At Europe’s largest Gypsy and Traveller gathering, modern nomads uphold traditions old and new

Each summer the Cumbrian town of Appleby-in-Westmorland hosts a spontaneous week-long ‘happening’. It’s the event of the year for a culture with an unsettled past – and an uncertain future.
Photograph by Jonny Pickup
photographs by Jonny Pickup
Published 30 Mar 2022, 17:47 BST

THE APPLEBY HORSE FAIR is the largest gathering of Gypsies and Travellers in Europe. It's a cathartic stew of mystique, controversy – and contradictions.

The fair has occurred with a regularity and consistency that puts other annual events to shame, yet with no organising body, it is in essence spontaneous. Year after year, inbound in everything from Range Rovers to horse-drawn wagons, people just turn up. Thousands and thousands of people.

Amongst them, you’ll find juxtapositions aplenty. Precociously dressed teenage girls wandering by tents hung with straight-laced religious iconography; artisan craft side-by-side with designer bling; kids in TikTok t-shirts spilling from SUVs within smelling distance of skillet fires lit beneath horse-tethered bow-tops. The courteous, and the less so. The very young, the very old. The very old, and the very new.  

“It's the most important date in the Gypsy and Traveller calendar. More important than Christmas,” says Billy Welch, who as Shera Rom – literally 'head Gypsy' – is a central figure in any conversations around Appleby fair. “When we're on the old hill, sat around the campfires with the caravans and the old horse drawn wagons, it gives us a sense of belonging. A sense of place. A sense of ancestry. It’s spiritual to us. Literally, sacred.”

The date is the first weekend of June traditionally, when the neat, upland-framed Cumbrian town of Appleby-in-Westmorland, with its population of 3,000, ignites with the activity of tens of thousands more. Estimates vary (figures have to be guessed from aerial photos) but around 30,000 Gypsies, Travellers and interested observers arrive in Appleby over the course of a long weekend in the busiest years.

And there lies the occasion’s biggest contradiction: those for whom the fair is a joyous, adrenaline-drenched celebration of a long-marginalised culture – and those who would end the fair tomorrow if they could.

One of the main locations for horses to be traded is 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.

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

A palm reader regards her crystal ball as her daughter watches from the door. Traditional Gypsy palm readers attend Appleby Fair and set up their stalls in the Market Field. Prices for a reading range from £10-£60 pounds and usually last around 15 minutes. They claim to be able to read your past and predict your future, offering advice and direction.

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

Using a traditional Romani swing-skillet, a man tends a campfire at an encampment at Appleby Fair. Music and dancing often begin late at night and can still be heard as the sun rises. 

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

In August 2021, Gypsies and Travellers returned to Appleby after a year that saw the fair cancelled for only the second time in over two centuries. Both occasions were due to disease: in 2001 for Foot-and-Mouth, and in 2020 for COVID-19. The cancellations were largely observed, despite neither having any guarantee of success. After all, it’s not that easy to cancel an event when nobody’s in charge of it.

Myths and magic

For all the modern bling on show, the Appleby Fair has a very long history. Some are adamant the gathering pre-dates the Crusades – but like many of the occasion’s aspects, the origin theories are somewhat contradictory. An oft-quoted one speaks of a royal market charter granted to Appleby by Henry II in 1179; another to a similar document bestowed in 1685 by James II. A modern take is that both theories are a fabrication, and that the fair has only been operating since the mid 18th century.

According to Andrew Connell, an Appleby councillor-turned-author of the book There’ll Always Be Appleby, the royal charter idea was a piece of strategic mythology – “a cock-and-bull story” – but created not to sanction the fair’s presence but provide a solid foundation from which to rip it. In addition, “the notion that this was always a Gypsy fair is just nonsense,” Connell tells National Geographic (UK). “It was a drovers fair, set up by a local aristocrat in the 1700s.” 

In any case, Gypsies and Travellers have certainly been convening at this place to trade horses and broker deals for hundreds of years, against the backdrop of a huge and spirited social gathering when unions, acquaintances – and rivalries – are made, and renewed.

Over that time, while the pride in modes of transport and the styles of personal resplendence may have evolved in aesthetics and horsepower, certain customs remain consistent. Many still choose to make the journey to Appleby as their forebears did, in horse-drawn wagons – a frequent sight on the windswept A66 dual carriageway in the days around the fair. For some the journey is a pilgrimage, and can take weeks.

