One of the delights of the year is the annual horse fair at Appleby-in-Westmorland, and we usually have a stroll around the town to see this bit of old England. Technically, it’s the Appleby New Fair but in more recent decades it has been rebranded as the Appleby Gypsy horse fair – it even gets a mention in the television series Peaky Blinders.
The present fair began in around 1775 as a livestock fair for farmers, becoming a fair with traveller links around 1900.
It’s hard to say who exactly runs the fair, though Cumbria County Council provides some facilities. There is no fair charter, just a prescriptive right by tradition. There is no charge to attend, for this is very much a people’s fair – one reason some members of our present government would like to see the back of it. Under home secretary Priti Patel’s new policing act, Gypsies coming to the fair risk having their homes confiscated, plus jail sentences and unlimited fines.
Like all rotten laws I hope Patel’s Act is tested to destruction – technically even ordinary campers and ramblers could become victims of this vicious legislation. I look forward to breaking this law myself as often as possible. I sometimes wonder why my late father gave up five years of his life to fight Hitler?
Around 10,000 travellers come to the fair each year, among them British Romanichals, Irish Travellers, Scottish Gypsy and Traveller groups and Kale (Welsh Romanies). The visitors camp up on Gallows Hill just outside the town, where the horses are tested on the Flashing Lane and goods are traded, fortunes told etc. All the fun of the fair! In the town horses are washed in the River Eden.
Today, as we walked by there was even a piper playing on the river bank, a sound that would have been very familiar in medieval Appleby.
A liaison committee now plans and runs the fair. Billy Welch, the Shera Rom (head Romani) – does a grand job representing the travelling community.
So if you want to see a bit of old England before the unimaginative suits in politics ban it altogether, get to Appleby either tomorrow or Saturday, which are the best days. If you are driving it’s best to get there early for a parking space (around 40,000 visitors come to the fair) or better still use public transport – there’s bus service from Penrith and a railway station on the Settle to Carlisle line.