Appleby Horse Fair

Have pony will travel

‘Don’t go to Appleby Fair!’ I was told. ‘You’ll get your car damaged!’ ‘You’ll get your purse nicked!’ ‘You’ll get stuck in hours of traffic!’ I considered this sage advice, but it was a beautiful day and I had always wanted to return as, many years ago, I had gone with my mum and took some of my first favourite photographs of the fields full of coloured horses there. So I went anyway. It was indeed a perfect June day of the sort that only England can deliver when on top form. I encountered no traffic at all, and glided straight into the town centre. I parked behind a police cordon in front of the Opticians in a bay marked ‘patients only.’ Surely my car would be safe there.

Not just for the boys

The front street was blocked off at one end and was full of travellers/gypsies and dozens of piebald, skewbald and other colours of native ponies tied up or pulling traps or being trotted at speed up and down the street, known as the ‘Flashing’ lane. There was a heavy police presence and there seem to be a sort of uneasy truce between the two parties. Apparently last year there had been a massive fight between two factions of travellers using extendable truncheons (not sure where they got that idea..) and several bare knuckle boxing fights had to be broken up. There is a stern message on the council website about the dangers of prosecution if caught bare knuckle boxing, but I’m not sure many of the travellers would be reading the council website this weekend. Appleby Fair was originally about buying and selling horses but it is also a great social event for the travellers and gypsies and is the biggest of it’s kind in Europe.

Ponies for sale

It is a very old tradition and has been taking place since the reign of James II who granted a Royal Charter in 1685 allowing a horse fair “near to the River Eden”. Since then, around 69,000 English and Welsh gypsies, Scottish and Irish travellers have converged each year to buy and sell horses and meet with friends and relations, and celebrate their way of life.The fair is one of the oldest horse fairs in Britain and there are palm readers, fortune tellers and other horse related products as well as the ponies to see. It was mainly men and boys riding the horses (it is a very macho society) but there were a couple of girls joining in too.

Black and white is the new black

The fair has also been associated with trouble of the violent sort and there were certainly plenty of police there. I did see some officers taking what looked like, big, shrink wrapped plastic tables from the back of their van. I wondered if perhaps they were going to set up a picnic in the interests of police/traveller relations, but on closer inspection they turned out to be riot shields. So no picnics then.

Do NOT tie your horse to the barrier

The RSPCA were also there, as the fair has a reputation for horse cruelty too, and a horse drowned in the river there just last year. They do seem to handle the animals quite roughly, but they handle each other roughly too (as anyone who has watched My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding) will tell you, so I guess maybe they get used it.

Horse washing in the river Eden

When I was there however, things were going just fine. The horses were being washed in the river with washing up liquid ‘squeezy’ – which is the cleaning product of choice – and then doused with buckets of water or made to swim across the Eden to get a a good rinse off. This makes for quite a spectacle and there were lots of people watching this annual ritual. There was not a muddy mane in sight.

Rinse cycle

Because no one bothers with saddles of stirrups much, the gypsy mode of riding involves sort of of lying backwards over the horse, Western style to keep your balance. It’s speed rather than style that gets attention here. It is quite tricky, I’ve tried riding bare back and would most certainly have bounced off straight away.

Trotting down the Flashing lane.

The gypsy horse is a type of coloured cob, strong and built more like a small draught horse as they were obviously originally used for pulling caravans and traps. They have well feathered legs and often hugely long manes. Even Cheryl Cole’s hair extensions would struggle to compete with some of them.. They are now a recognised breed known as a Gypsy Vanner and must display the action of a ‘proper Cob.’ Apparently they are very popular in the US and Americans come across to Appleby every year to try and buy the best ones for breeding.

Where’s the Frizz Ease?

I had a lovely time at Appleby Fair, seeing all the coloured horses in the beautiful river Eden is a spectacle – even if some of them didn’t look like they were enjoying the washing up liquid treatment very much. It’s a very old English tradition, part of our heritage really, and a unique experience to view a glimpse of another way of life that’s been going on for hundreds of years. And of course the horses are so pretty..

Tales of the river bank