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Stow-on-the-Wold Horse Fair

PUBLISHED: 17:19 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:33 20 February 2013

A aste of gypsy life: Edward, John and Dean Armstrong

A aste of gypsy life: Edward, John and Dean Armstrong

Our writer Tom Henry and photographer Mike Charity are made welcome amongst the gypsies and travellers at Stow Horse Fair, but - despite efforts on both sides - the jury is still out as far ass some townspeople are concerned.

IN THE soft sunlight of an autumn afternoon, mud drying nicely underfoot after an earlier shower and gentle steam coming rhythmically from the nostrils of numerous beasts, it's easy to become wrapped in a nostalgic glow for an event like Stow-on-the Wold horse fair.



The gaudily-painted traditional caravans, young boys and girls riding ponies barebacked, women cooking on open fires, men standing around talking tack and trailers, their accents Donegal, Glamorgan, Durham, Yorkshire and Dumfries - gypsies and travellers from near and far gather twice a year on this picturesque site to renew acquaintances, talk shop, strike deals and yes, trade horses.



A cursory look around this long-established fair - a mainstay of the travelling community calendar - seems to present a vignette of a rural past in which gypsies and travellers - if not always wholeheartedly welcomed - shared the countryside and its ways with established farming communities. This fair is not only the preserve of gypsies; visitors come from all over the area for a slice of the nostalgia pie, and as they park their pristine 4x4s in nearby lanes and pull on equally shiny Wellingtons, there is a sense that a very British community increasingly shunned, feared, marginalised and looked down upon is - for a weekend, at least - seen as a kind of curious tourist attraction for those who have long since lost such an intimate connection with the land.



But is this the whole story? Look into the corner of the field and you'll see a large mast-mounted CCTV camera keeping a not-at-all subtle eye on proceedings. Police officers are everywhere; on horseback, on foot and in marked police vans. The atmosphere is tense with anticipation. In this corner of the field, at least, it feels less of an agricultural show and more like a grudge match between rival football teams.



Stow itself is quiet. A majority of shops and businesses have shut for the duration, with the honourable exception of a chippy called Greedy's which appears to be doing outrageously good business, judging by the queue. With shuttered windows and hand-written 'closed' signs over doors, the rest of the trading community in Stow seems to be passing silent comment on the fair, which has existed since 1476 - 'Go away. You are not welcome here.'



Certainly, Stow Fair (which is not actually in Stow - it's just over the parish boundary in Maugersbury, on gypsy-owned land) has had its problems. Rowdiness, pilfering, litter, drunkenness, violence, human excrement left in gardens; the quaint notion of a gypsy gathering has often been offset by the damage, detritus and general discontent left in its wake. So bad were the problems in the mid 1980s and beyond that calls for the fair to pack up and leave town for ever were increasingly difficult to ignore. But rather than take this draconian course of action and end centuries of tradition, a working party was set up involving local and county councillors, police, MPs and representatives of the gypsy community. A meeting of townspeople in Stow decided they want to see it much more tightly controlled and better policed.



The fair comes to town again this May, and with it the knockabout atmosphere which is part-market, part-festival and part-family gathering. When we visited last October (the event is twice-yearly) we came across a hurly-burly and slightly anarchic but otherwise extremely good-natured event. No-one muttered a curse and refused to talk to us; indeed, gypsies and travellers went out of their way to show friendliness and courtesy towards representatives of a British media industry which, on the whole, has been far from benevolent towards them. Perhaps they've wised up and learned a PR trick or two; whatever the motives, we felt welcome among them.



Making tea over an open fire, Scots traveller Jimmy is happy to explain why he's here. "We're down from the travellers' site at Larkhall, near Motherwell, and you might think this is a long way to drag two families, kids, and all the rest of it," he says. "But it's about seeing old friends and old faces and making those connections among your community. I've been coming here three years now and the kids love it. I think it's well run, and I would say that 90 per cent of the townspeople here are fine with it, and OK with us. You know, not everyone who goes to a football match is a hooligan."



It's a point taken up by Yorkshireman Mick Darling who, with his red neckerchief and collection of trinkets on a table outside his caravan, looks every inch the Romany he is. "A lot of people have tried to stop it in the past, and maybe that's put some off because I don't think as many come here as they used to do.



