Gypsy and Irish Traveller Work / Travel

Moving Voices, Moving Homes–TRAVEL–Appleby Horse Fair, Cumbria.

Gypsy gold does not chink and glitter, it gleams in the sun, and neighs in the dark.
Proverb believed to be from Claddaugh Gypsies of Galway.

Appleby Horse Fair begins every year on the first Thursday of June and ends the following Wednesday. The unofficial fair dates back to 1685 when James II granted it the protection of charter for purposes of horse-trading. It has been dubbed the Roma and Irish travellers’ Mecca. Romany and Irish traveller families come from miles around, often travelling for weeks if they are horse driven, to celebrate their culture, meet up with old friends and conduct business.

It is the largest fair of its kind in Europe and the last great gypsy gathering in England.
The transformation of the little Cumbrian town, Appleby-in-Westmorland, is extraordinary. Here, for seven days, a relatively unknown and secretive community are out in full-force: young boys tearing bare back on horses up and down the Roman road between the centre of Appleby and the horse fair, young girls in elaborate and scanty costumes (a detail Channel 4 has not allowed us to miss), painted caravans lined up in fields of gypsy cobs and signs for mystical palmists.

When you arrive there is plenty to indulge one’s romantic notion of gypsies: low sun streaming through the manes of the blue-eyed gypsy cobs and bouncing off the gold leaf on the tottering Bowtop wagons, hearing talk of the free life of the gypsies that still travel, and the promise of campfires and music that night.

Traditional gypsy society, however sheltered, has appropriated, and adapted the twenty-first century alongside the romantic. There are the modern, and rather more bizarre, events. Dogs in rusty cages pulled along by racing wagons. Girls’ innocent eyes peering out from layers of fake tan and makeup, posing like celebrities twice their age in their not so innocent clothing. Loud voices of men and boys lined up in tracksuit bottoms outside pubs, surrounded by wary police officers.

You do not want to miss the washing of the horses in the River Eden. This is a beautiful and exciting ritual to behold. Some of the horses are all but wild, a common and desired trait in a gypsy cob, and there are a few bolts but otherwise it is quite magical to see the horses swimming with their young male riders through the sunlit river.

Endure the seemingly arduous walk up to Fair Hill. You will be rewarded with horses, ridden bare back by riders as young as twelve, racing up and down the street. This is a way to show off the horses for sale and a small taster of the racing that takes place at the top of the hill.

The fair itself provides the chance to browse the stalls selling, horse-related merchandise, refreshments and illicitly bred puppies, all set to the backdrop of the looming Pennines, silent giants. There are unnervingly accurate Romany palmists there to lure you in for a twenty-pound palm reading with titbits of what your future might hold. Blacksmiths, shoeing horses, captivate weekend tourists.

2011 brought a new arts platform to Appleby Horse Fair set up by the gypsy council in the town centre. They provided events throughout the week such as a performance from the renowned Irish traveller singer Tom McCarthy, a discussion group for gypsy women and an open mic slot for the young travellers to sing–but in this case mainly rap. They hope to increase communication between the settled and traveller communities. They sold postcards bearing the gypsy emblem and filled with facts that dispelled common myths settled people had about travellers.

Behind the revelry there is a threat of animosity hanging over this public display. The Roma and Irish travellers are historically outcast peoples. For centuries travellers and settlers have fought and disagreed: they still do. This shows even in accommodation arrangements. Tourists are advised to camp away from Fair Hill for fear of how they will be treated. Campsites out of the town actively try to prevent travellers from staying. A divide is tangible.

Yet it pays to be persistent. Engaging and appreciating the community pays off: I was invited by an incredibly welcoming traveller family to hear storytelling, music and songs outside of their caravan. They welcomed me into their caravan, offered me a beer and aided my picture taking of the campfire.

Like a sunken city re-emerging only with the ebbing tide, Appleby Horse Fair brings together moving voices just long enough for one to travel out of English society and immerse yourself as much as you please in the culture of the Roma gypsies and Irish travellers.

All images and text copyright of Diana Patient.


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