Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bokends.
“There’ll Always be Appleby” : Appleby Gypsy Horse Fair: History, Mythology, Evaluation. By Andrew Connell. CWAAS. 2019. £12.99
“Under warm sunshine and blue skies, 1301 caravans, 178 of them horse-drawn bow-tops, occupied fields to the north of Westmorland’s former county town.” Most of the five thousand occupants were Travellers or Gypsies and they were attending the annual Appleby Horse Fair, possibly, as the claims and exaggerations go, the largest Gypsy gathering in Britain or Europe or the world.
The Horse Fair, for good or ill, makes Appleby special.
It is a friendly and colourful affair, a time when old friends meet exchanging gossip in front of their caravans and “preparing leisurely family meals in front of a backdrop of the sun-bathed Pennines”. Or they might throng into the town, the young ones “engaging in a perpetual parade. Young women, elaborately coiffeured, made-up and bedecked with jewellery, their tanned skins contrasting with the white or fluorescent hues of their skimpy garments, strode out confidently on high heels, gossiped, shopped for souvenirs and queued for toilets.”
Andrew Connell, in a footnote, points out that in times past gypsy dress would be colourful but not too revealing. This for him indicates how the Appleby Horse Fair is not a repository of “ossified social customs”.
In fact, it is an event, which, although it may have its origins in the distant past, even as far back as the seventeenth century, is constantly changing and moving with the times.
Almost a 100,000 people come to the time during the days of the fair. The population of Appleby is only 3050. There are perhaps a100 police in attendance, keeping the traffic moving and making the odd arrest of a person who might find himself drunk and disorderly. Despite its reputation the Fair is a convivial time when there is very little crime.
“The fairs of 2015, 2016 and 2017 were widely reported as having been ‘good-natured’ and ‘friendly’ with a ‘good atmosphere’. In 2016, however, it was reported that only advance notification had enabled the police to prevent a pitched battle between two gypsy families.
The Fair is supposed to have begun with a charter, but this has never been proved. It became subsequently a Drovers’ Fair, then a horse fair and gradually formed itself into the “World’s largest gathering of Gypsies”.
After the Second World War, it was felt the Fair had outlived its usefulness and in subsequent decades there were calls for its abolition. Today, despite the overwhelming scale of the event, the sudden noisy influx of people and caravans and horses is welcomed into the sleepy town.
This new book is a considerably extended and revised version of Andrew Connell’s earlier book on the Fair. Andrew is thorough in his scholarship but he also presents a colourful, attractive history of one of Cumbria’s greatest social events.