During Appleby Horse Fair the quaint street of Battlebarrow becomes busy from 11am as crowds of gypsies gather around sellers and their horses to inspect, and barter. 

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

Revellers enjoy the melee outside The Grapes pub, one of the focus points for the drinking and socialising that takes over Appleby on the days of the fair. 

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

A Romani Gypsy dismounts a horse with ease after test-riding it bare-back up and down Battlebarrow street. She has travelled to Appleby Fair with her parents specifically to buy a new horse.

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

“Go back 60 or 70 years, before mobile phones, most of our people couldn’t read and write – and didn’t have an address to send a letter to anyways,” says Welch. “Families would only see each other once a year at Appleby. Someone could have died, a baby could have been born, someone might have got married. They catch up on all the news. They camp for a few days on the way there, they camp a few days on the way back, and they might not see each other again for another year."

(Gallery: see vintage pictures of nomadic people around the world.) 

At the fair, wagons and caravans pitch up across two main fields – Market Field and Fair Hill. Fortune tellers and traditional Romani Gypsy stalls are found amongst vendors selling designer clothing, fast food and horse accessories. Entertainers enliven the streets of the town itself. And the air takes on, in the words of writer Bill Lloyd, ‘the instantly recognisable smell of beer, barbecues, and horse manure’. At night, family time takes place around a campfire, slung with a traditional Romani swing skillet. Revelry is abundant, often alcohol-fuelled, always lively, sometimes heated, and lasts all night.

Billy Welch can’t remember his first time at Appleby. "I’m 60 years old, I’ve been going all my life,” he says, but "when I walk down the road and I see the horses coming past, I get flashbacks. Sometimes a smell, or a temperature, or a word, or a voice can bring back memories. And you look at the scenery, the same scenery your grandparents have looked at… we believe our ancestors are there with us on the fair. It's important that [Gypsy and Traveller] children and grandchildren are taken to the fair. To keep that connection with their roots.”

The centrepiece is still, as always was, the horses. These – Gypsy Vanners or cobs, mostly – are taken down to the River Eden to a spot known as The Sands. There they are washed, before making their way to the ‘flashing lane’, where the animal is assessed by potential buyers. Some physical attributes – whether a tail touches the floor, for instance – can influence price. But both the transaction amount and the appeal of a horse are governed largely by instinct, and may or may not include ‘luck money,’ a kind of superstitious tip from the seller to encourage a good experience. On the fringes of the action, locals and visitors look on with interest, excitement – and occasionally, dismay.

Managing the melee

“I think the biggest challenge with Appleby is that it’s a small-town community with not a huge infrastructure that absolutely becomes swamped in terms of volume of people,” says Chief Superintendent Matt Kennerley of Cumbria Police, who co-ordinated the force's presence at the 2021 fair. “It is a really tough thing for what is quite a small place to handle. Much like for a couple of hours each weekend around certain football stadiums.” Kennerley says the number of people, combined with traditional activities, large numbers of horses, revelry and the disruption to transport routes make it “the biggest event in the county for policing – and incredibly challenging.”

Left: Romani Gypsies gather at a spot on the banks of the River Eden called The Sands to wash their horses before presenting them to potential buyers. Right: A horse is trotted on the 'flashing lane' as a display for potential buyers.

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

The expansion of the fair in recent years has led to the formation of a coalition of voices to help navigate the event – in essence, to steer its occasionally anarchic swirl and flow around the community, support its safe operation, and ensure its more traditional elements don’t collide too hard with collateral standards of conduct and welfare. Named the Multi-Agency Strategic Co-ordinating Group (MASCG), it comprises local services such as the County Council, the police, fire services, the RSPCA, and representatives from the Traveller community. Les Clarke, deputy chief executive of Eden District Council, is its chair.

“The fair isn’t an organised event – it’s a gathering. So there is no formal requirement as would exist for an event like a music festival,” he says. “The MASCG was put together several years ago and I suppose it’s almost unique because of the uniqueness of the fair itself.”

Unpicking that uniqueness in his book, Andrew Connell traces the origins of the Appleby Fair back to a mayoral decree in 1750 for ‘a Shew of Horses and Sheep and also of Black Cattle’ to be held in the town. Squabbling between landowners and the town’s leadership Corporation over an appropriate site ensued over the next two decades, with the first event occurring in 1775 and growing swiftly in subsequent years, with the principal patronage being drovers, and the commodity livestock. 

