a country that still passes new legislation aimed at ending the Traveller way of life? Is it still possible to live on the road? Was the end of the old Gypsy life a tragedy, or was it a case of good riddance to an irredeemably hard and pitiless life on the edge? Above all, I hoped to resolve the biggest question: the question of myself, whether I could make my peace with Gypsy culture. My conflict seemed to echo the wider tension between nomads and settled people that endures in modern Britain.

On the way to our regular pitch selling flowers in the marketplace in Petersfield, my elders would point and nod at empty spaces by the sides of the road, flat areas on verges and slightly raised banks, vacant pull-ins and lay-bys, and make comments as if there was something there, something I couldn't see. They were glimmers of another world, but it felt as distant as the stars. I knew the places had something to do with the time they were "on the road" - most of my family were settled now, living in houses or caravans and mobile homes on private bits of land.

Travellers I knew from the east of England had lived rough deep into the recent past, still working the farms into the 1990s. By then, it had been the best part of 50 years since anyone in my family had depended on that kind of work. So it came as a shock to meet Travellers younger than me who had grown up picking turnips in January. They described reaching down with a gloved hand and grabbing hold of the big, leafy tops, how it would sometimes send a plug of ice shooting upwards.

Alongside selling flowers, my family had roofing and car-breaking businesses. We had a big field and a yard, a word that seemed to mean a place where all things might, and did, happen. Terriers, geese and perturbed-looking cockerels roamed in between the legs of cantankerous horses. Stables were stacked full of the musty paraphernalia of horsemanship, flower-selling, roofing and car respraying. Bits of cars lay everywhere, named as if they were the parts or clothes of people or animals: bonnets, boots, seats, wings, belts. There were brass-handled horsewhips, jangling harnesses, buckets of molasses-sprayed chaff and milled sugar-beet, bales of sweet-smelling fresh hay. But all of this old rustic stuff was stacked and wedged in among the hard and greasy gear of the family economy: gas bottles, blowtorches, leaky old engines, spray paint, rolls of lead, felt, and seemingly infinite stacks of every conceivable type of roof tile. A heavy boxing bag swung with barely perceptible creaks, keeping time in the half-light of the dusty old garage.

A palm reader's caravan at Appleby fair.

A palm reader's caravan at Appleby fair. Photograph: Damian Le Bas

There were caravans there that we sometimes lived in and out of, especially in the summer. We never considered this odd, even though we also had a big house on the land that my grandad had built with his men. And there always seemed to be heavy and dangerous things lying close to hand. The hard stuff of motion was everywhere, although we were settled: cars, tractors and trucks, some brand-new, others eaten by weather and time; horses, ponies, traps, sulkies and carts; scattered wheels and bolts from Ford and Bedford lorries. And, hung from a barn door like a pair of swords and scabbing to ochre with rust, there were two axles rescued from the ashes of the last wagon owned by our family.

We had a name for ourselves: Travellers. In our case, it didn't just mean anyone who travelled around, regardless of their race: to us it meant our people specifically, the Romanies of Britain. The first Romanies probably arrived on the British mainland towards the end of the 15th century, and had been a contentious presence ever since.

Wherever the Gypsies went, they took with them their strange tongue, Romani, and it was through this that the mystery of their origins was solved. An 18th-century German linguist called Johann Rüdiger overheard Gypsies talking, and was struck by the similarity of their speech to Indian languages. Later linguists, including the so-called "Romany Ryes" - rye being the Romani word for a gentleman - such as the English writer George Borrow and the Irish academic John Sampson, would identify layers of borrowings from Persian, Slavic and Romance languages in the Gypsies' speech, using these to trace a philological map of their long road into the West. English Romani had German-derived words in it, like nixis, meaning "nothing", and fogel for "smell".

As for the name of the Romanies, it was derived from their own word for "man" or "husband", rom, and it had nothing to do with Romania, which got its name from the Roman military camps which once filled its territory. The Gypsies called their language Romanes, an adverb meaning "like a rom". To rokker Romanes meant, simply, to talk like a Gypsy and not like a gorjer - a non-Gypsy. The word gorjies comes from the old Romany word gadje or gadzhe, and though its form has mutated with time, its meaning is the same: the non-Gypsies, outsiders, the people-who-aren't-us.

