Appleby is a picturesque village which nestles amid the beautiful rolling hills of the Cumbrian Lake District. Each year during the first week in June, the sleepy country idyll is rudely shattered by the arrival of in excess of 10,000 gypsies and travelling folk who descend upon the town for the annual "craic" and to buy and sell horses. This annual pilgrimage has existed since 1685 and to this day is protected under a charter issued in that year by King James II.
The fair and its attendees never fail to court controversy however and there have been calls for it to banned. The latest incident came in 2007 when a horse broke a leg after it slipped during the traditional "washing" ceremony in the river. The horse drowned despite the best efforts of onlookers to save it. Since then, the number of welfare incidents has decreased markedly largely due to increased RSPCA, local council and police presence and their taking over management and co-ordination of the event.
One RSPCA officer reported that 25 years ago the fair was something more akin to the Wild West with only a nominal presence from the local police station in attendance. Local residents had come to dread the fair and the fortnight of virtual lawlessness that accompanied it. Appleby is now much better organised. There are at least 200 police on duty for the duration of the fair; RSPCA officers and vets are a very visible presence together with representatives from the World Horse Welfare and The Donkey Sanctuary. There is also a horse ambulance on site.
These days representatives from the travelling community work closely with the fair's organising committee with the joint aim of achieving higher standards of animal welfare and better behaviour from those attending. There is a greatly increased police presence too but largely as a visible deterrent and with health and safety of visitors in mind. A careful balancing act is required from all involved in the organisation of the event to ensure that the gypsy community's way of life and their centuries old traditions are not sanitised beyond recognition whilst keeping horse welfare and safety to the fore.
Teams patrol the fair in shifts. They are on the look-out for any animal that they consider to have been overworked; too sick to work or that appears to be ill or injured. Any animals so identified are marked with a spray painted "W" which effectively warns that they are not to be used. A horse marked with a letter "T" means that it has been treated by a vet. A vet station is also set up for travellers to consult for treatment or advice. Anyone seen disregarding the painted letters will have their animal confiscated and prosecution may ensue.
Many of the travellers come to the fair in the traditional bow-topped caravans, pulled by coloured cobs. Some are on the road for weeks and travel from all over the UK to get there following the same routes used by their families for generations.
The majority of the horses at the fair are either piebald or skewbald and range from traditional Gypsy Vanner cobs, easily identifiable by their flowing manes and luxuriant feathers, to the more athletic, finer trotters. Most of the horses are broken to drive and will pull either a cart or a light weight trap (sulky) which is mainly used for trotting races.
During the fair, a road is closed off to traffic and is designated as a 'flashing lane'. The flashing lane is used by the fairgoers to show their horses, particularly the trotters who are raced up and down at considerable speed. The lane is closely supervised and monitored by police and RSPCA officers but even so injuries often occur and collisions between horses and spectators are common. At the end of the flashing lane, sales take place. Some horses change hands for tens of thousands of pounds and sometimes cars, caravans and other items of value are included in the bartering.
Perhaps one of the most controversial traditions is to "wash" the horses in the river as part of their preparation for sale. The "washing" actually involves the horses swimming and there have been incidents of drowning and injury. A ramp has now been installed which allows for safe passage in and out of the water.
Another non-horse related tradition of the fair is husband hunting! Many young, single girls dress in their most extravagant and seductive outfits including extremely short skirts, high heels and gallons of fake tan in the hope of attracting a "mate" – an incongruous site in the middle of muddy fields full of sweaty horses and piles of droppings!
In addition to the travelling community, the fair attracts in excess of 30,000 visitors each year. They come to soak up the culture, the traditions and the jolly carnival atmosphere. Looking down from Fair Hill at dusk on hundreds of caravans and tethered horses bathed in the glow of camp fires you can't help but think that this view has remained unchanged for hundreds of years and that it will be this way forever.