By 1894 the focus of the Appleby Fair had become horses, thus appealing particularly to members of the Gypsy and Traveller community for whom livestock grazing was impracticable, but horses a necessity – and a specialism. Romani Gypsies became renowned for their horses and horsemanship, and Appleby increasingly became their occasion. As Andrew Connell writes, “The point at which it effectively became a Gypsy horse fair can be with some certainty located to the first decade of the 20th century.’  

By 1921 that fair was sporting elements still recognisable today, with the Observer of June 14 noting: ‘on the afternoon of the fair the younger girls enjoy parading ... in all their rakish finery, the principal items of which appear to be high-legged tan boots, striped coloured dresses and dazzling hair ribbons.’

Controversy old and new

But the fair’s size and love of traditional pursuits caused growing friction with what Gypsies and Travellers sometimes refer to as the ‘settled population’. Almost as long as the gathering has been happening to the present day, so too have efforts by some local quarters to stop it due to the disruption the fair causes – brought, in their eyes, by a visiting culture with customs varyingly at odds with their own.

These customs might include the well known motifs of painted caravans, artisan skills and displays of horsemanship – as well as extended families, the increasingly novel practicalities of nomadism, opulent weddings and Christenings, ever-present animals, staunch traditions and taboos, children who often grow up outside the education system, defined gender roles, and a penchant for competitive fighting.

“It’s safe to say the fair has some local opposition,” agrees Les Clarke of Eden County Council. “Any large gathering of this nature disrupts the normal life of the people in those communities. And while many look forward to the fair, it’s inevitable that some of that disruption would cause some opposition for some people. [But] it’s a really inherent and unique part of that community’s heritage.”

“You’ve definitely got a culture clash,” adds Cumbria Police’s Matt Kennerley. “Two very different cultures operating in a very small environment. And that’s always going to lead to raised tension.”

A girl sits bareback on a Gypsy Cob, displaying its feathered heels and tail, around The Sands area of the River Eden. The area is the focal point of Appleby Fair and attracts the most onlookers.  

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

An Appleby Fair attendee displays his equine chest tattoo. Horses are an inseparable part of Gypsy culture, and although no longer essential for travel, for many remain the most important aspect of their lives. 

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

The spectacles of horse racing and showmanship – both bareback and carriage racing – has been a traditional element of Appleby Fair for decades. 

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

This modern friction, along with the shift from a mid-week traditional horse fair to the town-flooding weekend knees-up of today, could be seen as the main catalyst for objectors – but efforts to stop the fair date back almost a century. And despite its advocates insisting the level of incidents and criminality at the fair is no more elevated than any comparable number of people anywhere else, bad news still makes the headlines. In any case, it’s unlikely such a fuss would be made over a village market or fete.

Andrew Connell, author of There Will Always Be Appleby, also served as the town’s mayor. “I live in Appleby, I quite enjoy the occasion.” He says. “My own feeling is it’s part of an evolving historic process and I don’t mind it. But some residents resent it intensely. Their normal routines are disrupted by people they don’t like.”

Identity on trial

"Why do they hate us so much? I don’t know. I haven’t got a clue," says Billy Welch, when asked why Gypsies and Travellers experience prejudice. “We’re 95% the same as the settled community, but we’re maybe wired a bit differently, and look at things in a different way. We’re not military-minded people, but when the country needs us, we’re there. We fought in both World Wars, shoulder-to-shoulder with the settled community. Then when we come home, it seems we weren’t fighting for our freedom. We were fighting for everyone else’s.”

He adds, “We have a small minority of people who are idiots, just like the settled community. But for some reason we tend to be judged more harshly.”

All of which raises questions about intolerance in a society where such prejudice is vilified, and punishable by law. Some commentators have characterised openly hostile attitudes towards Gypsies and Travellers as ‘the last acceptable racism.’ This was highlighted recently in the UK press when comedian Jimmy Carr described the murder of up to 500,000 Roma and Sinti Gypsies by the Nazis during the Holocaust as a 'positive' on a Netflix stand up comedy show, to cheers and whistles from the audience. The joke was widely condemned by Holocaust charities and the Gypsy and Traveller community; the segment remains on the platform uncut, and Carr has not apologised. 

“We have a small minority of people who are idiots, just like the settled community. But for some reason we tend to be judged more harshly.”

