Travel

Inside Western Europe's Biggest Annual Gathering of Gypsies and Travelers

"People say: 'Why don't you lot go back to where you've come from?' But when we're on Appleby, we don't get that. Just for this week we get a sense of place, a sense of being, and a sense of ancestry."

by Charlie Gilmour
Jun 9 2015, 3:00pm

All photos by Amelia Troubridge.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

A horse penis, two feet long, swings wildly in the wind, spraying piss like a slashed petrol pump. Its owner, a piebald stallion, splays his legs proudly against the bitter dawn. The field in which we've awoken—freezing and miserable—is littered with horses of all shapes and sizes, chained to the ground with sturdy iron pegs or tethered to the backs of caravans. Ask anyone about their pedigree, however, and you get one simple answer: "gypsy."

For one week every year, the tiny Cumbrian town of Appleby plays host to what some claim is the largest gathering of gypsies and travelers in Western Europe. As many as 10,000 members of the traveling community pour into the Eden Valley to drink, gamble, meet old friends, find new love and, occasionally, to trade horses.

"It's a bit like, I'd imagine, the feeling some Jews get when they go to Israel," says gypsy writer Damian Le Bas. "You're in a majority for the first time in your life. Going to Appleby was the first time I'd ever been to a town where it was the norm to be a gypsy."

The Appleby Fair is, perhaps, the last of its kind: a throwback to Britain's pre-industrial past, to a time before the "great disciplining" of the nineteenth century turned us all into miserable clock-punchers. For one week in June the fine reek of horseshit supersedes the city smog. Hundreds of gypsy steeds are charged down the high street and ploughed into the River Eden for the benefit of the buyers and spectacle-seekers who line the curbs and banks.

Its very existence is miraculous. Since the Egyptians Act of 1554, which gave the government the power to remove gypsies from England "by any violent means necessary," the story of gypsies and travelers in this country has been one of almost uninterrupted oppression and exclusion. Their way of life has been legislated against to the extent that even the Association of Chief Police Officers has admitted the law virtually "criminalized the act of living in a caravan." The comments beneath the Daily Mail's annual tally of the trash left behind at Appleby reveal its barely concealed subtext: filthy gypsies.

When we arrive at Appleby in the lifeless early morning hours of the fair's second day, the omens bode ill. Two horses are already dead and the town is shuttered. The owner of the hotel in which we hoped to stay makes a brief appearance. "No rooms, you fucked up!" he shouts cheerily before scuttling behind a thick wooden door and bolting it shut.

Cruising around in search of a quiet place to rest up, the only thing we find emanating light is a mobile police prison cell parked threateningly at the base of the gypsy encampment, a perverse inversion of the freedom conventionally afforded by a bed on wheels. Our car stalls fatally close to a parked paddy wagon; shadows flicker excitedly within. An officer runs our details then waves us through to the cold field of caravans and horses.

Since My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, the Channel Four show which, according to Yvonne MacNamara, chief executive of the Traveller Movement, "harmed children, promoted discrimination, and racism and fueled misunderstanding, bullying, and hostility" towards gypsies and travelers, those communities have become understandably suspicious of journalists.

"It has definitely changed since Big Fat Gypsy Wedding came out," says Le Bas. "My mum used to take lots of pictures and I sort of inherited that. I was at another traveler fair two years ago and some guys started throwing stones at me and my friend. And we're both travelers, but the fact that we had big cameras just really pissed people off."

"I've talked my way into Downing Street and parties at the Havana Club with Fidel Castro," says photographer Amelia Troubridge, whose award-winning 1996 series Urban Cowboys celebrated the lives of young Irish travelers. "This'll be a piece of cake."

Every room within a ten-mile radius of Appleby is booked up over the fair, often a year in advance, by the 30,000 visitors the event attracts. But somehow we manage get a foot in the door at a place called the Tufton Arms, the fanciest hotel in this hundred-horse town. In the bar two old men stare doomily out of the window, occasionally reaching over the counter to top up their pints. It's a reminder that, despite all of the color and the chaos outside, we're still in the deepest, darkest industrial north. Local reaction is mixed to say the least. "It's a pain for three days and then it's gone," says one of the old boys. "So it isn't as bad as childbirth, really."

For all the fuss that's made about Appleby, it's not so different from any of Britain's great horsing events. Men and boys, mostly, show off on the horses and young women do their best to distract them, the sharp rap of stilettos intermingling with the clippety-clop of hooves.

It is often reported in newspaper accounts that the fair is of ancient and royal descent. The Charter allegedly handed down by King James II in 1685 would, gloriously, make Appleby a greater British tradition than Royal Ascot, which wasn't founded until the brash 1700s by prissy Queen Caroline.

"I'm afraid to tell you that it's simply not true," says local historian and, until recently, Appleby Mayor Andy Connell. The myth of the charter was born in 1945, during one of the various attempts on the life of the fair, and "by the 1970s this had become a charter granted by Good King James to gypsies themselves—a totally impossible scenario for all sorts of reasons, not least because the Egyptians Act made it illegal to be a gypsy until 1783."

Even so, the former Mayor is still taking me to meet the king. At the very top of Fair Hill, Billy Welch—"king of the gypsies in the north"—is holding court in his spotless caravan.

"Wherever we go in the world we get that feeling that we don't belong," says Welch. "Even in Darlington, where we've lived for nearly 200 years, you get a sense from the wider community that they don't want you there. And we've been there for 200 years! To this day people say to me, 'Why don't you lot go back to where you've come from?' But when we're on Appleby, we don't get that. Just for this week we get a sense of place, a sense of being and a sense of ancestry. This one little patch of land on the planet earth—this is sacred to us."

"Eighty percent of our people actually live in houses now," he goes on. "It's important for them to come back here and bring their children, because it's their children's heritage and so that they know it and understand it, don't forget it and let it go. It's a perfect illustration of our culture, our way of life, our traditions: the old ways."

Back in 2010, perhaps as a gift to Cameron's gypsy-hating government, the police tried their best to shut things down.

"Every corner you looked on," recalls the former mayor, "instead of amiable police standing on every corner saying 'how do you do' and smiling at everyone, you had these automatons all in black, carrying firearms. Frozen faces standing everywhere, glaring at people."

"They were escorting my people out of that town at half past nine at night," says Welch. "Elderly, young, all herded out like sheep with these horses. Grabbing hold of our young women and manhandling them. You don't do that..."

"In 2010 we let them see that we are better organized," he continues. A protest—"no violence, no swearing"—was led against the police. "I can organize this lot. We did that in about two hours. If I had a few weeks or a few months to arrange something I could really put on a spectacle."

Since then, the police—though still numerous—have become little more than weaponized traffic wardens

Back in town the horse trials are over, and the drinking begins. There's trouble at one of the pubs. Someone with a horsewhip is yelling at a line of police. Truncheons and Tasers are surely seconds away. But no. Instead, something I've never seen before in a "public order situation" occurs. The police back down. Peace resumes. People return to their pints and the high-stake coin toss gambling of "head and pennies."

"This place is sacred to us," says Welch. "It is literally our Mecca. It is our Last Stand in history." For one week every year this is truly Traveller Town and nobody—not the police, the council, or even the Daily Mail—can take that away.

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