Appleby Horse Fair

Cries of ‘Look out! Look out!’ cut through the clatter of horse’s hooves clapping down on greasy tarmac.  One of the racing Sulkies, a lightweight cart, is out of control, its driver having underestimated the difficulty of the wet conditions.  Spectators scatter as horse, cart and rider all disappear down into a nettle infested ditch. Fortunately on this occasion there are only minor cuts and bruises, but it could have been, and often is, a lot worse.  This is the Flashing Lane and this is the Appleby Horse Fair.

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Appleby itself is a well-preserved ancient market town, sitting in the shadows cast by the Cumbria Mountains, which lie just to the west; it clings tightly to the River Eden, the meandering waterway that flows through the landscape.  Its Horse Fair is the largest fair of its kind in Europe, which attracts over 10,000 people from the Romany and Irish families from across the globe.  They have been coming here for well over 250 years – documents date back to 1750 – to meet up with old friends, celebrate their music, history and folklore and conduct business; primarily in the buying and selling of horses.

Every year, from the first Thursday in June to the second Wednesday, the town – population 2,500 – braces itself to receive not only the travelling communities, but also an additional 40,000 visitors and over 1,500 equines.

While not exactly an organised event, the Fair is given structure thanks to a Multi Agency Strategic Coordinating Group (MASCG) that liaises directly with the traveller community.  The group includes the police, fire and ambulance services, local councils and the RSPCA.  In fact, Appleby Horse Fair sees the largest deployment of RSPCA officers in England and Wales, with a total of 32 staff attending, including eight specialist equine officers.  The aim is to ensure safety and enjoyment for both animals and people for the duration of the fair.

As Appleby Horse Fair is so vast, resources have to be positioned in three key locations.  The River/Sands Team is located at the heart of the town, with its priority being to ensure the welfare of all the horses going in and out of the River Eden.  The Flashing Lane Team resides almost two miles away at the far end of Fair Hill, which overlooks Appleby itself. Their attention is focused on those equines being ridden and driven, often at great speed.  The Salt Tip Team runs a veterinary station that lies between the two and the Proactive Team is a mobile unit that has the flexibility to react to any emergency situation whilst providing back up to those on the ground.

An unexpected issue this year is the weather.  It has been unseasonably cold and wet, even for the North of England, and yet another deepening low-pressure system is twisting itself towards the British Isles.  The ground is already saturated and everyone is aware that wet roads inevitably lead to more accidents and injuries, for man and beast.

Friday starts with frequent rain showers that are forecast to develop into constant torrential downpours of precipitation, threatening to make this years gathering a complete washout.  However the biggest concern is the River Eden as the level and the flow have increased considerably, leading to the decision to close the swollen waterway – its simply too dangerous for people and animals.  It is the first time in the Fair’s long history that access to the river have been prevented.

As it is traditional for horses to be washed and bathed in the river prior to being driven or sold, the river being closed presents a major problem.  A small number of people start to arrive shortly before 9am and are not pleased to find the river closed.  They decide to lead their 40 plus equines up through the town to a crossing known as Jubilee bridge, and a brief game of cat and mouse ensues as the police, the RSPCA and the owners race to get there first.  But it transpires that the river is just as dangerous upstream as down, resulting in a standoff while heated discussions attempt to find a solution.  It is agreed that individual horses can be washed in an area in the shallows, stretching limited resources even further as officers and vets have to attend.

Whilst the situation at Jubilee Bridge cools, a report comes through of a ‘sickly’ looking pony that is located in a horsebox in the trading field.  The Flashing Lane Team are sent to investigate.  Rain, mixed with Wellingtons and stilettos has churned the earth into a sticky sludge, making negotiation of the field particularly tricky.  RSPCA Inspector John Groarke, AWO Sarah Tucker and Redwings Equine Vet Roxanne Kurton trudge their way through a myriad of stalls, selling everything from industrial sized sheets of corrugated roofing through to elaborately embroidered fabrics and delicate diamante tiaras.

They finally find the horsebox they have been seeking and discover one pony with a severe looking eye infection and three others licking the rainwater that is flowing down the sides of the vehicle.  Nobody in the near vicinity knows who owns the ponies, but with the assistance of the police, the box is opened so that urgent medical treatment can be given.

Evening arrives as more storm clouds gather.  The deluge continues through the evening and on into the darkening night.

Saturday finally sees the sun come out, causing yet another animal welfare headache – dogs in hot cars.  A zero tolerance approach to pets being left in cars has been adopted at the Fair.  Previous years have witnessed dead and dying dogs being pulled out of cars and caravans, both of which can get hot even on cloudy days.  All the car parks have numerous posters outlining the policy and warning that any animals left unattended in overheating vehicles will be removed.  As the mercury rises, the Proactive Team, under the leadership of RSPCA Inspector Jon Knight, is called out to a terrier that has been left in a car.  With police assistance, a side window is popped and the dog removed.  A notice is left on the windscreen explaining what has happened, why, and where the dog can be retrieved.

However, the improving weather cannot mask the dangers that still lie within the currents of the River Eden, which remains closed. The team based by the waterway have had a tense and fraught day as there were continued and determined attempts by a minority of owners to enter the river. As the sun begins to set, everyone hopes for a quieter and less eventful Sunday.

Sunday morning is calm and peaceful.  As the last of the street cleaners are finishing their work, below them a golden icon of the Hindu Deity Ganesha rests tranquilly at the water’s edge.  It appears to have worked its heavenly magic as the level of the river has receded significantly enough for a judgement to be made to open the river once again.  RSPCA Inspector Christine McNeil and her team don their wetsuits and trawl the river for any debris or hazards before the first horses arrive.  That the Eden is accessible is genial for everyone, and the tension that built during the Saturday quickly dissipates as horses and travellers plunge into the chilly waters.  But the tautness hasn’t been entirely vanquished. During the night, in amongst the plethora of traditional horse-drawn and contemporary motor-drawn caravans, an altercation occurred between two rival families.  An atmosphere clings to Fair Hill like an early morning mist, before tentatively evaporating into the Cumbria air.

Awareness that the river has been officially re-opened spreads quickly and soon the Eden is teeming with owners, both young and old, riding and washing their horses.  The atmosphere is positive and friendly; the opposite of the day before, with many people conceding that to close the river was the correct thing to do.  Experienced horses and owners may have been able to cope with the conditions, but there would have been many who wouldn’t have.  It was only three years ago that a horse unfortunately drowned here. 

Elsewhere, a Shetland foal has been bitten on a leg by a dog and a Lurcher type dog is spotted with a chest injury.  The dog also has extensive scarring on its muzzle, chest and forelegs.  The chest wound requires immediate attention and a reluctant teenage girl takes the animal to the Salt Tip veterinary station for treatment.  Around the Fair, the tally of treatments and incidents continue to slowly climb.  However, the overall figure of 192 represents a considerable reduction on the previous year’s total of 346, a very big positive. 

Dusk begins to encroach upon the congested roads leading out from Appleby.  On the River Eden, a solitary bottle of detergent floats on the surface.  The scent of horses hangs heavily in the air as a small army of cleaners set about clearing away the day’s debris all over again.  The Fair is over for another year.


All Imagery and Words - Copyright Joseph Murphy/RSPCA