Tinkerin’ and canterin’.

We’ve just booked a little break away. Obviously it’s been tough to decide exactly where to go: we can’t take the risk of booking abroad and so we’re having to make do with a break in Britain, or, as some unspeakable arsehole (the same one that coined ‘Brexit’, I presume) came up with, a ‘staycation’. It makes me very angry just to think that a holiday in the country where you live used to be simply referred to as a holiday in the country where you live and yet now there is a strong chance that I will soon be able to find the word ‘staycation’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, along with ‘twerk’ and ‘freegan’. Though not on the same page. Dur.

And where have we chosen to go? Well, we looked at Cornwall but it turns out that between May and September of this year almost the entire population of England that doesn’t live on a council estate will be temporarily moving there and clogging up it’s quaint little arteries with their SUV’s and their double buggies. We also looked at Wales but it appears that anyone who couldn’t afford to pay triple rates to stay in a delightful stone cottage with three other desperate couples near Padstow have chosen instead to stay in a caravan park not far from Harlech, where they will have to queue for bread and piss into a bucket because it’ll be so overcrowded. As for the rest, well they’ll just have to sell a baby to secure a Bronze class chalet at Pontins or enjoy a last minute deal on escapetoaTravelLodgeCoventry.com. We, however have struck lucky because we managed to find a room in a rustic B&B right in the centre of Appleby, a lovely looking little town in Cumbria, between the 6th and 9th of June. And we can’t wait!

What makes this booking a real treat is that we didn’t even realise that it clashes, or rather beautifully collides, with the Appleby Horse Fair, an event that merely the thought of is making me feel warm and gooey inside, because what better way to ‘staycate’ than in the company of thousands of drunk gypsies? Last night we were lucky enough to be caught rather rapidly up to speed with what we could expect from our relaxing break, thanks to a perversely gripping documentary all about the Appleby Horse Fair on (where else?) Channel 5 – it’s really the kind of documentary work that I’d like to see Meghan and Harry tackling instead of wasting their vast talent on Netflix, this and stuff like ‘Behind the Bingo Scene in Margate’ and ‘Undercover Camera: the nonce wing, Wormwood Scrubs’. It was called ‘The Town The Gypsies Took Over’, and I can strongly recommend it, if only to get some idea of what it would look like if there really was a hell to go to.

I have to exercise a little caution in the words that I choose and the tone in which I use them because as one burley looking tinker (oops, is that allowed?) complained, as he and his chums ran amok like a gang of uniquely daft Vikings through a town they don’t call home, there was a definite air of racism aimed at them by the locals, though I really don’t know why. I mean, I think these horse fairs should happen more often, in as many sleepy rural towns across Britain as possible. To be honest I’m surprised there isn’t some kind of lottery system because there must be hundreds of places that are just aching to have their highstreets turned to shit and rivers used as great big horse toilets for four days of the year. What town wouldn’t want a horse fair, if only to help keep the sacred flame of traveller tradition kept burning in all its glory? I’m not sure racism is really the right choice of word; better would be: just get the fuck out of my town.

If you don’t manage to catch the programme (it’s a repeat anyway) then here’s a brief summary, kind of a ‘What To Look For At The Appleby Horse Fair’. It’s been going on for hundreds of years but has sort of mutated from being a simple little exchange of sheep and such to a huge great orange human flesh market piss up invasion. Oh, with horses. It attracts as many as 10,000 gypsies and another 30,000 visitors, though Christ alone in all his wisdom could tell you why anyone would want to ‘visit’ unless they were a gypsy, a traveller or very interested in buying a dodgy horse. Up to 1,000 modern caravans all park up in a big bundle, along with a few of those painted ones and a load of traps, which are invariably ridden by cocky, chubby little fuckers in traditional gypsy tracksuits, mouths dribbling with all the butter that has most definitely melted. A market magically springs up which offers essential services such as fortune tellers and palm readers as well as “buskers and music stalls, clothing stalls, tools and hardware, china, stainless steel, and horse-related merchandise including harnesses and carriages”. No doubt there are other items bought and sold of a slightly more dubious design, but we’ll just have to speculate on their nature.

The real action is elsewhere, however. Firstly there is the ‘flashing lane’ where horses (with or without a trap) are ridden or ‘flashed’ at speed to show off all their pent up gypsy wildness and prowess. These horses pose a considerable threat to anyone who stumbles onto the lane, because being hit by a speeding horse is generally considered a painful experience at best. On top of that the riders face the possibility of injury from falling off their four legged friends and landing face first on the cold, hard tarmac (one silly sod does this in the documentary and is immediately surrounded by his gypsy brethren, who scream for an ambulance, though I can’t say I felt quite the same need for such urgent assistance: you ride the horse, you make the fall, you take the hit. Tough shit. The other busy spot is ‘the Sands’ on the River Eden (poorly named) as it snakes through the town. Here the horses are taken for a good old wash, typically by a foul mothed trollop in hot pants or some bearded, bare chested advert for bad tattoos. Spectators swarm around the riverside, getting smashed and making deals for horses. It is a little known fact that the average male traveller spends up to 95% of their awake time either talking shit very fast or making fucking deals, often these can be performed simultaneously; a seasoned gypsy continues to talk shit and make deals even after they have fallen into a deep sleep. Note: casual non gypsy Appleby gypsy horse buyers beware – a gypsy horse ridden fast and then washed in a river is still a gypsy horse, sold by a gypsy.

And then every night, after each day of haggling and eating chips the drinking goes up a notch from casual to determined and everyone gets twatted outside the pub and the police have to weigh in, though as you may expect gypsies and travellers have an excuse for everything and a code by which anyone else is to blame but themselves. Meanwhile the locals stay locked inside, their daily routine utterly buggered as the streets teem with pent up aggression, drunken braggadocio and fat, permed girls in tight clothes. The travellers complain that they are side-lined and looked upon with fear and mistrust; and they’re right, because no-one wants them hanging around as they choose to live on the side line, they’re generally scary and typically very hard to trust. They can have all the traditions they like but the bottom line is that they are bound to a boundless existence, and they just can’t see why people resent them dumping themselves on the side of the road. Not that it matters to them – they clearly don’t worry too much about the police or the law and for the camera’s sake just send in some grim faced, angry mother of nine to the front line to bark about injustice and family (and tradition, no doubt) and how her little Patrick would never do that and her little Siobhan has never been in trouble her whole feckin’ life.

So we won’t really be going to Appleby this year, after all; I don’t think I’m made out to mingle with the gypsy and traveller community, and from the evidence I’ve seen over the years I don’t think there’s any point wasting a lot of time feeling sorry for them; to their credit it’s unlikely they would care anyway. For some strange reason watching ‘The Town The Gypsies Took Over’ didn’t make me particularly sympathetic towards the residents of Appleby either, particularly the owner of a B&B who had little good to say about their annual ‘visitors’ but was happy to take their money (some residents seemed to rather like the chaos, but they did seem to be the sort of people who spent most of the day on a park bench, talking to their own hair). The fact is it is very hard to discuss gypsies and travellers without bringing up the worst bits while frantically scratching around for something positive to say, if you can be bothered. In time I might just start to regret my feelings, but having said that the last time I had a run in with them (not long ago, do feel free to ask) they didn’t give too good an account of themselves, so I doubt it. Better, I suppose, to just let them get on with their lives while I get on with mine. Only mine won’t ever be in Appleby in early June, ever. And for the last time: no, I do not want to buy a fucking horse!

G B Hewitt. 08.04.2021

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