"But they should do. They don't know what they're missing. This is one of the best horse fairs around because it's still quite old-fashioned. Appleby (the UK's biggest horse fair) has gone very modern. It's not the same."



Mick catches me looking at his motley collection of pots and pans for sale. "Oh there's nothing very valuable here, they're just trinkets really," he explains. "But it's what they represent that counts. I still cook outside and eat outside. I do. I don't want to stop because if you stop it's lost and gone forever."



The horses, at first glance, appear to be in good condition and while some are for show only, others are being looked over and traded. More disturbing is the sight of puppies in cages being picked over by large groups of pushing people, which can only serve to intimidate these young animals.



"No, it's not pleasant to see it," agrees Christine McNeil, an RSPCA inspector who, with fellow inspector Mark Lewis, is patrolling the fields for signs of animal abuse. "Selling puppies like this is illegal, and it's something we're keeping our eye on today, though I have to say that it's quieter than the May event, which is manic.



"We get a mixed reception when we approach people. Some give us a bit of lip, or worse when there's a group of them. The physical condition of the horses isn't too bad today, but as an organisation this isn't something we're that happy about. We do our best to police it from an animal welfare point of view and we will definitely act where we feel it is necessary."



It's mid-afternoon, and a turn in the fortunes of the weather has brought many visitors out. Dishevelled, yet aristocratic-looking hippies mix with smart gypsies in Norfolk jackets. The younger gypsies and travellers take a particular pride in their appearance, and it's not just horse flesh on highly visible display. Like fairs of any kind, the occasion is a great one for teenagers to check one another out, and so gangs of long-haired and highly made-up girls sweep past clutches of chest-puffing boys, racing through drying mud in their high heels. Meanwhile, bringing up the rear, are mums gallantly struggling to haul pushchairs through the sludge. The expression on not a few faces suggests that the travelling life is by no means an easy option, but here they are, and they're determined to have fun.



"If we didn't come, they'd come looking for us," laughs Mary Connors, whose young son Jimmy is sat beside her, petting a newly-purchased hen. "We've been coming that long people would think we'd died if didn't turn up." An Irishwoman from Limerick, Mrs Connors now lives in Worcester. In a house.



"Ach, it's all right," she says, when asked how it compares to the travelling life. "Not as good, really, but for us it's a necessity. I miss the highways and byways, though. That's why we come here, to get back a sense of that again."



A sense of the past is also uppermost in the mind of Elaine Tasker, but for a very different reason. From a base in Herefordshire she runs an organisation called Equine Market Watch, which monitors horse fairs and campaigns to have them stopped. She feels Stow Fair has 'lost the plot'.



"In its purest sense, the horse fair is a wonderful social gathering for like minded people," she said. "Romany gypsies are fantastic people who look after each other and have a wonderful way with animals like the rest of us can only dream about.



"If only they'd stayed that way, we would be 100 per cent supportive, but they haven't and we're not. In the last 20 years there has been a big decline in standards of care towards animals. Puppies are being sold in poor condition to anyone who has the right amount of money in their pocket. It doesn't matter who it is, as long as they have the right money they'll be able to buy a puppy.



"Anyway, what kind of horse fair is it when all the girls are parading around in their bling and you can by DVDs of live bare knuckle fights? It's not a horse fair like I remember them."



But there is also tolerance and understanding from unexpected quarters. Given the on-going problems, you might expect local politicians to be nothing less than hostile. Not so. District councillor David Penman and town councillor Tom Morris both agree that Stow Fair should stay, albeit with a visible police presence and tighter controls on when people arrive. Cllr Penman, a Conservative member, goes as far as to say than in 25 years of living in Stow, he has never encountered any trouble (though he's keen to point out that his experience is by no means a reflection of everyone else's).



My own personal feeling is that the fair should stay," he said. "It really is part of the heritage here but I do see the problems it presents to people living around the site, and I understand those problems.



"Cotswold District Council and Gloucestershire County Council would really like to reduce it down to two or three days. If we can get it so the gypsies arrive on Tuesday and go by Friday that would be ideal, and would cause fewer problems for the people living in the area."