Billy Welch

“Making disgusting jokes about the the terror and the suffering our people went through… if you’d said that about the Jewish community, or the Muslim community, or Black community, or Gay community, there would have been an outcry, and rightly so. But for us, there’s nothing,” says Billy Welch. “We’re only Gypsies.”

In the UK, Gypsies and Irish Travellers are protected against harassment and discrimination as an ethnic group under Section 9 of the Equality Act – and as a racial group under the Race Relations Act and the Human Rights Act. Where this gets murky is defining precisely who might qualify for that protection. Many groups of people, from ethnic (or ‘born’) Gypsies – largely Romani diaspora – to ‘cultural’ nomads or those who simply choose to move around, are potentially entitled to claim it.

As to why they might, that issue typically rears into view when accusations of law-breaking land amidst a melee of different groups. These groups collectively number an estimated 200,000 individuals in the UK, inhabiting many different ways of life and backgrounds – but that the settled public often perceive as one, and treat accordingly.

This treatment can range from hate crime to the more insidious reduction of legal stopping places, and a national shortage of campgrounds – and thus the removal of the means to pursue a traditional way of life. Most have abandoned their nomadic ways, with some 76% of Gypsy and Irish Travellers now in bricks-and-mortar accommodation.

“You don’t have to live in a caravan to be a Gypsy or a Traveller. Being a Gypsy isn’t a lifestyle,” says Billy Welch. “There’s people living in houses next door to people who might be Gypsies and Travellers and they don’t know because they keep their identity so private. They don’t put it on a census form. They don’t want to draw any attention to themselves. Because of the prejudice we’ve experienced over the years we’ve got a very coloured view of authority and the media and anyone on the outside, so we tend to be very secretive.”

A young boy in the Market Field at Appleby Horse Fair. Fashion and fashion brands are a major part of the modern Gypsy and Traveller culture: often children are dressed as immaculately as their parents for the occasion that is 'more important that Christmas.'

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

Woman and children, dressed for the occasion of socialising with family. For some, Appleby is the only time in the year when extended families meet up: many children are Christened, and many marriage matches made. 

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

A boy rides a horse along The Sands. The activities on the riverside are closely monitored by the attending RSPCA, who intervene if they observe an animal in distress or being mishandled. 

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

According to Welch, it's this secrecy that has given rise to stereotypes often portrayed in the media, citing his own community in Darlington as an example of majority Gypsy life at odds with the popular perception. "If they come to my site and they see normal, average Gypsies getting up, going to work, taking their kids to school, paying their council tax, their income tax, recycling their rubbish, getting their TV license… they’re not interested in that. They have to push this stereotype all the time."  

‘Fear and uncertainty’

This stereotype betrays a rich history of a people and culture that goes back a long way. “It is very depressing that Gypsy and Traveller communities have resided in the UK since 1000AD, yet we have never been welcomed,” adds Martin Gallagher, an Irish Traveller who campaigns for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) rights. "Until prejudice, discrimination and racism towards GRT groups are treated the same as other protected characteristics, society will continue to treat GRT communities this way."

“I believe prejudice is rooted in fear and uncertainty,” says Bill Lloyd, a writer, musician and Traveller representative on the Appleby Fair MASCG. “Gypsies won’t necessarily follow the social codes of the settled population. It’s not that all Gypsies are like ‘this’ or all Gypsies are like ‘that’. Gypsies are just like everyone else, except they have some different customs. But when a few people behave badly, it’s presumed that everyone behaves badly.”  

Bill Lloyd’s role as a spokesperson for the Gypsy and Traveller community came about indirectly from an attempt by the local authority in 1967 to close Appleby Fair on the grounds of poor sanitation. His father – a highly educated, ex-gentry folk musician named Walter Lloyd – helped then head Gypsy Gordon Boswell secure an appeal against the closure. The interest in Gypsies and Travellers passed to Walter’s son Bill, who now acts as their envoy in official discussions around the fair, despite not identifying as one himself. He says, “I’m not partisan, I can see the different sides.”

Lloyd sees himself as the man in the middle between those who love the fair, and those who don’t: the voice that attempts to smooth the road whenever a difference of custom arises that raises hackles. Fighting being one.

