Appleby Horse Fair is billed as the biggest event in the Gypsy and Traveller community’s social calendar, It’s a time for families to meet up and for deals to be done.
However this event has been happening for more than 500 years and even has a Royal charter in place issued to the borough of Appleby from King James II of England in 1685.
The fair can appear to outsiders as chaos but to those who visit and have a deep interest will tell you first looks can be deceiving. The event is packed full of fascinating traditions.
Appleby Horse Fair is an annual gathering of Gypsies and Travellers in the town of Appleby in Cumbria, which takes place over a week in June, from a Thursday to the following Wednesday. Often seen as a weekend event, the main days are the Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Appleby Fair is unique in Europe and, as well as attracting about 10,000 Gypsies and Travellers, more than 30,000 other visitors come to the Fair. It transforms the town of Appleby for the week, as it normally has a population of around 2,500.
The Fair is billed as the biggest traditional Gypsy Fair in Europe, and is commonly likened to a large family gathering. The horses are washed in the River Eden and trotted up and down the ‘flashing lane’ most main days.
There is a market on Jimmy Winter’s Field selling a variety of goods, some traditional to the Gypsy travelling community, and a range other horse-related products. The fair is held outside the town of Appleby, where the Roman Road crosses Long Marton Road, not far from Gallows Hill, named after the public hangings that were once carried out there.
In the mid-20th century, the story developed that the fair originated with a royal charter to the borough of Appleby from King James II of England in 1685.
Appleby’s medieval borough fair, held at Whitsuntide, ceased in 1885. The ‘New Fair’, held in early June on Gallows Hill, which was then unenclosed land outside the borough boundary, began in 1775 for sheep and cattle drovers and horse dealers to sell their stock; by the 1900s it had evolved into a major Gypsy/Traveller occasion.
Throughout the Fair’s history, no group claimed ownership of the Fair or was charged to attend it, staying to one of the Fair’s principles of being a people’s fair. The Fair is a regular but spontaneous gathering, and is not organised by any individual or group, although the Gypsies and Travellers have a Shera Rom (Head Romani) who is Billy Welsh.
Billy occupies Fair Hill under Licence from the Town Council and arranges toilets, rubbish skips, water supplies, horse grazing etc. for Fair Hill. He acts as liaison with the local authority co-ordinating committee (Multi-Agency Strategic Co-ordinating Group, or MASCG), which manages the public authorities’ response to the Fair.
The “Shera Rom” is the head of his extended family only, but is recognised as a spokesman for the wider Romani community. Other landowners operate campsites and car parks, and they arrange their own toilets, water and clean-up.
The main activities take place on Fair Hill and more recently on the Market Field, which was opened up by a local farmer about 10 years ago, and is now the main stall trading and catering area.
There are half a dozen licensed campsites and car parks nearby. Most horse-trading takes place at the crossroads (known to the local authority as ‘Salt Tip Corner’) and on Long Marton Road (known to the Gypsies and Travellers as the ‘flashing lane’), where horses are shown off (or ‘flashed’) by trotting up and down at speed.
Many of the horses are taken down to ‘the Sands’, near the Appleby town centre beside the River Eden, where horses are ridden into the river to be washed, and it is not unusual to see scores of horses tied up opposite The Grapes public house.
The highway at that location is closed to vehicle traffic for the main days of the Fair, which are now Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The Fair customarily ends on the second Wednesday in June, and starts on the Thursday before that. Although the last Tuesday was once the main horse dealing day, due to the growth of the market field and the large number of visitors, the main day is now the Saturday, with the Fair’s activities over by the Monday morning.
Besides the horses, there are fortune tellers, palm readers, buskers and music stalls, clothing stalls, tools and hardware, china, stainless steel, and horse-related merchandise including harness and carriages.