Almost everyone who has studied Romani in Britain has remarked on how adept its speakers are at coming up with names for things. In some ways, talking Romanes means having to be constantly inventive and alert, both in terms of creating words and also interpreting the new ones that get spun off the cuff and thrown into daily Traveller conversation. There is no stigma attached to inventing words, as there so often is in English; nor are new words looked down upon as annoying neologisms that we'd be better off without. Invented words are more likely to be smiled upon or chuckled at as evidence of a witty, intelligent mind; one with a good and flexible grasp of the ancient Travellers' tongue.

Besides, if Romani is to retain one of the functions which has kept it alive thus far - and which it has in common with almost all minority languages - namely, to stop outsiders knowing what you are talking about, then it will always be necessary to invent new ways of saying things. According to a Belarusian Romany man I once met, a word is no longer a truly Romani word once its meaning becomes known amongst the gadzhe - it is useless, dead, and best left where it is. This is an extreme opinion, but it points to a common anxiety: that the language will lose its power if it becomes too widely known. Yet words come and go as they please, like mood and temper; traded by friends, explained by lovers, and hurled across the fray. Every Gypsy who "gives away" the Romani language risks the accusation of treason.

In the old Romany tradition, you can only call yourself a true Romany Gypsy - one of the kaulo ratti, the black blood - if all your ancestors, as far as you know, are of the tribe. I can trace my Romany ancestry back at least six generations; I was brought up to know the Romani language; to learn the old tales and to keep the Romanipen - the cleanliness taboos of the old-fashioned Gypsies. I was raised, and still live, in a Romany psychological realm; a mental Gypsyland.

I have both Gypsy and non-Gypsy blood and so, in many Travellers' eyes, I do not have the right to call myself a true-bred Romany. It does not matter that there is no such thing as a racially pure Gypsy: over a 1,000-year migration it is virtually impossible that there will have been no mingling in the line. The mixing in my family had happened within living memory, and this meant I was at best a poshrat - a mixed-blood Gypsy - and at worst a "half-chat gorjie" or, as a friend once memorably put it, a "fucked-up half-breed".

I do not look like most people's idea of a typical Gypsy, my blue eyes and fair hair belying my origins, my picture of myself. My identity was inside me and the outside didn't match up. It imbued me with a tetchy defensiveness, and a resentment of people whom I then believed had simpler ethnicities: Scottish, Nigerian, Han.

I felt so close to my roots, and especially to the Romany women who had brought me up - my mum; her mother, Gran; and Gran's mother, Nan. But this seemed to count for little in a world which, for all its modernity, still believed in labels such as "half-caste", "full-blood" and "mixed race". Later, as a teenager, I started carrying photographs of darker-haired family members in my wallet, to challenge the disbelief of those who thought I was lying about my Romany background. I lived in a world that wasn't sure if I really belonged in it, and so I wasn't sure, either. Regardless, it was where I was. Our family were the mistrusted local Gypsies, the bane of the decent, upstanding parish council. We were "gyppos", "pikeys", "diddakois", "them lot". Locally, we were infamous. The divide was crystal clear.

Damian Le Bas with his Transit van

Damian Le Bas with his Transit van. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Compared with the insults and slurs, the words Romanies, Gypsies, and Travellers were dignified, and we used all of them interchangeably. The greater part of our family owned their own yards and bungalows, but the name Travellers still seemed to make sense. There were wheels everywhere, and we were always on hair-trigger alert to hook up trailers and go when the need arose: we drove miles for a living, and had family who lived on the road. Some places with links to the Travellers were not easily romanticised. The sides of the M1, the A1, the A303 and the M25 are peppered with modern-day atchin tans. They are sites with access to opportunities to earn money, and - being less desirable to non-Gypsies - also the sorts of locales where less cash is needed to set up a camp.

Such places symbolise the misunderstood truth of many Traveller lives, which is that they are neither permanently nomadic, nor ever truly static. Howbeit, these yards provide a base, the highway is right beside them, ready for the times when family ties, work, a wedding, a funeral, the fair season, beckon. Councils refer to them as "sites close to the key regional transport corridors, favoured by Gypsies and Travellers". Travellers call them :"Handy, being right by that main road". Handy, yes, but still handcuffed to tragedy. Every family is haunted by stories of relatives, too often toddlers, who have been knocked down and killed by their literal closeness to roads.