"The biggest problem as far as I'm concerned is excrement left around the area. People come across human excrement in their gardens, on walls, across fields and all over the place, plus toilet paper everywhere."



Cllr Morris, Stow's deputy mayor, agrees that people coming later would solve many problems. He is part of a local working group set up to look at the fair and see what could change. Since its inception, he says, the fair has improved considerably.



"There is a greater police presence and the gypsies have stopped coming so early," he said. "They used to come a week or even a fortnight before the fair, and that led to problems. It is much better controlled now, but that doesn't mean to say it is perfect. Some people still come early, and ideally we'd like them to arrive on Tuesday and go off again on Friday.



"Most of the businesses, but not all of them, close for the week of the fair, which means a considerable loss of income. Personally I don't think it's necessary to close the shops for that length of time, but it's very much an individual decision and there have been problems which put people off opening.



"Our main priority is to keep control of numbers attending. If it becomes as big as Appleby horse fair then I think we've got problems, and I would like to think the councils are working towards keeping an eye on this issue."



After each fair, Gloucestershire officers involved in the police operation meet to discuss tactics and present ideas which could be taken up at the next event. Chief Inspector Paul Yeatman, tactical commander at Stow Fair, says October's event was 'excellent'.



"It was very busy, but very good natured and peaceful, and I don't think any arrests were made," he said. "As for the level of policing, we have had positive comments both from the local people and the gypsy/traveler community. Both appreciate the increased police presence which is where we're going at the moment. The past three fairs we've had very positive feedback. A couple of years ago a lot of people in Stow were disgruntled about the fair but they seem to be much more positive now.



"We have tried to balance as far as we can between maintaining a presence and being intrusive. At Appleby fair there have been complaints about helicopters flying over which just seems to annoy people. We want people to enjoy themselves at Stow and to make sure that local people have nothing to fear."



A fair that has lasted for more than 500 years is an extremely difficult one to shift, and it would appear that in their heart of hearts a reasonable majority of people from Stow would rather it remain. The onus, then, is on the gypsy and traveller contingent to make sure that a balance is struck between their chosen way to live and the sensitivities of those the come to live amongst, albeit temporarily. Judging by the apparent harmony and good-naturedness of October's fair, this is by no means a fireside dream. If the will is there, it can be achieved. We wait to see what the May event brings.


IN THE soft sunlight of an autumn afternoon, mud drying nicely underfoot after an earlier shower and gentle steam coming rhythmically from the nostrils of numerous beasts, it's easy to become wrapped in a nostalgic glow for an event like Stow-on-the Wold horse fair.



The gaudily-painted traditional caravans, young boys and girls riding ponies barebacked, women cooking on open fires, men standing around talking tack and trailers, their accents Donegal, Glamorgan, Durham, Yorkshire and Dumfries - gypsies and travellers from near and far gather twice a year on this picturesque site to renew acquaintances, talk shop, strike deals and yes, trade horses.



A cursory look around this long-established fair - a mainstay of the travelling community calendar - seems to present a vignette of a rural past in which gypsies and travellers - if not always wholeheartedly welcomed - shared the countryside and its ways with established farming communities. This fair is not only the preserve of gypsies; visitors come from all over the area for a slice of the nostalgia pie, and as they park their pristine 4x4s in nearby lanes and pull on equally shiny Wellingtons, there is a sense that a very British community increasingly shunned, feared, marginalised and looked down upon is - for a weekend, at least - seen as a kind of curious tourist attraction for those who have long since lost such an intimate connection with the land.



But is this the whole story? Look into the corner of the field and you'll see a large mast-mounted CCTV camera keeping a not-at-all subtle eye on proceedings. Police officers are everywhere; on horseback, on foot and in marked police vans. The atmosphere is tense with anticipation. In this corner of the field, at least, it feels less of an agricultural show and more like a grudge match between rival football teams.



Stow itself is quiet. A majority of shops and businesses have shut for the duration, with the honourable exception of a chippy called Greedy's which appears to be doing outrageously good business, judging by the queue. With shuttered windows and hand-written 'closed' signs over doors, the rest of the trading community in Stow seems to be passing silent comment on the fair, which has existed since 1476 - 'Go away. You are not welcome here.'



