Appleby Fair 2013; or Gypsy Week in Eden

Appleby Fair is back again*, for the 328th time (that’s a guess; it’s been going since 1685). According to the Daily Mail, it’s a convergence of ‘around 40,000 travellers from around the world’. Yet another good reason why not to read the Daily Mail. Because that’s what it isn’t. It’s a convergence of around 10,000 travellers and gypsies, and 30,000 ‘visitors’. Both of those are big numbers, but there’s a big difference between 10 and 40.

Why does it matter how many travellers there are? That’s a question with a massive, many tiered answer, but the short of it is: due to a lack of trust between the gypsy community and the local ones here, there is a distinct atmosphere present. The towns and villages hold their collective breath, waiting to see if something ‘happens’ this time. There’s a sense of anticipation, but not in a good way. A bit like a car driver inching their way past an accident in total gridlock, pretending not to look but snatching a good few hungry glances at the mangled wreckage.

From the other camp, there’s something different. Like when someone you know pretends they haven’t seen you. It’s that feeling they give off when they do that. Of innocent, studious not-seeing. That’s what every gypsy camp feels like as you pass.

It isn’t very ethical to promote fear and insecurity in a local population. I really don’t like The Daily Mail.

I looked to The Guardian for a more sensible view, but was disappointed there, too. Its ‘In Pictures’ column shows a series of excellent photos of this year’s horse fair, with a pass-the-sick-bucketing commentary attached to each image. Oh puleeease. They tried to romanticise the travellers, but anyone who has ever been to the fair must know that beyond the sillhouette of a gypsy camp, campfire ablaze, there’s little romance of any kind.

For example, my friend and I visited the fair yesterday, and on stopping for a rest on the way back up the hill to the car, were propositioned by a couple of travellers looking for a one night stand. On hearing from my friend how enormous and hard my fella (Himself) is, the younger guy didn’t miss a beat. “Why don’t you try someone a lot smaller, can get into every place, like even through the back door?” Big charming, broken-mouthed grin.


Sure, it was funny, but there really was nothing romantic about the conversation.

Gypsies are, by popular definition, outcasts. Dragged up by their bootstrings, they’re expected to succeed on their wits and success at sales. The chavvy training clothes (men and boys), fluorescent pink lipstick and tight tank tops (girls under 30, regardless of dress size), crew cuts with patterns cut into the sides … all reminiscent of an underclass. You see similar (though slightly less outrageous) outfits on inner city housing estates.

The majority doesn’t have sufficient access to money or education; many don’t bother with healthcare, other than in an emergency. What makes gypsies different – and more vulnerable – from well established housing estate populations, is they don’t even have the pleasure of looking around them at school, or work, and thinking that most of the people around them are in the same boat.

The gypsy culture is different, though many – likely the majority and estimated to be at least 50% – do live in houses; they don’t get to experience a sense of cultural solidarity unless they live in a permanent camp, or at massive meetings, like Appleby Horse Fair.

They’re unfairly tarnished with a derogatory image; as a group, their main crime is having a different culture living amongst a majority culture.

There’s always a criminal element amongst any group of people. Hell, what the townsfolk forget at times like these is that they have their own criminal elements who are prepared to take advantage of the gypsy presence. Crime levels go up, but who’s to say that it’s the visitors and not the locals?

What really gets my goat is that whenever someone writes about gypsies, or tries to portray them to a mass audience, they are moulded into the image that person wants them to fit. Romantic, scary, criminal, these are views, not the culture itself.

Here’s a blog, Romagraphic by someone who is clearly an educated Romani. It lends a little perspective.

And I’ve used the term gypsy throughout because I love the word. The romantic image of the toughened nomads travelling the world resides in my head from a childhood filled by Enid Blyton books. Even though I know it’s not romantic. I checked it out, and it would appear that it is shortened versions of the word which are considered racist, but the word gypsy is politically correct enough. Hopefully.