The word "Gypsy" wasn't often heard back when I was a teenager. When it was, it was usually as part of a story about the old days, where someone had shouted out, "Dirty Gypsies!" and nine times out of 10 a fight had ensued, which the dirty Gypsies - who, in my grandad's words, were "rough, tough and made out of the right stuff" - almost always won.

In our world, arguments are often resolved by somebody leaving and the relationship being severed. If this doesn't happen, then there will almost always be a fight. In the best-case scenario, it'll just be a fair fist fight, nice and clean, one-on-one, with a referee to see fair play and as few spectators as possible to get sucked into the row. It can be between two men or two women: it's usually men, but not always. These things are often organised quickly in a place right out of the way, so the law is unlikely to be an issue; plus, some police officers I've spoken to even seem to have a laissez-faire stance on it, possibly because they have seen worse ways of ending a row than a bare-knuckle fight. Worst-case scenario, it will not be clean and it will not be fair, and the more people that get involved, the more likely that is. If weapons come into it, then the police are especially likely to show an interest.

The proceedings of the Old Bailey from 1674-1913 are speckled with references to London's Gypsies and Travellers. There is a website that explains why they were "over-represented in the proceedings": they formed part of "what many contemporaries considered a dangerous and crime-prone "residuum"', which seeped back into the city at autumn following the end of the temporary farm work. It goes on, telling how "in a working-class mirror to the elite's "London Season", October and November saw hundreds and thousands of men, women and children returning to the capital from hop-picking and market gardening, from touring the fairs and tramping in search of work". It was a yearly migration from the city to the countryside and back that continued, for some, right up to the 1950s.

For all its flighty connotations, Gypsy culture can be stifling in its demands for living in line with its hidden rules. Rock stars employ "Gypsy" to mean those who have escaped from moral claustrophobia, but in reality, Gypsies are just as likely to feel confined as anybody else. In Glasgow, I watched as a troupe of little girls from the local Roma community danced in brightly coloured dresses at a community event. They clicked their fingers on outstretched arms and sang "Ja tuke tuke" to a furious klezmer beat. The audience clapped and twirled, unaware of the lyrics' meaning: "Get away from me."

Nan talks of the old paradox that we have heard about all of our lives. The hardship of old times, versus the sense of togetherness that Travellers have lost. The gratitude for comforts that not long ago were undreamed of and unheard of, set against the moral corruption, unhappiness and constant malaise that have come from an overfast integration into the gorjies' consumerist world.

For centuries, politicians had guessed that if Gypsies could be settled in regular housing, then within a few short generations they would be just like everyone else. There would be no need for a word for outsiders, because we would be just like them. But that isn't what has happened. Many Gypsies now live either in housing, or on permanent caravan sites, not in meadows or lanes or lay-bys or by the sides of old tips. And yet they are still what they are, changed in some ways, but different enough to draw the old line between themselves and the gorjies.

I sometimes wonder what Nan thinks I am. Of course, I am her great-grandson, born from her line, flesh and blood. But I'm not what she calls a "true Traveller". Aside from my mixed roots, I wasn't born to that life: I arrived into a changed era, one of stability, stasis, hot running water, and Christmases stacked with teetering piles of presents. The Romany bloodline never dies out. But the life of the Traveller changes, sometimes so much so that you could forgive the outside world for thinking the people themselves have vanished.

Lisa Wilkinson walking her horse Casper on the way to the Appleby Horse Fair

Lisa Wilkinson walking her horse Casper on the way to the Appleby Horse Fair. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

When I was small, Horsmonden in Kent was a typical Travellers' horse fair. This meant that most people weren't actually there for the horses. It's true that a core of those who came, mostly men but quite a few women as well, were proper horse people. They came towing their boxes with strong cobs standing inside, tethered in the half-light; their two-wheeled sulkies - light trotting carts with a seat big enough for one or two people - and their harness, head collars and whips. But people came from far and near to the fair, and most of them weren't interested in any equine displays. If they were, then it was simply because they provided an authentic backdrop. What they were interested in depended on the individual: but mostly, they were interested in each other. It is a quirk of our scatteredness: a few hundred thousand people at most, flecked across Britain's damp islands, and we meet mostly at weddings, funerals and fairs. The horse trade has its ups and downs - as I write this, it's down, the worst in my lifetime. But the horse fairs will persist, because their purpose goes beyond trade.

