The Appleby Horse Fair is held each year in early June when around 10,000 – 15,000 English and Welsh gypsies, Scottish and Irish travellers gather to buy and sell horses, meet with friends and relations, and celebrate their culture.
These different groups share a similar lifestyle and culture, and many gypsies and travellers regard Appleby Fair as the most important date in the calendar and it remains one of the largest of their gatherings. An estimated 25-30,000 non-Gypsy people also visit the fair during the week.
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. However, recent research has shown that the 1685 charter, which was cancelled before it was enrolled, is of no relevance. 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 20th Century it had evolved into a major gypsy and traveller occasion. No one bestowed the New Fair, no-one ever owned it and no-one was ever charged to attend it. It was and remains, a true people’s fair
The fair has no organised or scheduled events. The main activities take place on Fair Hill, the main Gypsy campsite field, with some catering and trade stands and more recently on the Market Field or Jimmy Winter’s Field, which was opened up by a local farmer several years ago, and is now the main stall trading and catering area. There are half a dozen licensed campsites 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 gyspies and travellers as the flashing lane where horses are shown off or ‘flashed’ by trotting up and down the lane at speed.
Many of the horses are also taken down to the Sands, near Appleby town centre and beside the River Eden, where they are ridden into the river to be washed. There is no auction at the fair with arrangements for any sales made between buyer and seller for cash. When the deal is done, the seller will hand back a small part of the price to the buyer for ‘Luck Money’.
The story behind luck money is that if the horse goes wrong, or hurts the new owner, then the luck money will ensure that you cannot curse the seller and a failure to give this money can be seen as grossly insulting.
The horse fair has generated some controversy over the years with complaints of mess and rubbish being left in the town and on the camp sites, crime and animal cruelty.
In 2014 there were 28 arrests at the fair, the lowest for several years, for among other things, drug use, drunkenness, and obstruction which senior police confirmed was not disproportionate to other large scale public events.
As regards rubbish and clean-up costs, although the trade stands leave a few tons of waste, the market field and Fair Hill are cleaned of litter the day after the fair, at no cost to the ratepayers, and within a week there is little trace that a fair has been held.
As regards animal cruelty, the RSPCA patrols the fair scrupulously, and although in 2009 Animal Aid called for the fair to be banned the instances of cruelty are few, and they are prosecuted where they do occur. Warnings and advice are given in borderline cases, and the great majority of horses at the fair are well looked after, well treated, and in good condition.
What is clear is that the fair is continuing a proud heritage and tradition among the travelling community and one that brings in much needed income to the town and it remains a colourful and exciting experience for all who attend.
Below are a selection of pictures from the first day of this year’s fair…
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