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April 24, 2018

Appleby Horse Fair: Europe’s biggest annual gypsy and traveller gathering

Christopher spoke to a traveller sitting outside a wagon about the attractions of the fair: ‘The lines and lines of bowtop wagons draws people from all over the world. There were 191 horse-drawn [wagons] last year. There’s the horses being washed down in the river, then there’s the flash, where they flash [race] the horses up and down. It’s a dangerous place. You’ve got to have your wits about you with horses travelling at 30mph. I got my bowtop when I was 25. I restored it myself, new wheels, new floor, painted it up over the years. I’ll be passing it on to my son. He’s 15 and when I pass on the reins he’ll be fetching the wagons, hopefully, in the future.’

A group of Travellers making their way towards the Appleby fair on the busy A66 stops for the day. At an overnight wayside just off the road they exercise their cobs, rest and relax before setting off on the final leg of their journey.

RSPCA inspectors Dale Grant, with red helmet, and Matt Sacks check the river Eden for debris before the first horses are brought in for washing. Sacks says: ‘We’re just sweeping the river near the area where the horses are taken in by the travellers. There are all sorts of hazards swept downstream between each fair … railings, broken glass etc. We’re monitoring the horses taken in and out of the river making sure they’re not sick or injured’

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Sticks out of the hedge are not acceptable to use as a whip. We also look out for rope through the mouth used as a bit, which, as you can imagine, splits the mouth. We’ll also look out for harness rubs and if a horse is overworked you may see a big purple W painted on the side to say it’s been overworked or injured.’

– RSPCA Inspector Dale Grant

For many, the fair is primary an opportunity to trade horses. The sellers race and ride their horses along flash lane to allow prospective buyers to assess their form and fitness

Sharon Sykes in her bowtop caravan with her canine companions on one of the campsites at the Appleby New Fair fields

Me and my wife have been doing this since 2001. It’s a great week for the town and the businesses. A lot of people complain about it but there’s nothing you can do. You can’t beat them so you join them. I’m a long-distance truck driver and Sally’s a barmaid but during the fair we’re just working here. You can’t really go anywhere anyway. Everything’s fresh, local produce. We do bacon and eggs, local icecream from Slees of Winskill, hot dogs and cans of pop.’

There isn’t that much trouble, it’s just like the wild west really.’

– Simon Cannon, local resident with pop-up cafe in his garage

We all travelled together. I’ve been trying to buy the horse on the way down. I’ve bought it before the fair starts, hoping to sell it on perhaps and get a bit of profit. That’s what it’s all about. We’ve just given six grand for this horse. It’s a nice animal. It’s a gypsy’s horse, black and white. They breed them to sell them, come up here every year to sell them through. There’s no money about, though.’

– John Brown, in blue jumper, leads away his horse after buying it from Frank Smith

The washing of the horses in the river Eden in preparation for their sale is a tradition that dates back to the 17th century

I’ve been coming 45 years, [since] 1969. It just gets into you. It’s changed though. Now it’s too much of a car boot sale, but it’s a smashing day out. A lot of people don’t come to Appleby because they think there’s a lot of trouble but I’ve only seen a couple in trouble since I’ve been coming. It’s a way of life. You look forward to it from one year to the next.’

– Sid Hoyle, day visitor from Lancashire

The annual gathering of Gypsies and Travellers at Appleby opened this morning and I would like to thank the Gypsies and Travellers community for listening to our message about not arriving too soon with their trailers. This has helped to reduce the impact of this event for our rural communities – Dr Robin Hooper, chair of the Multi-Agency Strategic Co-ordinating Group for the fair