“We’re 95% the same as the settled community, but we’re maybe wired a bit differently, and look at things in a different way. ”

Billy Welch

“Some Gypsies like to fight,” he says. “They tend not to deal with the law, they sort things out between themselves. By modern standards you might think ‘that’s not right, might is not right.’ And people now find that frightening.” Lloyd stresses that fights typically occur between rival families and seldom involve members of the public, but acknowledges the practice of bare-knuckle boxing – which is mainly conducted for sporting reasons – is intimidating. “It’s a cultural thing, there’s no way round it, and we discourage it at Appleby Fair at every opportunity. Fights are very, very few. But of course, any incident gets blown up. Which gives people ammunition.”

Welch, as Shera Rom, is in as strong a position as any to help appeal for an orderly fair. But as Matt Kennerley of Cumbria Police explains, no single person can speak for a community as fragmented and diverse as that attending Appleby. “Certain individuals may have strong links with some elements of those communities, but they might not with others who come to the event on a regular basis,” he says. “It’s useful to have those voices who can try and have that dialogue – but it is really tough.”

“I’m not saying there is nothing wrong,” says Bill Lloyd. “The anti-social behaviour, yes, it’s there. You’ll get [anti-social behaviour] in any town centre on any Saturday night. There’s 30 to 40,000 people at the fair.” He states that when trouble does flare, the disparity between numbers of those attending and the fair’s popular identity can backfire. “When everything goes wrong they blame the Gypsies, because everyone presumes it’s a Gypsy Fair. But at least two-thirds of the people at the fair are not Gypsies at all.”

“We call them the weekend Gypsies,” says Billy Welch. “The majority are nice people, good people. Unfortunately there is a small minority who think, ‘I’m going to be a Gypsy this weekend, so I’m going to be aggressive, I’m going to be anti-social, I’m going to be dirty, I’m going to make a mess wherever I go, because that’s what Gypsies do. But it’s the complete opposite of what we believe in. And they’re the ones the media tend to follow. Because that’s the stereotype that they’re looking for.”

Legislated out of existence

Even away from Appleby, the prejudice experienced by Gypsies and Travellers of all backgrounds – regardless of their specific lifestyles – is far from new. The Egyptians Act of 1530 was a ruling by Parliament passed expel the ‘outlandish people’ going by a name that lawmakers evidently misheard, and was later abbreviated to ‘Gypsy’. Although the harsher aspects were repealed in 1783, the Act wasn’t officially abolished until a blanket removal of obsolete laws in 1856, cultivating a lingering aura of illegitimacy around the nomadic community. 

But although marginalised and persecuted, Gypsies and Travellers were tolerated and even venerated for their skills as travelling artisans, metalworkers or ‘tinkers’, mystics and master horse dealers – portable trades that enabled them to move if they wished. Increased mechanisation of society and transport eroded this, increasing the contrast between the rest of the population and traditional Gypsies’ trades and ways of life – reducing opportunities for both, and forcing the travelling community into conflict with the settled population. As a 1972 National Geographic article on Appleby put it: ‘Each year the road is less open, the heath less free.’ 

(See vintage National Geographic photographs from Appleby Fair.)

In the modern age, the gulf has continued to widen. Legal stopping places are disappearing from the map, with little concession made for them by planners. And depending which aspects of the controversial Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill are passed, with its potential expansion of police powers and stiffening of enforcement concerning trespass, this way of life could once again be on the wrong side of statutory law.

A father and his daughter race bareback through the shallows of the River Eden as crowds begin to gather on the second day of Appleby Fair. Part of the preparatory work for the occasion by local authorities is to clear the river bed of debris to make the river as safe as possible for both the animals and their riders.  

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

“This isn’t the first attack on nomadic life,” says Martin Gallagher. “We live in a country that has historically discriminated against GRT [Gypsy, Roma and Traveller] communities. And the mindsets that allowed those in power to pass anti-GRT laws has not gone away.”

Gallagher says the PCSC Bill would in effect “allow members of the public to determine if a person has committed a criminal activity, and [with] the enhanced powers that police would have, GRT families are at a very dangerous risk of having their homes and vehicles taken from them. This is followed by fines, [and] children at risk of being taken into the system and into care.”   

He likens the law as to the Nationality and Borders Bill, “that now has second and third generation British citizens worried that they will be deported to their grandparents’ country of origin.” Gallagher says he “and GRT communities around the UK, have genuine fears that our ethnic status will be removed, and even harsher policies or police and governmental powers will follow.”  

In short, Gypsies and Travellers face the situation where it will almost be impossible for them not to break the law. It’s a situation Bill Lloyd describes as ‘using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.’