*actually, it was last week, but it’s taken me a week to write this post

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Gypsy Week!

In the month run up to the Fair, roads for 20 miles around Appleby are decorated with wooden posts and Police signs, similar to this one. This particular sight of a horse flagrantly ignoring The Law is not a rare one.

The grass verges and laybys of East Cumbria are additionally strewn with granite and limestone rocks, about the size of a car engine, as a further welcome to the travellers that come with the Fair. It’s fascinating that nobody seems to drag them away with their transit vans and horses. . If travellers and gypsies are as bad as everyone says, you would have thought they wouldn’t be bothered by signs and rocks. These measures might be a pain in the neck, but they’re not really stopping anyone from camping, or not literally, anyway. I theorise that it’s more of a psychological deterrent. What those posts and rocks are really saying is,

“We’re the Police. We know this layby/field entrance, grass verge is here. We’ve been here (you can tell by the posts and signs) and if we come here again and find you here, we’re going to make trouble for you while on holiday.”

If my theory’s correct, it’s a smart measure. Who wants to put up with the police while on holiday?

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The best bits for me were:

the staggering through ankle deep mud, ever in danger of slipping and bringing each other down! It’s funny and everyone’s in the same boat, whatever fancy gear they’re wearing/driving.

and the trotting as they race up and down the lane running across Fairhill. I utterly failed to capture the feeling of excitement as collision looms … then is averted by underwhelmed, skilled drivers.

There’s a juxtaposition of ‘traditional’ with ‘modern’ gypsy culture; modernity tapping into its past for financial benefit:
Girls in scant clothing with beautiful tanned bodies (and some less so) revving up their little sports model Corsas and CV1’s past rows of beautifully decorated bowtop caravans;

Young blokes dressed in chavvy Nike training pants or jeans, riding bareback on ‘coloured’ horses.”GenuineRepro” bowtops, trotting harnesses, black cooking pots, flashy costume jewellery and horse tack.

It makes a good show whatever the provenance; gives you gypsies, horse clobber, half naked girls in mud and harness trotting. And foals. And a kid got run over by a harness buggy. And an old man was thrown from another harness when one of the five standing ponies tethered to it decided to shag one of the others. Hopefully both people were fine.

It isn’t posh.

Stand by for Appleby Fair!

Yep, Himself and myself are on our way for a day out at an unconventional event; Appleby Horse Fair! The below image shows just one of the fields on Fairhill which are covered in caravans and horse wagons. Check out the line of bowtop caravans at the top of the image! We went up on Thursday night to see what was going on; there is a general feeling of lawlessness; shrieking from groups of tweens, pushing and shoving each other; a child trying to ride a Shetland pony, flicking it with a riding switch until it shook him off; police walking about in groups of four and hanging around conspicuously in unmarked police cars outside crowded pubs in the town.

Appleby-in-Westmorland is a well to do, pretty little town. It used to be the County town and is the ‘capital’ of a Royal Borough due to its history. It has the unusual feeling in Cumbria, of being a walled town, although it isn’t technically one. Appleby has a very old stone building structure and a castle. And right now it has about 6000 gypsies, travellers, horse people and salesmen.

The people who live in the town get a feeling of being unsafe at this time, not without foundation. However, in recent years, there has been efforts made by both the police and the travelling community to make things a little less terrifying. My friend, Jane, tells me tales of being hustled by gypsies from when she was a teenager, to justify her irritation at the Fair (she tells the same tales every year!), but this is the oldest and biggest horse fair in Europe. It has been going since around the middle of the 1600s. Why shouldn’t it still keep going? Gypsies and travellers have never been welcome on a wide scale. It’s never stopped them.

So, safe on the arm of a very big man, I am going to watch the races and the carnage and walk through the mud and try not to get run over by brand new little cars filled with gorgeous teenagers.

But first: an English fry up of the finest dimensions. Watch this space!

Image C/O: Slippy