Gypsies travel to Appleby 'Mecca' in Cumbria

By Lee Morgan
BBC News

Image caption, The Appleby Horse Fair has drawn Gypsies and travellers to Cumbria since 1685

Beside a convoy of cars, caravans and horse boxes, a Roma Gypsy and his family are gathering wood for a campfire to cook their morning meal.

Billy Welch, 49, has pulled over on his way to the Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria, which opened on Thursday.

"When you arrive in Appleby and see the mountains, the scenery in the background, you feel closer to God," he said.

"It's a sacred place to the travelling community. Like Mecca is to Islam, that's what Appleby is to us."

The event has taken place since 1685 and last year it attracted more than 40,000 visitors, transforming a town that has a population of just 2,500.

Hundreds of horses and carts traditionally line the streets and wade in the River Eden while a temporary caravan site overlooking the town is set up on Fair Hill.

Gypsy travellers come from around the world to socialise and trade during the event.

Traditional activities include cart racing and dunking - which involves horses heads being dipped into the river before being returned to dry land and put on sale.

But the event has not been without controversy in recent years.

At last year's fair a mass brawl resulted in 27 arrests and police seized counterfeit goods with a street value of £250,000.

Some residents complained about vandalism, barn break-ins, illegal grazing and intimidation by visitors.

Mr Welch, who first attended the fair aged two months, blamed problems in previous years on a "small minority of trouble causers".

The event, which is expected to peak on Sunday, provides the local economy with what a county council spokesman described as a "considerable boost".

Despite this, there have been complaints from local people.

Fair 'mayhem'

Jonathan Bell, 18, a student who works at a grocery store in the town centre, said: "Me and my mates don't go into town because there's normally drunken fights, and it can be intimidating."

He added: "It will be absolute gridlock on the roads, which is a bit of a nuisance, but on the plus side I will be getting lots of overtime because of how busy it is."

Image caption, There is an increased police presence at this year's event

He said that some Appleby residents had been stocking up on groceries to avoid the town centre during the "mayhem" of the fair.

An increase in police numbers is planned for this year's event, and a warning not to bring weapons has been issued after knives and BB guns were seized last year.

There has also been controversy within the Gypsy community, with many complaining that police had blocked off some lay-bys to prevent them stopping off at non-designated areas.

A Facebook page called Save the Appleby Horse Fair was set up, attracting more than 2,800 members with many posts accusing the authorities of racism towards Gypsies.

The committee which runs the fair - consisting of police, the council, Gypsy groups and the emergency services - has rejected these claims.

Kevin Douglas, the chairman of the committee, said: "A lot of incorrect information has been bandied about concerning Appleby Fair this year.

"Our work is not about closing the Fair down, but returning it to its traditional origins and balancing the needs of Gypsies and travellers and the settled community."

Mr Welch, who also sits on the organising committee, said: "This is the last major fair left in the world for Gypsies. It is vital for our culture.

"It is not just a place to meet and trade, but a place to make friends and for young people to court - husbands meet wives at this fair.

"It is about a sense of place for us, a sense of belonging. Every Gypsy in the world comes to Appleby at least once in their lifetime."

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