David Tyler on Stow on the Wold

PUBLISHED: 13:15 31 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:11 20 February 2013

David Tyler speaks up

David Tyler speaks up

I'll be honest, I have never been a great fan of Stow-on-the-Wold. It is too twee for my liking.

I'll be honest, I have never been a great fan of Stow-on-the-Wold. It is too twee for my liking. It is the only place I have ever been that served a sandwich made from just three dainty triangles of sliced white bread (at the King's Arms in the Market Square). What on earth did the landlord do with the fourth section? Use it to pay-off a rampaging new age traveller perhaps?

Actually the travellers are not a joking matter either'. Despite my reservations about the honey-coloured market town, which was recently described by one metropolitan critic as `as smug as a Hobnob stuck in a tin of dog biscuits', it does not deserve to be the gypsies' Glastonbury. Why should it be forced to host a huge gathering of itinerant tinkers against the majority of its residents' will? Why should local shops and pubs including the King's Arms be forced to stop trading and barricade themselves in because of the deeply unpleasant invasion?

Twice a year - in May and October - travellers descend on the place for a horse fair. It sounds glamorous. It is not. One imagines charming gypsy wagons, ancient fortune tellers and raven-haired men with gold earrings riding bare-back. In truth the fair is mostly a collection of flashy modern caravans and motor homes housing drunken chavs, of which a few are flogging mangy horses. It would be more accurate to describe it as a mobile Sink Estate.

Stow was once one of the greatest towns in England. For centuries travellers from Wales and the west, from the Midlands and the Thames Valley, passed through it. There has been a weekly charter market there since 1107 and an ancient market cross that was erected as a symbol of honest trading. Four hundred years later a second Royal charter allowed the town to hold a spring and autumn fair that quickly became a huge bi-annual beano. However as the importance of sheep declined in the Cotswolds, the character of the fair changed.

`It became a horse fair favoured by farmers, huntsmen, professional horse dealers and gipsies,' said Ralph Green, formerly at Stow's Visitor Information Centre and now writing for the Cotswold Tourist Information and Travel Guide. `In recent years the fun fair stopped and the horse sales involving the farmers and dealers split from the travelling people and moved to Andoversford.'

And Stow, by now a most Disneyesque corner of the Cotswolds, was left with the nomadic rump arguing that because they and their kinsmen have been coming there for generations there was no reason why shouldn't they continue to party there - except that they hadn't been visiting forever.

There is a commonly held belief that gypsies have been travelling our roads in gaily painted wagons for centuries. Actually there is no real history of gypsies in England before the Victorian age. A few were executed in the 16th century but it was not until the early 19th century, when it was a hanging offence for an Englishman to be in the company of gypsies for more than a month, that they arrived in any numbers on our shores and even then they travelled on foot and slept in make-shift tents. They had little to do with the horse. The gypsy caravan, for example, is less than 150 years old. The majority of the wagons were built around the turn of the 20th century and most had disappeared by the end of the 50s thanks to the dominance of the car and the decline of seasonal farm work.

Let's face it, the average modern `traveller' has less Romany blood in him than Sven-Goran Eriksson. Furthermore he usually has some sort of permanent base, often acquired without planning permission, and rarely pays council tax, road tax or income tax. And yet he still wants `his rights'. He expects to be treated like an oppressed minority.

And part of that expectation is to turn Stow into a slum twice a year.

I have no problem with a group of like-minded souls who like trotting horses and selling scrap metal arranging to meet up in a field for an annual hooley. Like the majority of pop festivals or game fairs, it can be properly monitored, will be fenced-in and possess a long line of portaloos.

But it is absurd that `travellers' should think that they have any right to invade a tiny Cotswold town that is geared exclusively to elderly tourists. They do not even have the authority of, say, a Freeman of the City of London exercising his right to herd sheep across London Bridge during the rush hour.

It may be that Stow and I will never be the best of bedfellows but to bastardise Voltaire, I may disapprove of Stow's dainty three-triangle sandwiches but I will defend to the death its right to sell them without fear or favour.

Well, that will certainly put the cat among the pigeons. Does anyone want to stick up for the gypsies? Please will somebody speak up for Stow?

Send your comments to mike.lowe@archant.co.uk

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