A Day at Appleby Horse Fair
Yesterday the Appleby Horse Fair opened to the public, in a rather wet and muddy field.
The highlight of the day was the visit to the Flashing lane, seeing the horse drawn sulkys racing at phenomenal speed down what is usually the quiet country lane to Dufton. One moment the lane is full of people, Romanies, travellers, locals, tourists, gawpers of every description. The next a cry rings out and the people jump out of the way in an instant as the sulky tears down the road. So fast that my camera couldn’t really cope even at a sports setting.Some of this is undoubtedly just for the fun of participation, but there are some horses and ponies clearly being demonstrated as items for sale. Some of these are taken down into Appleby town, where they are washed in the River Eden, then tethered on the river bank. You see clustered groups negotiating the purchase, great wads of bank notes produced, the slap of hands as the deal is done. It is said that some of the horses change hands several times during the course of the fair.
Everywhere the occasional word in Romanes heard above the English and occasional Irish – for there are a number of travellers from the Republic here as well.
Probably nowhere in Britain will you see such a collection of horse-drawn vardos (travelling wagons) in one place as here at Appleby Horse Fair, bow-wagons and open lots, brightly decorated travelling carts; though, inevitably, the majority of visitors now use modern caravans. Some of the vardos are for sale – this is probably a good place to come if you want one. They are beautiful works of art, a tribute to a culture that is hanging on by a thread, which would diminish the world it were lost.
The best bits of the fair itself are those that concentrate on traditional goods. There is no bits of harness you would ever need for your horse that you can’t buy here, and cooking pots for the roadside fire, and clothing both traditional and garish.
It was good to see someone demonstrating the art of making clothes pegs in the traditional way – I have a memory of my mother buying just such pegs from a Romany door-stepper when I was a small boy in Staffordshire. There is a fair bit of Dukkerin, Romany fortune-telling, and persistent Romany wives selling charms with that old familiar line “you have a lucky face” etc.
Going back into the town and watching horses (grys) being washed in the water (pani) takes you back to a scene that, in its essentials, has not changed very much in centuries. If you have ever read the account of the Horncastle Horse Fair in the 1820s, described by George Borrow in his book The Romany Rye,you might get something of the atmosphere.
It is hard to believe that such a timeless scene might be witnessed in our over-fast twentieth-first century. Nearly every other of the old horse fairs have gone, consigned to history, only known now in old prints.
At Appleby those pictures come to life.