Welcome to Appleby, the "wild" riding fair where gypsies feel at home

LONDON – Boys who ride bareback, two at a time, on the backs of huge piebald horses. Amazons pushing their steed into the river waters, until only the animal’s muzzle and the rider’s head remain out of the water. Old people who soap and water foals on the banks of the watercourse, then brush them to make their fur shiny. And great negotiations, in front of quadrupeds tied with the reins to a fence, as in western movies.

Welcome to the Appleby Horse Fairthe largest horse fair of the gypsies in all of Europe, which meet every June in a village in Cumbria, north-west England, for a tradition that has lasted since an edict of King James in 1685. A party of “wild” riding, as some call it, but also a cultural expression of the community of Travelers, the English and Irish nomads, joined by gypsies arriving from every corner of the continent.

The hill overlooking Appleby-in-Westmoreland, this is the full name of the village of 2500 inhabitants where the gathering takes place, is filled with caravans, tents, horse carriages and carriages, becoming an encampment dotted with rest stops, hamburger stalls and hot-dogs, rivers of beer. There are at least 15,000 gypsies. Visitors, very few of whom came to buy a quadruped, are at least 50,000 over the long weekend that ends this morning.

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Canceled in 2020 and postponed in 2021 due to the Covid pandemic, the fair this year was held regularly but moving the date from the first to the second weekend of June, so as not to make it coincide with Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee. The British nomad community also wanted to celebrate the sovereign. At the same time, the organizers of the event did not want attendance to decrease because people preferred to celebrate her Majesty or take advantage of the two extra days of vacation, as many have done, to go on vacation abroad. So, after not a few discussions, because for the gypsies the traditions are no less sacred than for the royal family, it was decided to move the Horse Fair to 9-10-11 June, sending only delegations of elderly representatives to Appleby on the previous weekend. of nomads for a symbolic opening ceremony of the fair.

The highlight of the three days is a kind of competition in which the youngest riders launch their beautiful animals at a fast and syncopated trot along the ancient Roman road that runs through the village. Pubs and inns are packed, not only in Appleby but in all the localities of the area, which is among other things a bucolic paradise of verdant plateaus

near the Lake District, the lakes region sung in the nineteenth century by the poet William Woodsworth and where the writer Beatrix Potter sets her tales about Peter Rabbit. The head of the Gypsies, called Shera Rom, agrees with the mayor to guarantee sanitation for all, fodder for horses and a discreet police presence to avoid accidents. You do not pay the ticket to enter the town, there are no speeches or a show, it is a spontaneous and popular fair, with street vendors, rides, gypsies who read cards or hands, men who do tests of strength bare-chested, women who show off the clothes and make-up of big occasions.

“You cannot lock a bird in a cage and you cannot lock a man in a house: we like to live like this, free, without chains, in constant motion, like our horses”, one of the gypsies told me when I visited the fair, for a reportage for “Repubblica”, in 2016. “My foal and I are one”, echoed a young gypsy with eyes of fire, a horse tamer by profession. “I do not feel discriminated against her – she added – because no one has yet had the courage to tell me something unpleasant in my face”. A third, older nomad had a more bitter comment: “We are a community that is the victim of racial prejudice. You have been called a thief since you were a child. But once a year, for a few days, at Appleby, we feel respected by everyone ”.

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