Any disparity between the settled population and Gypsies and Travellers becomes particularly visible locally around the dates of Appleby. As Matt Kennerley of Cumbria Police notes: “Many people take the opportunity to travel to the fair, it’s part of the experience. So they look for those stopping points… and they really haven’t got much in the way of opportunity. And when they do stop at the roadside, they do draw a lot of attention and concern.”

“The community might say to the police, ‘why aren’t you moving these people on?’” He says. “The answer – and I’ve said this a number of times – is ‘where would you like me to move them to?’ There’s nowhere within the county, nowhere reasonable. It’s [on] the days of the fair itself when the wider impact is felt the least, as those fields open up, and the Travellers are in that set location.” 

Travellers reconvene

Photographer Jonny Pickup documented the rescheduled Appleby Fair in August 2021. After 2020’s cancellation, the year pushed the gathering’s contrasts to the extreme: Travellers and Gypsies desperate to mingle and trade, and a town extra-wary of crowds, given the still-present threat of COVID-19.

Many have come a long way to be here, often by traditional methods. Leroy and Harry travelled 280 miles from Bristol. It took them over a week in their small horse drawn carriage. Overnight, the pair “would just rough it on the side of the road.”

“We have a house in Leeds but we aren’t often there. We like to be on the road,” say Cornia and Zoey. “It’s better for the kids. If we are in Leeds they just sit on their phones; on the road they are never on them. It’s a sense of freedom you don’t get anywhere else.”

The responses from locals are, as ever, mixed. As has become routine, wooden stakes line many verges and gardens on the roads around Appleby, in attempts to stop incoming visitors from pitching there. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.

In 2021, the shifting of the date – from June to August – enabled the fair to take advantage of relaxed COVID restrictions, but it caused frustrations amongst some local traders, given the impact of the fair on what is high season for regular tourists. “It’s a joke,” says the owner of a local café. “Us shop owners aren’t happy because August is our busiest month of the year. It would be better in September, so we could have two bites of the cherry, like normal. Now the dates clash”.

“We like the hustle and bustle,” say two residents of the road of Battlebarrow. “We just don’t like the rubbish that gets left. And last year [some people] came despite the COVID rules – that was bad.”

Top left: Without a budget from ticket sales, facilities at the fair have always been a challenge, from sanitation (top left) to litter (top right). Revelry centres around the town's pubs, and many residents – such as David (bottom right) have a panoramic view of all that ensues over the long weekend. 

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

Some young girls dress in heels and skirts as if older. Men’s hair is often slicked back; women’s frequently resplendent with extensions. Designer brands define the dress code, with SUVs, vans and caravans the 21st century’s answer to wagons and flat-carts – the culture’s all-important residences, livelihoods and means of getting around. Just like in the settled population, such things are symbols of pride and status.   

Children run free, the parents apparently trusting that the community at large will look out for them. “Gypsy children know how to look after themselves,” one says.

Crowds spill from The Grapes pub in Appleby town centre, overlooking the River Eden, with its melee of horses. Locals and Travellers alike line the margins. In the flashing lane, equine assets are showcased and deals brokered. “Foals sell for around £250, but it depends completely on how they make you feel at the time,” says Crory, from Wexford, Ireland. “It’s instinct.”

A question of welfare

The weekend doesn’t go without hiccups: an unexplained fire at a caravan. 13 arrests for various public order offences. Some bare-knuckle boxing between rival fighting families. Theft from vans. And rather more dogs changing hands than usual – thanks to the demand for ‘lockdown puppies.’

“As a 1972 National Geographic article on Appleby put it: ‘Each year the road is less open, the heath less free.’ ”

“It’s illegal to sell animals in a public place. Obviously, it’s a horse fair, so the horse trading is legal. 2021 was a bit of an anomaly for us as there was a lot of puppy selling going on off the back of the pandemic,” says Rob Melloy, Chief Inspector for Cumbria RSPCA. ”We knew it was happening, we’ve got some ongoing investigations into that. [But] the people who are selling those dogs aren’t necessarily Gypsies or Travellers, they could just be people who see an opportunity. It’s an animal-related fair, and there are crowds.”

(Go inside the magical life of Europe's family circuses.)

