Vibrant slice of life or annual invasion? The Appleby horse fair rides again

Gypsies gather in the Cumbrian town to do what they’ve done for centuries: trade horses

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The Independent Online

On one bank of the River Eden, villagers and tourists enjoyed the sunshine with picnic hampers and Thermos flasks. On the other, gypsies bathed their horses before trotting them off to prospective buyers at the Appleby horse fair – the largest and one of the oldest gypsy fairs  in Europe.

The Romany Way met Little England yesterday and no one seemed to mind that much.

It is either a vibrant slice of a traditional way of life or an unwelcome annual invasion of the Lake District, depending on your point of view. Every year, Appleby, the former county town of Westmorland, with little more than 3,000 residents, braces itself for the arrival of up to 150,000 visitors to the fair.

Lasting for a week and starting on the first Thursday of June, the event traces its history back to James II, who, in 1685, granted a royal charter allowing a horse fair “near the River Eden”. But the gypsies reckon they have been coming to Appleby for at least 500 years, and possibly since Roman times.

Travellers and gypsies from around the world converge on the Cumbrian market town to meet old friends and do business – mainly trading horses. Attendance is bolstered by a much wider community of “weekend gypsies” from all walks of life, people who share an interest in horses and caravanning.

Billy Welch, head gypsy and event organiser, a 52-year-old father of two sons, inherited the running of the fair from his father 14 years ago.

Over the years, things got more complicated. As well has horse trading, the fair is also where many younger members of the community meet their future wives or husbands. So, now, mobile beauty salons must be configured into the camp layout, along with rows of portable toilets, burger bars and the other necessities of 21st-century life.

Mr Welch insists, however, that horses are the main reason for what is still the biggest date in the Romany calendar.

Making a purchase is steeped in ritual. Buyers are supposed to stand next to the horse they fancy and then the owner will appear.

Starting prices for the finest horses can start at £25,000. There is a tradition of haggling but, being less tolerant of time-wasters than the average car salesman, owners are reluctant to start unless they smell serious money.

Locals, used to seeing tourists turn out in force to observe the travellers, tend to keep their distance.

“As locals, we lock up – and stock up,” said one pensioner. “I would be quite happy for them to have their week if they had any respect for the town.

“They cause such a mess, and the traffic on Sunday is terrible. And we have to lock up buildings, when we wouldn’t normally bother, because we know they’ll steal stuff.

“Today, the atmosphere is good, though. It is very amicable. But the problem is in the evenings when they have had a drink.”

But some residents believe the town’s often downright hostility  to the annual gathering means Appleby may be missing a tourism trick.

Doreen Donnelly, 83, who retired to the area three years ago, said: “When I hear people moan, I think it’s terrible.

“I don’t know why people complain so much. A lot of the shops and pubs close when they could be making money.”