The day the gypsies rode into town

Matthew Brace on Appleby's horse fair - the biggest event in the gypsy calendar
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The Independent Online
They are hounded off the land, their children are turned away from schools and they are treated with contempt by much of society, but this week the gypsies are celebrating their life and traditions in style.

The great horse fair at Appleby is the biggest event in the gypsy calendar. Thousands make the pilgrimage from around Britain, Ireland and the Continent to the small Cumbrian market town beneath the glowering Pennines to catch up with relatives, meet future marriage partners and sell horses.

During the weeks prior to the fair gypsies begin arriving, decorating the nearby lanes with their painted caravans. This year many were not given access to their traditional camp site overlooking the town on Fair Hill, or Gallows Hill as it is also known, until the last minute, causing overcrowding in the roads approaching the town.

Appleby has a festival air about it. Between the painted caravans are trading stalls and fortune tellers and the streets are full of gypsies and hangers-on who come to see a slice of ancient travelling life. In the evenings, the gypsies drink late under light, summer skies and across Fair Hill the sounds of ancient ballads can be heard from the campfires.

But the fair has an altogether more serious side too. It is where old scores are settled. Barely a year goes by without fights between sworn enemies taking place.

And there is the cut-throat business of horse-selling. Horses are washed and groomed along the banks of the river Eden which flows through the town and dealers demonstrate their animals' fitness and strength by running them through the crowds at speed, scattering the on-lookers. Until a recent ban, the horse dashes took place through the main streets, their owners shouting for people to get out of the way.

Thousands of pounds change hands on races run over the meadows and lanes where it is common to see horses galloping without harnesses and their young riders sometimes going bareback. The harness races, with small buggies, also draw the crowds.

Today is one of the main trading days when vital money is earned to see the dealers through the lean winter months of travelling ahead. Some families have been making a living trading horses at Appleby for centuries.

The fair is said to date from 1685 when James II gave Appleby a charter for "the purchase and sale of all manner of goods, cattle, horses, mares and geldings". However, some maintain horses have been traded in Appleby since as far back as the 13th century. This year's fair, which ends on Wednesday, is expected to attract more than 20,000 people. By Saturday morning, more than 500 caravans had parked up and Fair Hill was already crowded.

Cumbria police, wisely, let the gypsies get on with it. As one duty officer put it on Friday night: "I wouldn't say it was ever quiet round the horse fair. There are always some gypsies who get into fights with old rivals, but they don't involve the public. So far this year it's peaceful."

There are other horse fairs around Britain. Charles Kightly's compendium of traditional festivals and rituals, The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain, notes the Barnaby Fair at Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire, in late June, one in Brigg, Lincolnshire, in the first week of August, and the West Yorkshire and Dewsbury Fair in late August. But none is as grand and as impressive as Appleby.

Charlie Smith, chairman of the Gypsy Council, an independent rights group, acknowledges that the Appleby Horse Fair and the whole gypsy way of life has been at risk for years but blames the previous government for doing much to make the situation even worse.

"This fair, all our fairs, all our traditions, are under threat. It's not a new thing but since the Criminal Justice Act was introduced, things have got worse," he said.

"We have had far more problems with the laws of trespass which have seen more and more gypsies turned off land."

The trespass laws have allowed police to evict gypsies along with other itinerant travellers and squatters with greater ease.

Also, reports Mr Smith, far more gypsy children are being turned away from schools, causing a serious setback to literacy rates and meaning that more travelling families having to find time to educate their children themselves. He is hoping that Labour in government, as they promised in opposition, will avert the decline in gypsies' rights and he is awaiting a reply from John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, with whom he has requested talks.

But for this week, politics and hardships are being put aside as the biggest annual show of gypsy solidarity and celebration parties on a Cumbrian hillside.