Big Dreams at Appleby Fair

"Appleby Fair should make my people happy, and the settled people happy, that's the balance I try and strike", Billy Welch, an English Romany declares, sitting in his caravan up on Fair Hill, from where he organises much of the activity at the iconic gypsy gathering.

"Appleby Fair should make my people happy, and the settled people happy, that's the balance I try and strike", Billy Welch, an English Romany declares, sitting in his caravan up on Fair Hill, from where he organises much of the activity at the iconic gypsy gathering. This is Billy Welch's 13th year as spokesman for Gypsies at the fair, a task carried out by his father before him. It's a big undertaking - some 10,000 Romanies and Irish Travellers come here each year, with some journeying from America and continental Europe.

Welch describes it as a pilgrimage, and it's easy to see why - each year Britain's gypsies retouch the paintwork on their bow-top wagons, spruce up their modern caravans and set off for the fair. If they are travelling by horse they stop every 10 or 15 miles, at traditional stopping places, where their families have rested and grazed their horses for generations. "The journey is as important as arriving", Welch says, "It lets us reconnect with our roots".

These old stopping places are opened up as "temporary areas of acceptance" by the Multi Agency Task Force for the fair, which manages matters such as licensing, policing, transport, animal welfare and human safety during the fair. The task force members agree that the fair has run well this year. But two villages en route have had problems with the stopping off points - areas not set aside for grazing the horses were eaten, and then trampled. (The gypsies, for their part, claimed that all the grass in the areas set aside had been eaten). The presence of the task force, though, means that such problems can be dealt with quickly and the deputy mayor, Andy Connell, says that local feeling about the fair is "much happier than it used to be", adding that many townsfolk make money out of it, although others resent the disruption. Connell, who is a local historian, says that the fair in its current form developed in the 18th Century, and sold livestock; when the railways came and the cattle went to auction by rail, horses and their Gypsy owners came to the fore.

Appleby Fair has faced down two serious threats to its existence, once in 1947 and again in 1964. The local council decided not to push for closure, but other gGypsy fairs have not been so lucky. The fair at Horsmonden in Kent, which evolved from a "hopping fair" into a gGypsy horse fair, was closed down briefly in the nineties, and has now re-opened with restrictions. The traditional twice-yearly horse fair in Stow faces entrenched opposition from a local residents' group - and many shops in the town close, claiming suspiciously well-timed family holidays or the need for redecorating during fair time.

In Appleby, by contrast, most shops were open and 1500 visitors were expected to arrive by chartered coaches on Saturday alone to attend the fair. Two hundred police are on duty during the fair (compared to around six for the market town population of 2500 in usual times). Visitors cluster along the river-bank, hoping to see the horses being washed off before sale (although this was closed for much of Saturday because the river level was too high), or walk up the hill to the fair itself, where gypsy cobs and lighter horses are raced along in the so-called flashing lane, in light-weight traps known as sulkys, or ridden bare-back by lads and the odd girl with hair streaming down her back. The cry "Watch your backs" goes up as the sulkys race along. Horses that show a straight line in the traces, and a high trotting step, raise appreciative cheers.

Despite the rain, many girls, hoping to be wooed at the fair, are dressed in tiny shorts, skirts and shirts, are immaculately spray-tanned, and totter along in high-heeled wedges. Indeed the ambulance service was expecting sprains and fractures yesterday due to girls wearing "inappropriate footwear" coming to harm in muddy conditions.

Horses, ponies, goats and donkeys are for sale, as well as thick rugs, Crown Derby china, elaborately smocked dresses and beautifully cut shooting jackets and flat caps for boys and men.

Families park up in the same spot each year. William and Janey Michaelson have visited the fair since childhood. William was brought here as a babe in arms, 73 years ago. Surveying the fair, ringed by verdant hills, he declares, "You can travel all over the world and not see anything like this."

This year some talk about the agony of the Dale Farm site clearance, and shake their heads in sympathy, asking, in particular, how the mothers are bearing up. But others say that the Travellers brought it on themselves, by packing the site and resisting the eviction by bringing in outside activists, rather than doing it for themselves.

And this is Billy Welch's big dream - that his people do it for themselves, by being less secretive and engaging more with settled society. He wants to launch an Obama style "Get Out the Vote" among his people. "We need a voice", he says, "So we need to vote." The fair, for all its good cheer and family atmosphere, could be a starting point, he thinks, for something bigger - political power and a louder voice.