Home Is Where the Horses Are for a Threatened Culture


There is the world, and then there is Appleby.

Appleby as in the annual Appleby Horse Fair, where thousands of Irish Travellers and Gypsies gather in northwest England for the rare pleasure of being not shunned by communities, but embraced.

“When we come to a place like Appleby Fair and sit around the campfires, it gives a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of ancestry,” said Billy Welch, an organizer. “We feel for that week that we are actually home.”

Life has never been easy in England for Irish Travellers or for Gypsies, as many still refer to themselves (elsewhere, many view the term as pejorative and prefer Roma or Romany).

Both originated as nomadic groups many centuries ago, with the Romany migrating to Europe from northern India and the Travellers emerging in what is present-day Ireland. In England, Appleby has knit the community together year after year.

The fair’s roots trace to the 1700s, when traders from across the United Kingdom began setting up camp each June in the rural Cumbrian town of Appleby-in-Westmorland. And for all the trappings the fair has taken on since then, horses remain the stars.

They are bathed in the River Eden. They are raced through the streets and paraded with fanfare — the “Flash,” it’s called. They are still bought and sold.

“I’ve been coming all my life, since I was little, and my family has been for generations, buying and selling horses,” said Riley Gaskin, a 26-year-old from Derby. “It’s a holiday and a business all rolled into one.”

Many fairgoers’ families have made England home for hundreds of years. But life has often been hard.

Poverty and poor health are widespread, and many communities are openly hostile to their encampments. Even “sedentary” Gypsies — those who have given up the road — face discrimination.

“People tell us to go back to where we come from,” said Mr. Welch, the fair organizer. “My family has been in Darlington for decades and we still get that now.”

And it is getting worse, they say.

Sophie-Lee Hamilton and her partner, Tom Smith, said their trailer had been attacked on roadsides — once when Ms. Hamilton was alone with their three young children.

“They try to stop Appleby every year,” Mr. Smith said, “but everyone would still turn up.”

During the festival, Appleby, a town of 3,228, suddenly finds itself playing host to as many as 30,000 visitors.

And it can be a hard-partying crowd.

“We can feel the atmosphere change if there’s going to be any problems,” said Ruth Harper, a police constable.

The fair has little in the way of formal organization, and Kevin Hope, a visitor from Darlington, acknowledged that there could be misbehavior. “Everywhere you get gooduns, you get baduns, but we all get tarred with the same brush,” he said.

Some businesses close during the five days of the fair, and some residents are openly unhappy about it.

But Constable Harper said she looked forward to the fair. Using an Irish word for fun as the festivities drew to a close one evening, she said: “All day, everyone was really happy. It was really chilled, really good craic.”

When Mr. Hope first came to Appleby, he was so small he could fit into a fruit crate. “I first came in here in an orange box,” he said, “in the front of an iron-tired wagon with a bow top.”

He’s 60 now, but families are still bringing children to the fair, often dressed in traditional garb.

Mr. Welch gestured toward children playing nearby.

“If you said to these: ‘Do you want to go to Disneyland or do you want to go to Appleby?’ there’d be no contest.”

For some who spend much of the year resigned to the conventions of the modern world, the Appleby fair is a chance to live their traditions.

Those who own the traditionally green-painted wagons take them out of storage for the trip, which may take several weeks. It is a decision both sentimental and strategic.

“You don’t get the abuse with a wagon that you would in a trailer,” said Becky Lumb, 35, who traveled to the fair from Bradford, in northern England. “People see there is a tradition and romance to it.”

Once at the fair, they pitch tents and look for friends and relatives, whom they may not have seen since the year before.

Some are keen to look at the horses. Others — teenagers, mainly — are keener to have a look at one another.

More than one romance has been born amid the wagons, trailers and tents that dot the field of Appleby each June, and so the younger participants often do not venture out before getting their attire just right. But there is no rush: The days are long, so are the evenings.

Sometimes, even the weather cooperates.

“It’s been a lovely fair,” said Mr. Hope as this year’s Appleby drew toward a close. “It’s been a bit hot, but it’s far better hot than wet.”


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