Certainly, Stow Fair (which is not actually in Stow - it's just over the parish boundary in Maugersbury, on gypsy-owned land) has had its problems. Rowdiness, pilfering, litter, drunkenness, violence, human excrement left in gardens; the quaint notion of a gypsy gathering has often been offset by the damage, detritus and general discontent left in its wake. So bad were the problems in the mid 1980s and beyond that calls for the fair to pack up and leave town for ever were increasingly difficult to ignore. But rather than take this draconian course of action and end centuries of tradition, a working party was set up involving local and county councillors, police, MPs and representatives of the gypsy community. A meeting of townspeople in Stow decided they want to see it much more tightly controlled and better policed.



The fair comes to town again this May, and with it the knockabout atmosphere which is part-market, part-festival and part-family gathering. When we visited last October (the event is twice-yearly) we came across a hurly-burly and slightly anarchic but otherwise extremely good-natured event. No-one muttered a curse and refused to talk to us; indeed, gypsies and travellers went out of their way to show friendliness and courtesy towards representatives of a British media industry which, on the whole, has been far from benevolent towards them. Perhaps they've wised up and learned a PR trick or two; whatever the motives, we felt welcome among them.



Making tea over an open fire, Scots traveller Jimmy is happy to explain why he's here. "We're down from the travellers' site at Larkhall, near Motherwell, and you might think this is a long way to drag two families, kids, and all the rest of it," he says. "But it's about seeing old friends and old faces and making those connections among your community. I've been coming here three years now and the kids love it. I think it's well run, and I would say that 90 per cent of the townspeople here are fine with it, and OK with us. You know, not everyone who goes to a football match is a hooligan."



It's a point taken up by Yorkshireman Mick Darling who, with his red neckerchief and collection of trinkets on a table outside his caravan, looks every inch the Romany he is. "A lot of people have tried to stop it in the past, and maybe that's put some off because I don't think as many come here as they used to do.



"But they should do. They don't know what they're missing. This is one of the best horse fairs around because it's still quite old-fashioned. Appleby (the UK's biggest horse fair) has gone very modern. It's not the same."



Mick catches me looking at his motley collection of pots and pans for sale. "Oh there's nothing very valuable here, they're just trinkets really," he explains. "But it's what they represent that counts. I still cook outside and eat outside. I do. I don't want to stop because if you stop it's lost and gone forever."



The horses, at first glance, appear to be in good condition and while some are for show only, others are being looked over and traded. More disturbing is the sight of puppies in cages being picked over by large groups of pushing people, which can only serve to intimidate these young animals.



"No, it's not pleasant to see it," agrees Christine McNeil, an RSPCA inspector who, with fellow inspector Mark Lewis, is patrolling the fields for signs of animal abuse. "Selling puppies like this is illegal, and it's something we're keeping our eye on today, though I have to say that it's quieter than the May event, which is manic.



"We get a mixed reception when we approach people. Some give us a bit of lip, or worse when there's a group of them. The physical condition of the horses isn't too bad today, but as an organisation this isn't something we're that happy about. We do our best to police it from an animal welfare point of view and we will definitely act where we feel it is necessary."



It's mid-afternoon, and a turn in the fortunes of the weather has brought many visitors out. Dishevelled, yet aristocratic-looking hippies mix with smart gypsies in Norfolk jackets. The younger gypsies and travellers take a particular pride in their appearance, and it's not just horse flesh on highly visible display. Like fairs of any kind, the occasion is a great one for teenagers to check one another out, and so gangs of long-haired and highly made-up girls sweep past clutches of chest-puffing boys, racing through drying mud in their high heels. Meanwhile, bringing up the rear, are mums gallantly struggling to haul pushchairs through the sludge. The expression on not a few faces suggests that the travelling life is by no means an easy option, but here they are, and they're determined to have fun.



"If we didn't come, they'd come looking for us," laughs Mary Connors, whose young son Jimmy is sat beside her, petting a newly-purchased hen. "We've been coming that long people would think we'd died if didn't turn up." An Irishwoman from Limerick, Mrs Connors now lives in Worcester. In a house.



