A row over caravan parking threatens a rural horse show. Mark Oliver reports
A YOUNG boy rides bare-back at a 500-year-old gypsy horse fair in the Cotswolds. But such evocative rural scenes are under threat from the local council which plans to take legal action to jail travellers for parking their caravans on the site, just outside the picturesque village of Stow-on-the-Wold.

The gypsies say the move has ripped the heart out of one of their most cherished traditions, with falling numbers of caravans braving the law each year.

A group of gypsies owns the land, but was refused planning permission to park caravans there and in 1996, the council won a High Court injunction banning residential caravans from the site.

This year, it is threatening to enforce the ruling. Any gypsy or traveller breaking it could be sentenced to up to 14 days in jail. It could also spark fears over the fair's future.

Before last week's annual two-day fair, which was established by royal charter in 1476, the council placed an advertisement in Horse and Hound magazine, which is read by travellers, warning of the possible jail threat and put up signs to that effect in the area.

The result was a fall in the number of caravans that turned up - only 77 when four years ago there had been 450.

It's a long-running battle and a classic case of the liberty of the gypsies versus varying degrees of aggravation to the local community. The council says that local residents have complained of theft, intimidation, drunken belligerence, and even excrement being left in a field one year when they claimed the gypsies did not bring "facilities".

"I'm going to fight to the death because the injunction is silly and the council are hoping they will stop them from coming," said Vera Norwood, a parish councillor sympathetic to the travellers' cause.

"It's such a wonderful day for them, it's like their Christmas, they meet up with all of their family and there are loads of engagements. The girls dress up in all their bangles and have their long hair done and the young men do their courting.

"I'm not saying there is never any trouble, but I feel much safer there than when I pop out to the post box with the local skateboard kids hanging around."

Maurice Brennan, head of environmental health at Cotswold District Council, said: "We are not trying to stop the fair - it's not even our hidden agenda - we are just trying to stop the travellers from staying there and turn up on the day instead."

Mr Brennan conceded that there had been "resentment" among the gypsies and anger at the decision of the local pubs to close this year. But he added: "I feel there was a better atmosphere this year." Mrs Norwood said the fair had been wonderful but lamented: "There was only half the amount of people that should have been there and I think the stallholders were unhappy with business."

The police said this year's event had been "extremely quiet" in terms of complaints. There had been some parking offences, reports of suspicious persons and two thefts.

But the most notable complaint was the theft of one of the travellers' pounds 18,000 caravans. Unlikely, one assumes, to have been perpetrated by one of those "thieving g'poes".