Melloy outlines the RSPCA’s neutral stance at the fair, whilst acknowledging that the uniqueness of the event itself requires a unique approach. “If there were that number of horses in any other event – show jumping, cross country, even a hunt – there would probably be a lot more regulation around it. This is absolutely nothing like that,” he says. “So we’re filling in the gaps with our animal welfare partners, who all come and help sort of put things in place where there would be things if it was another type of event. If that makes sense.”

What that has meant over the years is improvements in the safety of the approaches to the river, and clearing of potentially harmful debris from its bed before the fair. That, and a visible enforcement presence in the flashing lane, where serious accidents have occurred as a result of races going wrong. 

Dave, who sleeps in the horse trailer he is photographed in, shows off his prize singing bird (songbird) – a popular group amongst the travelling community.

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

A Gypsy man prepares his horses at Market Field, before leading them down to be sold at the horse market in Appleby.

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

Young boys race their horses along the shores of the Eden during the second day of Appleby Fair. 

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

“We can’t stop [the racing] because it’s not illegal.” Melloy says. “But if our team sees something that might go wrong, or has gone wrong… What we try to do first is advise. We’ve got vets there, we can refer the animal to the vet, or get the vet to the animal. When we have to be more than a deterrent, with the assistance of the police we can step in.”

The RSPCA and these partners have an ongoing presence at the Appleby Fair, but not just for enforcement. As Melloy says, in many ways it’s an opportunity to engage with communities in a positive way.

“The majority of people from Gypsy and Traveller communities are really good with their animals – traditionally, they’ve had to be, because that’s how they got about,” he adds. “I’ve been covering the fair for 13 years, and the general standard of horse handling and horse care is quite good. Unfortunately, there is an element who are going to drive the horses too fast and too far, over-ride them, again and again. We target these people. They are the ones we are there to stop.”

The future

Love it or not, the Appleby Fair will remain intrinsic to the Gypsy and Traveller community as long as it is held. And it’s likely to be held as long as there are people to attend. 

“It would be extremely difficult to stop it. People wanted to stop it back in 1945, and could have done so if it had been chartered to a landowner, or a body like the Corporation of the town,” says Andrew Connell, who believes the that elusive royal charter – and the murkiness as to the fair’s legal status – is the reason it survived. “The idea of a royal charter was made up by some local councillors as a way of ending the fair by claiming ownership. If it hasn’t got an owner it becomes a lot more complicated – particularly if you can’t define the event anyway. Appleby is a lot of people turning up for a while, occupying space, then going away again. And it’s a free country.”  

A traditional bow-top wagon sits on a trailer as its owners leave Appleby for another year. Head Gypsy Billy Welch describes the atmosphere of Appleby as 'God's country... when you're there you get the sense your ancestors are there with you.'

Photograph by Jonny Pickup

The same attitude does not always extend to individuals making camp along the way to Appleby – an activity now seen as so incongruous it often sparks alarm. “We get a lot of calls for service about encampments, when nobody has actually committed any offence,” says Cumbria Police’s Matt Kennerley. “We just go along for community reassurance, talk to both sides, check everything is OK and often take no enforcement action. We’ll have to see how legislation [around the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill] unfolds to understand what the future of that activity may or may not be.”

But for all the tales of conflict that inform the headlines, there are many that speak to the fair being a joyous, raucous occasion – with plenty of opportunities to build bridges of mutual understanding. 

“Every year, whoever’s the Commander goes up Fair Hill with the Chief Constable, sits down with Billy Welch and has a cup of tea.” says Matt Kennerley. “Billy tells incredible stories about the history of the Gypsy and Traveller community. And it’s so sad in a lot of ways that’s not the talking point.”

He adds: “[In 2021] we put some officers on Fair Hill who were actively trying to recruit from the Gypsy and Traveller community,” he adds. “What really made me smile was a karaoke night in one of the tents, when an officer from the recruitment team ended up doing a song and getting a round of applause.”

“Appleby is extremely important, culturally. So we're sensitive about protecting it, it's been threatened many times.” says Welch. “We had quite a few places like it, around the world and up and down the country, but the authorities have done away with them. So we're determined to hang on to Appleby.”

“You wouldn't think it in the 21st century, but it's a fact of life.” So says Welch, of a culture where Gypsies and Travellers are continually shifted on from everywhere else – and so now consider Appleby Fair the only place they truly belong.

Additional reporting by Jonny Pickup.

Jonny Pickup is an award-winning photographer and film-maker based in London and Cornwall. Follow him on Instagram.

Simon Ingram is the UK Online Editor for National Geographic.

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