Can Britain’s Gypsies survive?


Visitors to one of Cumbria’s largest and oldest cultural events are greeted long before it comes into sight. Hundreds of signs cable-tied to wooden stakes line the roads miles from Appleby-in-Westmorland telling the Gypsies, Roma and Travellers not to stop their vehicles on the way.

Adopting a belt-and-braces approach, the council placards feature not one but two silhouettes of caravans — the traditional bow-top variety and its modern successor — with red crosses struck through each. That is not to say that all of the incomers are ungrateful for the welcome. Some set up camp next to the posts, and use them for firewood.

In case the signs sprinkled around the town like confetti did not communicate the message, they are often punctuated by large boulders plonked on to verges. This year, one farmer went even further, spraying cow manure across his field and the public byway beside it.

The river in which the steeds of the Appleby Horse Fair are ritually washed may be called the Eden, but this market town — slap bang in the middle of the North Pennines, Lake District and Yorkshire Dales — has not quite been an idyllic paradise over the past week.

The fair, which has been taking place annually since 1775 and returned over the weekend for the first time since the pandemic, attracts an estimated 30,000 people (mostly tourists) to an area with a population of just 3,000.

Appleby is historically about buying and selling horses, some for up to £30,000. They are ridden into the river — watched eagerly by RSPCA officers — before being washed with Fairy liquid and groomed for market. Then they are raced down a section of road known as Flashing Lane (“flashing” means showing off a horse).

Finally, the bartering takes place with a patter as breakneck as the galloping, before the sale is secured with a slap of the hand (in an era of Covid hygiene protocols, the time-honoured spitting on the palm appears to have fallen out of favour).

However, the largest Gypsy gathering in Britain, and perhaps the world, is about so much more than mares and stallions. With the majority of the pilgrims (of all varieties, from Romanies, who trace their history back to 11th century India, to English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish Travellers) now living in fixed accommodation, this is an annual chance to reconnect with their heritage and meet up with old friends and extended family.

They congregate over meals of bacon pudding (a steamed suet roly poly) or Joe Grey stew (a sausage and potato goulash). Many youngsters come here to meet their future spouses. The young women arrive dressed to the nines and freshly fake-tanned, marrying their ancient culture with a more modern, bling aesthetic. One older Romany tells me she calls them the “Oompa-Loompas”. She adds that this is the only chance she has to wear her gold earrings, traditional hairstyle and flowing skirts, as she hides her ethnicity from friends and colleagues.

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