“today it’s a pleasure to be alive”: adventures with the king of the hill

I’ve been up in Cumbria at the same time as the terrible Bird killings, but happily I was more safely engaged filming for Escape. We were filming at the annual horse fair in Appleby, surrounded by Gypsies in the sunshine.

Appleby is a lovely little market town, once the capital of Westmoreland. The sort of place that you drive through in Cumbria with full-body sigh of pleasure. And once a year, over the first weekend of June, it explodes into a weird altered reality.

At 4am, Thursday morning, after days of camping out on the verges and country lanes around the town, thousands of Gypsy and traveller families suddenly descend and settle overnight into the fields overlooking Appleby.

Wednesday evening the fields are all empty, (the only sign of the impending crowds, the hundreds of red and yellow police notices and barriers everywhere: “No waiting on either side of the verge”) By the next beautiful sunny morning ‘Fair Hill’ is a colourful sprawl of caravans, mobile homes, and gypsy wagons painted every colour. There’s one field for the Romany, another for the Irish travellers, several catching the overspill. And then there are horses – everywhere you look handsome, piebald horses tethered in the rich grass, grazing the fields, placid and unconcerned at the hubbub around them.

The night before the gates to Fair Hill open and the horsedealers descend, I’m invited up for drinks with Billy Welch, the ‘king of the Gypsies’. Billy is the shuru’rom – head of the Romany. Each area of the UK has it’s own shura’rom but Billy is the head responsible for Appleby Fair, the biggest event in the Romany calendar.

So Wednesday night I spend a rather beery evening around the fire on top of Fair Hill with King Billy. It’s a glorious warm June evening, the sun is going down over the Cumbrian hills and we all sit in a circle of caravans talking and drinking. I am rapidly brought up to speed about the Romany world by Billy.

He’s a handsome 50-something man, with a strong Roman nose and tanned features – but from his smart shirt and neatly trimmed hair you’d probably think he was a doctor or maybe a bankmanager. He’s got a powerful presence, but you don’t feel at all uneasy in his company, only confident that while he’s around everything’s going to fine.

His wife Rachel, a beautiful blond blue eyed Romany, is mother of Billy’s four children – two boys and two girls – and around the fire that evening there were also Billy’s brother, an uncle, several nephews and a handful of gorga (non-Gypsy) locals from the town.

Billy loves to talk and he talks with such eloquence and punch that it’s hard not to listen.

As the sun sets and the cans of Fosters empty, he makes a powerful case for the Romany people who have lived in England since the 1400s but are still regularly derided as aliens.

I ask him how it feels to be on the receiving end of so much abuse and prejudice and he says plainly that the Gypsies are used to it. Rachel chips in. In a way, she says, the Gypsies make things worse because they are so insular. They keep themselves to themselves, speak their own language, take their children out of school at age 11.

I ask about this. What happens to the children after that? The girls, says Rachel, stay home and learn to clean and tidy. The boys go out to work with their fathers. It’s true, the caravans of the Romany are immaculately clean but I ask Rachel how she feels about the rigid male-female division.

‘It’s all I know. It would be like me asking you what it feels like not being a Gypsy. It becomes a meaningless question’.

My liberal sentiment get in a twist over this – not for the first time in this evening – but the warmth and ease of the whole family seems to make my concerns superfluous.

Gypsy families are strikingly conservative. The girls clean, the boys work. And there is quire rigid moral rules. There’s absolutely no sex before marriage. Theft is punished by a horsewhipping. Drugs are a complete no-no. No tattoos, no ear-rings. There’s enormous, clannish support for the elderly and the ill. One of Billy’s family was – in their words – ‘a bit touched in the head’ but he was proudly held as part of the Welch family.

The great majority of the Romany in the UK are Christian – of many denominations, often evangelical – and when the conversation came round to politics it became evident that Billy and his family all voted Conservative in the last election – but the Welch family are also incredibly laid-back and tolerant. Billy said that the gypsies don’t really have that many problems. They spend most of their time dealing with everyone else’s problems with them. For Billy the headache of organizing the Fair every year is more about dealing with the surrounding community’s anxiety than managing the hundreds of gypsies and travellers that arrive.

Billy, like his father and grandfather before him, is responsible for making Appleby happen. The Gypsies were given a charter for the fair by James II, 325 years ago and it would take a royal edict from the present Queen to revoke the gypsies’ right to gather here. However the arrival of more than 600 travelling families and their horses into a small Cumbrian community requires quite a lot of PR on Billy’s part.
Local councils, constabulary, and residents all have to be kept on side and Billy has to pay around £20 thousand to staff, managed, police and clean up the Fair each year.

I was struck in the week running up to the fair by the amount of groundless anxiety in the local people. The owner of the hotel where we were staying – a hotel less than a mile from Fair Hill – had never been to the fair in all her years in Appleby. Even dropping us at the top of the hill, made her light-headed with fear. I was talking to the head-gardener of the hotel’s beautiful gardens, who held-back from putting out the hanging baskets until after the gipsies had left. I asked her if she had ever had anything stolen before – and she said no. In fact, she said, the gypsies that she knew were all friendly and charming.

But that is the overwhelming idea about the Romany. They’re thieving and they’re bad news. Perhaps it’s because they’re secretive. Perhaps because they’re rootless. But there’s no doubt that the ‘settled’ community has great fear of the gypsies. It’s the same fear that the Nazi’s exploited when more than 600.000 European Sinti were executed in the concentration camps in WWII. Like the Jews, the Romany have the same role as the wandering, rootless, secretive alien within a culture. And for the same reasons they gather fear and opprobium on their heads.