When the days are hot and tanned skins gleam with sweat in the sun, it is clear once again that horse fairs are shop windows for young brides and husbands. They always have been. This much, at least, is gospel, and proudly announced to journalists and inquisitive souls who come asking questions about the culture. But not every dalliance ends in a marriage, and rumours occasionally flare of unauthorised, ultra-brief flings at the fringes of fairs: dangerous liaisons that lead to bad names, fights, or worse, feuds that run on and on.

For the not so young, what they seek from each other is something subtler, less clear to outsiders, but an equally powerful draw. I suspect few would want to explain what it was, for fear of sapping its power by giving it voice. What the fairs offer is a chance to track the progress of our lives: to reminisce about previous years when we trod the same field, but equally to remark on how far we have come.

We polish and dress up our lives for the day and compare them to the lives of others, affirming their context, confirming their meaning. The fairs are where we remind ourselves who we are. It's not that we don't keep being who we are in between - of course we do. But the fairs provide a special concentration of Traveller experience, a tincture of what it is to be a Gypsy. At a horse fair we get to see, just for one day, what life would be like if the world shared our Gypsy priorities.

And then there are those who despise both horses and the fairs. For some families, the horse had its day a long time ago. I once asked my mate Charles if he and his family used to go to the fairs up north, which is where he comes from. He looked at me as though the question was perverse. "We don't mind a day at the races, but Damian, can you see me or me dad, or any of us here, fucking about with horses? My great-great-grandad was a proper Gypsy man, and he was driving a Rolls-Royce a hundred year ago."

Traveller culture, preoccupied though it can be with bygone times, has always preferred the tangible: today's bread, the here and the now. As Nan says, "You can only eat one meal at a time." In the past, writers took this as evidence that Gypsies inhabited a "heroic present", lacking a sense of history and living so sharply in the moment that concepts such as deferred gratification were lost on them. I have always dismissed such ideas as inherently dangerous: they are liable to slide into essentialism, and the belief that races have irreconcilable differences. But maybe in turning so sharply away from a lie, I lost sight of a truth: that the present holds a finer promise than the past with its shadows and dust. In an inversion of the obvious, perhaps even the Traveller obsession with cemetery maintenance itself supports this view. After all, isn't the act of placing flowers on a tomb a gesture of bringing a little life back to the dead?

After the fair at Horsmonden, I largely avoided gatherings of people, spending time in empty stopping places, visiting forlorn churches and well-kept graves. It is dawning on me that there is only so much I can learn from this. Another of Nan's catchphrases comes to me: "There are no pockets in shrouds." Perhaps this saying, a caution against overzealous pursuit of riches, masks a second meaning as well. There is a poverty to death; a limit to how much a skeleton can teach you about a life it no longer knows.

I realised how sparsely furnished my van was. Its naked pale blue surfaces stared at me like sheets of ice. For eight months, I had been travelling with what I thought were the bare essentials - bed, stove, wash gear, clothes and so forth. But there were other trappings of Romany life, when it was lived most richly: beautiful furnishings, gilded surfaces, portable pictures, talismans and silks. I've been missing a trick: the means by which a difficult life was rendered livable and even, at times, enviable.

When I asked Mum for help, she looked happy, as if pleased that I'd finally grasped the meaning of life. She gave me armfuls of folded materials. There was an Islamic purple velvet hanging, edged with golden stitching and arranged in a pattern of teardrops; matching Bedouin horse-cloths, constructed out of navy blue and orange-coloured diamond shapes of fabric; brightly coloured Indian tapestry cloths: two square ones, and one in the shape of an arch. They shouted in bright yellows and blues and greens and pinks, with tiny mirrors stitched into them alongside little embroidered birds, stars, flowers, chakra wheels and Hindu swastikas. I decorated the van, clipping the cloths to the plywood lining with bulldog clips and larger, stronger, rubber-tipped market grips.

The van was completely transformed. Its contents came together into a nomadic aesthetic all of its own; ramshackle, yet somehow making happy sense as a whole. My gran and grandad - Mum's parents - wandered over to see what I'd been doing. They seemed stunned, but in a good way: "Looks like an old vardo," Grandad said, using the Traveller word for caravan. Gran remarked that the way I had hung the cloths reminded her of the inside of the Travellers' square tents back when she was a little girl. Their approval came as a relief. I slammed the doors and smiled as I thought of the road ahead.

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This is an edited extract from The Stopping Places by Damian Le Bas, published by Chatto & Windus on 7 June. To order a copy for £10.99, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99