Sunday, June 16, 2019

Appleby Horse Fair

The annual Gypsy and Traveller Horse Fair, which takes place at Appleby-in-Westmorland in early June is reputed to be the largest of its kind in Europe. 

Around 10,000 Gypsies and Travellers attend from all over the UK—including Irish Travellers, British Romanichal, Welsh Romanies (Kale), and Scottish Gypsies and Travellers. The New Fair, as it’s also known, attracts more than 30,000 visitors.

Although at one point I spent several years living in Appleby, I never actually went. The crowds and the inevitable traffic jams getting in and out of the town were the main reason. As is always the way, it wasn’t until this year, long after I’d moved, that I decided I should go.

The origins of the Fair are somewhat hazy. It was rumoured to have originated by a royal charter granted in 1685 by King James II, but this is no longer thought to be true. Instead, the Fair derives its right to exist by having done so for many years previously.

There was certainly a fair held at Appleby in medieval times each Whitsuntide—the seventh Sunday after Easter—although this ceased in the late 1800s. A New Fair had begun by 1775 on unenclosed land at Gallows Hill (named for the public executions held there) which was just outside the Appleby borough boundary. Here, horses and other livestock were traded by dealers and drovers. By the turn of the last century this had become a major event in the Traveller calendar.

Appleby has become a meeting place, and a time of social and family get-togethers, as well as an opportunity to trade horses. It’s also turned into something of a marriage market, where teenagers dress to the nines hoping to catch someone else’s eye and agreements are often reached between families, as well as disputes settled by mediators within the community.

Arthur Rackham's famous illustrations for The Wind
In The Willows included a traditional Gypsy Vardo caravan
Although there are any number of the traditional horse-drawn bow-top caravans and Vardoes, these are way outnumbered by modern high-tech caravans or tents. Vehicles start to congregate in the towns and villages surrounding Appleby in the weeks leading up to the Fair. There is no official organisation among the Gypsies, although the Shera Rom—the Head Romani—liaises between the travelling people and the local authority MASCG (Multi-Agency Strategic Co-ordinating Group) to arrange portable toilets, rubbish skips, water supplies, grazing, clean-up, etc.

The Fair runs from the Thursday through to the following Wednesday, and participants are only allowed onto Fair Hill shortly before it starts. Hence the numbers camping along outlying roads and open areas on the run-up to the event. This year, residents of Appleby were apparently outraged to find that a number of Fairgoers had set up camp on the local private golf course…

When you combine the tradition with the influx of people who come to see the Fair rather than take part in it, you might think the local population might, if not welcome it, exactly, then at least tolerate it.

Not always the case. Many of the nearby towns, such as Kirkby Stephen, put up posts along the verges to prevent the caravans and vehicles pulling off road. I’ve known businesses close for the duration, or employ additional security guards. One police officer I spoke to this year said she’d worked sixteen days straight.

The police presence was large, with numerous vehicles and officers after last year’s event drew criticism from locals. The RSPCA turned out in force and said they gave out animal welfare advice to around 130 people. A video of a horse being mistreated led to an online petition being started, but when I was there, on the Sunday, I saw no evidence of overt cruelty.

The idea of the Flashing Lane, where horses are shown off by being driven or ridden at a flat-out trot along Long Marton Lane, has always concerned me, purely from the point of view of long-term damage to the horses’ legs. I’ve never liked the speed at which some of them take the steep hill between the Flashing Lane and The Sands, where the horses are traditionally washed in the River Eden. In 2008 a man was jailed for causing the horse in his care to drown in the river. This year, due to heavy rain, the ramp leading into the water was closed at times.

There have also been fights breaking out between rivals. A mass brawl in 2009 led to a spate of arrests. Notably, in 2011, the police had to stop a bare-knuckle prize fight set to take place at the Fair to settle a score, with a £100,000 purse up for grabs. Drugs and public order offences also account for arrests.

Appleby New Fair will always be controversial. I can understand how a small minority give everyone else a bad name. There are strong feelings on both sides. But as an experience, it was fascinating, and I’m glad I went to see it for myself.

This week’s Word of the Week is dziggetai, meaning a species of Mongolian wild ass, more horse-like than other species.


  1. Mongolian wild ass. I shall not touch that with a 10 foot ....

    Interesting post, Zoë. I never knew about Appleby, but a very similar Roma gathering begins building up on the Cycladic island of Tinos a week or so before the August 15th holiday honoring the Dormition of the Holy Virgin. The intense devotion of Roma to the Virgin Mary, combined with the island's celebrated church honoring her, has led to a situation much like you describe for Appleby.

    1. It's a fascinating scenario all round, Jeff. I had no idea about the gathering on Tinos. I shall look it up!

    2. This might give you a better grasp of the situation.

    3. Thanks, Jeff. I will look it up!

  2. It seems a shame. Zoe, that what could be a benign and old-fashioned event, has been so compromised. On the other hand, you know what I think of when you talk about horses. Charlie using them as weapons. :))

    1. This is very true, Annamaria. Charlie's very good at improvising, and horses can be very scary beasties to those who aren't used to them. (And, indeed, to those who ARE used to them...)