Spending the days with Billy and the hundreds of travellers and gypsies in Appleby made me aware of all those blind prejudices (ones I’d thoughtlessly carried since childhood) and dispelled many of them. with that pleasant sense of release one feels when pointless prejudice vanishes.

This is what makes the fair at Appleby so exciting. It’s the one time of the year that these almost invisible people make themselves known to the gorga world. They all appear like magic out of the hedgerows and sidings for one week, open their doors to the world, and celebrate themselves.

This fair in rural Cumbria is for Romany what Mecca is for Muslims, They travel from all across the world for a week of cultural togetherness. And once a year, this famously nomadic race all get together, partly to do business, partly to meet up with family and partly to court. It’s like migrating birds returning to the same spot each year to start new families.

Hundreds of beautiful horses are taken down to the Eden River and washed and shampooed and swum through the deep currents to make them shine and their feathery-fetlocks fluff out in the sunshine. Then they’re ridden bareback up the hill by lads naked from the waist up, strutting their stuff for the fantastically dressed girls tottering up and down the pavements in pink stilettos and curvaceous dresses. It’s all an elaborate mating dance dressed up as a commercial horse fair.

This is the one time of the year that traveller families get together and flirt. Even the serious business of selling horses is heavily laced with courtship. Dealers come from all over the world to buy ‘gypsy’ horses, which are strong and good-natured and beautiful with their white and black markings, or the famous ‘trotting horses’ that race on tarmac at huge speeds. And although the ‘flashing lane’ – the road where the trotters are put through their paces – is primarily for dealers to check their potential purchases, it is also a chance for the girls to check out the boys as they race at terrifying speed down the narrow country lane.

As a man with an eye for the lads, it was fun to wander around the sunny streets or stand on the banks of the River Eden watching half-naked gypsies ride horses through the water or strut their stuff up and down the lanes. But I also had a thought for the gay lads and lasses who grew up in this incredibly conservative and closed society. I wondered whether a gay son or daughter would be given much support.

I wished I’d had the balls to out myself as we sat round the fire that evening and find out what the response would have been. I’d be told that it probably would have been negative – but I’m not so sure. The Welches all seemed pretty chilled about the ways of the world. But nonetheless I couldn’t quite master that perennial anxiety that often makes me quiet about my love-life in mixed company – especially a company that prides itself on cast iron male/ female heirarchies and bare-knuckle boxing.

I can imagine how twisted-out of shape a gay teenager would feel growing up in such a loving but cohesive group. It would be fascinating to explore that and perhaps that’s my excuse to go back to Appleby next year and brave that question over the campfire.

6 Comments

  1. lou

    June 5, 2010 at 9:08 am

    Yes, Appleby is a spectacle to see, the atmosphere
    is incredible and old traditions are kept alive, but
    believe me when I say, that for those of us who live
    enroute “what you see is not what you get” !!

  2. tumbleweed

    June 7, 2010 at 1:14 am

    Alistair, you continue to amuse me. Talking about the
    permanence of things…

    So you were surrounded by nomads in ‘Apple’by.
    Thinking of gay gypsies??? :)I imagine gypsy with a jet.

    Some humans are nomads because they have to and because it
    is in their blood such as tribes in tundras and deserts.
    But a modern western nomad is curious and is perhaps running
    away and constantly escaping himself?
    I guess he also has no choice…

  3. Kristian

    June 9, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    Alistair, you give the impression in this post that being ‘laid back and tolerant’ is at odds with voting Conservative. I figured you’re not much enamoured of the party, that’s fair enough, and you’re certainly not alone. Furthermore, it’s difficult to agree with some parts of it’s past – you’ve mentioned Section 28 before, something horrible which undoubtedly failed many gay or experimental students and, a personal grievance, nearly prevented a gay schoolfriend of mine from choosing to become the gifted teacher he went on to be – but there are some young, smart people who manage to be Conservative voters who are not (or try hard not to be) insensitive, prejudiced, or exclusive.

    Some Conservative voters (and indeed members) are actually excited that this election has given it a chance to be pretty left of its usual position, I’m from a Labour-voting background, and it’s felt quite bad to vote Conservative for much of the time I’ve been eligible to vote, but suddenly I’m optimistic. I know I could turn out to be wrong, even very wrong, but I’m hopeful and would possibly even consider joining the party, if in some way that brought about more liberal values to replace traditional, further-right ones.

    Sorry for the essay, I’m neither criticising or trying to recruit you, but I just wanted to point out that political position does not necessarily define a person or their views. Particularly, on sexuality, I’m probably just a little miffed, as having had gay friends since my early teens, and being naturally quite effeminate, I often feel like I’m in the club – I really wouldn’t want someone to suggest voting Conservative meant being homophobic, even mildly. So, yes, sorry to be a bore, but you scratched me a bit and I wanted to state my opinion because I greatly admire you and your work.

  4. Valerie W.

    June 9, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    Thanks for a great glimpse into something I’ll
    probably never see. What beautiful livestock.
    It’s great that a heritage like the Romany can have
    an enclave like this once a year.

  5. Geoff Coupe

    June 21, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    Thanks, Alistair, a very thought provoking piece.

  6. Linda Macdonald

    July 21, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    An interesting event I was unaware of. Having
    just discovered you, Alistair, I must say I am a big
    fan already of your thoughtful insights and eloquent
    writing. Thanks for sharing yourself with us.

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