"Ach, it's all right," she says, when asked how it compares to the travelling life. "Not as good, really, but for us it's a necessity. I miss the highways and byways, though. That's why we come here, to get back a sense of that again."



A sense of the past is also uppermost in the mind of Elaine Tasker, but for a very different reason. From a base in Herefordshire she runs an organisation called Equine Market Watch, which monitors horse fairs and campaigns to have them stopped. She feels Stow Fair has 'lost the plot'.



"In its purest sense, the horse fair is a wonderful social gathering for like minded people," she said. "Romany gypsies are fantastic people who look after each other and have a wonderful way with animals like the rest of us can only dream about.



"If only they'd stayed that way, we would be 100 per cent supportive, but they haven't and we're not. In the last 20 years there has been a big decline in standards of care towards animals. Puppies are being sold in poor condition to anyone who has the right amount of money in their pocket. It doesn't matter who it is, as long as they have the right money they'll be able to buy a puppy.



"Anyway, what kind of horse fair is it when all the girls are parading around in their bling and you can by DVDs of live bare knuckle fights? It's not a horse fair like I remember them."



But there is also tolerance and understanding from unexpected quarters. Given the on-going problems, you might expect local politicians to be nothing less than hostile. Not so. District councillor David Penman and town councillor Tom Morris both agree that Stow Fair should stay, albeit with a visible police presence and tighter controls on when people arrive. Cllr Penman, a Conservative member, goes as far as to say than in 25 years of living in Stow, he has never encountered any trouble (though he's keen to point out that his experience is by no means a reflection of everyone else's).



My own personal feeling is that the fair should stay," he said. "It really is part of the heritage here but I do see the problems it presents to people living around the site, and I understand those problems.



"Cotswold District Council and Gloucestershire County Council would really like to reduce it down to two or three days. If we can get it so the gypsies arrive on Tuesday and go by Friday that would be ideal, and would cause fewer problems for the people living in the area."




"The biggest problem as far as I'm concerned is excrement left around the area. People come across human excrement in their gardens, on walls, across fields and all over the place, plus toilet paper everywhere."



Cllr Morris, Stow's deputy mayor, agrees that people coming later would solve many problems. He is part of a local working group set up to look at the fair and see what could change. Since its inception, he says, the fair has improved considerably.



"There is a greater police presence and the gypsies have stopped coming so early," he said. "They used to come a week or even a fortnight before the fair, and that led to problems. It is much better controlled now, but that doesn't mean to say it is perfect. Some people still come early, and ideally we'd like them to arrive on Tuesday and go off again on Friday.



"Most of the businesses, but not all of them, close for the week of the fair, which means a considerable loss of income. Personally I don't think it's necessary to close the shops for that length of time, but it's very much an individual decision and there have been problems which put people off opening.



"Our main priority is to keep control of numbers attending. If it becomes as big as Appleby horse fair then I think we've got problems, and I would like to think the councils are working towards keeping an eye on this issue."



After each fair, Gloucestershire officers involved in the police operation meet to discuss tactics and present ideas which could be taken up at the next event. Chief Inspector Paul Yeatman, tactical commander at Stow Fair, says October's event was 'excellent'.



"It was very busy, but very good natured and peaceful, and I don't think any arrests were made," he said. "As for the level of policing, we have had positive comments both from the local people and the gypsy/traveler community. Both appreciate the increased police presence which is where we're going at the moment. The past three fairs we've had very positive feedback. A couple of years ago a lot of people in Stow were disgruntled about the fair but they seem to be much more positive now.



"We have tried to balance as far as we can between maintaining a presence and being intrusive. At Appleby fair there have been complaints about helicopters flying over which just seems to annoy people. We want people to enjoy themselves at Stow and to make sure that local people have nothing to fear."



A fair that has lasted for more than 500 years is an extremely difficult one to shift, and it would appear that in their heart of hearts a reasonable majority of people from Stow would rather it remain. The onus, then, is on the gypsy and traveller contingent to make sure that a balance is struck between their chosen way to live and the sensitivities of those the come to live amongst, albeit temporarily. Judging by the apparent harmony and good-naturedness of October's fair, this is by no means a fireside dream. If the will is there, it can be achieved. We wait to see what the May event brings.

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