Gypsy Horse Fair

Horsmonden Gypsy Horse Fair

Horse fairs are an ancient part of the Romani tradition so why are local authorities trying to ban them?

Jake Bowers reported in The Guardian, October 25, 2000

Thousands of Gypsies will go to the small Cotswold town of Stow-on-the-Wold tomorrow to keep an ancient tradition alive. Horses will be traded, crockery will be bought and sold and old friendships renewed. The last Gypsy horse fair of the year is a place to swap not just goods but gossip.

One topic that is likely to arouse much passion are the attacks that have been made this summer on the dozen Gypsy horse fairs held throughout Britain. The fairs are the rural equivalent of the Notting Hill carnival to Britain's Romani ethnic minority – except you won't see any policemen dancing or singing.

Policemen were marching on September 10 this year when a five-mile exclusion zone, complete with road blocks and armed units, was set up to ban the ancient Horsmonden horse fair in Kent. Local councillors, irritated by the disruption to the local community, banned the one-day fair, which has traditionally been held on Horsmonden's village green. Hundreds of Gypsies attempted to enter the village with horses and wagons, only to be searched and held up at roadblocks for hours. A solitary horse-drawn Romani vardo (caravan), which had evaded the police operation, led a protest march through the village.

Eli Frankham, president of the National Romani Rights Association, organised the march. He is enraged at the way his people have been treated. "My grandmother was born on Horsmonden green," he says. "In an age when nomadic life is outlawed, fairs such as these bind our community together. They are the places we meet, trade and continue our traditions. The attack on this fair is a direct assault on the Gypsy community of this country."

The Horsmonden fair doesn't only attract Gypsies. Ex-agricultural workers from the east end of London, who worked alongside Romanies in the Kentish hop fields earlier this century, stand alongside ex-rag and bone men whose passion for horses has outlived the demise of their trade. Together, they make up Britain's other horse culture.

The fairs may not be as classy as gymkhanas, the Badminton horse trials or foxhunting, but they are a part of country culture no one from the Countryside Alliance is interested in. When horseboxes destined for a local gymkhana sailed through the roadblocks banning Horsmonden fair, Susanna Hersey, a Romani woman who settled in the village over 30 years ago, recognised double standards she has seen all her life.

"It makes me very angry," she says, "I've lived and paid taxes here for 30 years. I've loved and attended the fair since I was a child, but this year many of my family weren't even allowed to come to my house on fair day." Susanna may have chosen to settle in the garden of England, but some roses, it seems, smell sweeter than others.

The Horsmonden ban is only the tip of the iceberg in a campaign of cultural cleansing which Gypsies say is being waged throughout England. As the only Gypsy horse fair in the country without a royal charter guaranteeing its continued existence, Horsmonden fair was banned by a single parish council meeting.

Getting rid of the larger fairs at Stow and at Appleby, in Cumbria, will require an act of parliament unless no one attends the fairs and the annual tradition is broken. Local authorities seem to have that end in mind as they continue a war of attrition in the form of court injunctions and police harassment.

Stow-on-the-Wold has held its five-day fair ever since it was granted by royal charter in 1476, but a court injunction now threatens every trader with imprisonment if they camp overnight in the field in which it is held.

A spokesperson for Cotswold district council, which took out the injunction, says: "The object is not to discourage the fair, but to control the level of disturbance to local residents."

Vera Norwood, the chair of Stow town council, disagrees. "My personal opinion is that the Gypsies should be allowed to hold the fair without interference," she says. "They own the field and should just be allowed to get on with it." The authorities' tactics range from misinformation about the dates of the fair, to the closing of public toilets and persuading local pubs to close when the fair is on. Similar tactics can be seen from Priddy fair, in Somerset, to Appleby. But the Gypsies keep coming; it will take more than a court injunction and a few closed doors to overcome the tenacity of the Romani people.

Over the years the fairs have changed, but they have lost none of their social importance for courting or binding the far-flung communities together. And modern caravans and lorries have largely replaced the painted wagons visitors would have seen 30 years ago. Horses may be less useful these days, but they are vitally important to Gypsy families, from the Cotswolds to the Carpathians.

Pride of place among the horses are skewbald and piebald cobs. They are robust horses that have been used by travellers for hundreds of years. Renowned for their good temperament, strength and versatility, they can be recognised by their distinctive black and brown and white markings, and their hairy, "feathered" feet. At fairs, travellers often shampoo and backcomb the feathers into a bush of hair that would turn Tina Turner green with envy.

Tomorrow, in Stow, police permitting, Gypsy men and boys will show off their horsemanship as they have done for hundreds of years. They will ride and drive horses throughout the crowd without warning, scattering spectators everywhere. The chaos that follows might seem more suited to the streets of Spain than the quiet lanes of the Cotswolds, Kent or Cumbria, but England's increasingly sterile countryside would be a poorer place without it.

Horsmonden Village Website