Appleby ticketing proposals ‘not as simple as some like to think’ – says Billy Welch
Proposals to ticket and licence the annual Appleby Horse Fair are “not as simple as some like to think,” says Billy Welch, adding that he was more than willing to sit down with local residents to work together to “address genuine concerns and to improve the fair”.
The Travellers’ Times caught up with Billy Welch, the Romany Gypsy representative on Appleby Fair’s ‘support group’ after Eden Council, also on the support group recently pledged at a meeting in Appleby Public Hall to commission ‘independent experts’ to investigate the “legalities” of Appleby Horse Fair becoming an organised and ticketed event.
“Eden Council have looked at Appleby Fair becoming ticketed or licenced before, about 15-20 years ago, and it was not physically possible,” Billy Welch, told the Travellers’ Times. “I am not going to pre-judge any review and hopefully it will come up with some good ideas, but it’s not as simple as some people would like to think,” added Billy Welch, who is Shera Rom - or ‘head Gypsy’ - for his extended family. “Fair-goers already pay to stay in the campsites and to park their cars, so to some extent Appleby is already ticketed,” said Billy Welch. “But you can’t charge people for a ticket for being on a public highway in Cumbria, or for walking through Appleby Town to the River Eden, on the weekend of the fair any more than you can charge people to visit Blackpool and go to the beach on a bank holiday weekend.”
“I did warn Eden Council 23 or 24 years ago that if more local land-owners opened up extra campsites they would let the genie out of the bottle. I said the fair going to get too big and it will smother the traditional Gypsy fair on Fair Hill, Billy Welch told the Travellers’ Times. "I said once the genie is out of the bottle it will be really hard to get it back in. But they didn’t listen to me. And now it’s me and my people who are getting the blame.”
Appleby Fair Communities Group, who say they represent local residents, are also pushing for a local referendum on the Fair’s future.
A spokesperson told the Cumberland Herald: “Our members are tired of the yearly Horse Fair not being run correctly, we are tired of not being listened too and tired of telling authorities that it is out of control and unsafe.”
Billy Welch responded by telling the Travellers’ Times that he was willing to sit down with local resident groups and would welcome any good ideas and initiatives that would “improve the experience of the Fair for both the local community and genuine Gypsies and Traveller fair-goers.”
Appleby Fair in Cumbria, which now attracts between 40-60,000 Gypsies, Travellers, non-Travellers, tourists and sightseers for one weekend in every June, is currently an unlicenced gathering and is “supported” by the Fair’s Multi-Agency Strategic Co-ordinating Group.
The Fair’s agency group is chaired by Eden District Council with support from representatives of the Gypsy and Traveller community, South Lakeland District Council, Cumbria County Council, Cumbria Constabulary, RSPCA, Environment Agency and other agencies.
Fair Hill, which is owned by Appleby Town Council, was the original camping place where the traditional Fair has been held, but in recent decades several additional campsites on land belonging to local land-owners have been opened up and the fair has grown.
Billy Welch leases Fair Hill from Appleby Town Council for two weeks over the weekend of the fair, following in the footsteps of his father who was the previous lease-holder. Billy Welch is responsible for getting Fair Hill ready – and for cleaning it up after the fair has ended.
“In 1911 Lord Lowther gave Fair Hill to Appleby Town Council common land and to be used by Gypsies for their traditional fair,” explained Billy Welch. “But the council shut Fair Hill and yet our ancestors still came and parked on the roads and lanes and held their fair. That went on for about 60 years before the council finally gave in and opened up Fair Hill again. I remember it as a young lad before Fair Hill was re-opened. Our trailers and wagons and vehicles would spread for two or three miles along the roads. If they suddenly shut all the private campsites run by the local land-owners and tried to ticket Fair Hill, the vehicles would spread for 20-30 miles. The fair wouldn’t fit on Fair Hill anymore.”
Whilst hoping to work with local Appleby residents to take the fair forward in a way that “addresses some genuine and understandable concerns,” Billy Welch is sceptical about any drastic solutions that would attempt to reduce the numbers of people coming to the Fair in the short term.
“It’s taken 24 years for the fair to become this popular – it could take 24 years to get it back to where it was,” said Billy Welch. “It would have to be done gradually. In the meantime lets work together to improve the experience of the fair for both local people and my people.”
Mike Doherty/TT News
(Lead photograph: Billy Welch on Fair Hill, Appleby 2022 © Bela Varadi)