All the fun of the horse fair

Romany travellers on the way to Appleby.
Romany travellers on the way to Appleby.
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Forget the Big Fat Gypsy Wedding – and variations on that theme. To capture Romany rather than Traveller life look to Appleby this week.

That’s the advice of photographer Heidi Sands whose images of Appleby Horse Fair appear today.

Romany travellers on the way to Appleby.

Romany travellers on the way to Appleby.

Heidi’s lifelong love affair with Romany culture started here on the Fylde coast where she was born and brought up.

It is celebrated in several books, the latest of which is out this week to coincide with the greatest gypsy fair in Britain.

Many gypsies including those within the resort make the annual pilgrimage to Appleby Horse Fair – although the actual horse trading now tends to take second place to what’s become a tourism spectacle.

Appleby Horse Fair takes place each June. It attracts more than 10,000 visitors each year and is one of the biggest gatherings of its kind in the world.

Central to the fair are the horses – the spectacle revolves around them. The fair has existed since 1685, under protection of a charter granted by James II.

What used to be known as Gallows Hill, now Fair Hill, overlooks what was once the old county town of Westmorland in the Eden Valley.

Heidi explains: “Travellers who converge on the area follow a centuries-old tradition, while horses are brought from all over the UK to be washed in the river Eden or prepared for ‘flashing’.

“Horses change hands at the fair, but for travellers this is as much about community and tradition as it is about horses. Beautiful bow-top caravans abound, life takes on a slower pace, friendships are re-kindled and Appleby enjoyed.”

Heidi’s latest book Absolutely Appleby, a follow up to The Horses of Appleby Fair, captures the colour, verve and excitement of the week.

From fantastically decorated wagons and flat carts to stunning coloured cobs and driving horses and foals only a few days old, all find a place in Heidi’s second book for Old Pond Publishing. Both are priced at £9.95.

The book’s 130 photographs include horses and people on the move, in the river, and action shots on the ‘flashing lane’, effectively where horses are shown off, put through their paces.

The award winning writer and photographer is a regular commentator on country life.

Her work is largely rural and includes agricultural and equine topics.

Heidi adds: “Being born and brought up on the rural Fylde during the 1960s left a long and lasting impression on me - especially where the traveller and gypsy community was concerned.

“I was born in Lytham and grew up at Newton near Kirkham – and at that time is wasn’t that unusual to see gypsy travelling wagons during the summer months on Catforth Moss and at Newton Bottoms.

“Sometimes a bow top would be parked just outside Weeton and they fascinated me with their style, colour and the horses.

“I knew they travelled to Appleby in Cumbria and when I was 11 my father bought me my first pony, a little skewbald ride and drive which came from Appleby horse fair, and my intrigue deepened.”

It was almost 40 years later that Heidi’s interest became better known with the publication of her first Appleby book The Horses of Appleby Fair.

“The book has been a resounding success,” says Heidi, “and I put that down to the photographs in the book.”

Heidi attended Palatine Road School of Art in Blackpool for four years.

“There we spent one day a week learning the art of photography – real photography, including printing up our own photographs.

“Without that depth of knowledge I very much doubt I’d have had the skill to put a camera to its best use.”

The fair started yesterday and runs to Wednesday.

Heidi will be signing copies of her book at Market Fields next to Fair Hill at Appleby on Saturday and Sunday from 10am to noon and 2pm-4pm.