Saturday, June 8, 2013

Small World

Appleby Horse Fair is upon us once again. Gipsy, potter, tinker, Irish or New Age traveller, we see little of them over here at Greenholme, but there are always scrap dealers of more or less probity, and earlier this week two gipsy women and a child were surprised by one of our neighbours inside her house. With that sort of thing in mind, I take the precaution of padlocking the carriages to something solid, and cover the ponies with fly rugs to look as though they suffer from “sweet-itch”., However, since we adopted Sammy the sheepdog the less desirable elements of the Fair have not troubled us.

A couple of years ago I needed a few last photographs to complete my current book, and in particular I wanted a photo of a gipsy camp and a living van, so on my way home on the Wednesday of Fair week I wandered through some out-of-the-way villages, looking for people who were camped awaiting the opening of The Hill on Thursday morning. I saw a lot of police fluorescent jackets and traffic advisory notices (excellent!) warning motorised traffic to be careful of horsedrawn vehicles, but I saw no travellers until I reached Appleby itself. There I found huge numbers of No Parking cones, and posts and wire along most of the verges, so I drove through the town and past the still-closed Hill without achieving my goal.

On the way out I took the turning towards a friend’s farm and was amused to see that his fields were full of cobs and trotters, obviously earning him a little money for their grazing. However, it wasn’t until I had passed his farm and taken the turning for home that I finally saw a small camp on the roadside, and the highly distinctive pale green-canvassed roof and cream-painted shafts of a genuine living van. There was enough space for me to park my car out of the way, so I grabbed my camera and climbed out.

I had already passed several groups of men with horses that morning. Although I had waved at them in a friendly fashion I hadn’t felt brave enough to stop and accost them for photographs. But here I could see women and children in the party, probably two families or groups of friends, sitting in semicircles on folding chairs while enjoying tea and sunshine on the grass. Apart from the fact that the motorised vehicles were all three-ton pickups or seven-ton drop-side wagons,  and the trailer caravans were bigger and newer than those on the carriage-driving circuit, it didn’t look any different from a weekend gathering of competitors at a driving trial. I strolled back along the verge to scrape acquaintance.

“Morning, nice day, isn’t it? Nice living van there … would you mind if I took some photographs?”

No, they didn’t mind, because the van wasn’t theirs! I laughed and asked who did own it, and they directed me to the next trailer caravan. I met a young woman with her daughter, who told me it was fine for me to take photographs. So I took a couple of photos of the living van, clean and trim in its burgundy paint, its etched interior mirrors cheerfully reflecting the light. There was a four wheeled flat dray alongside so I photographed that too.  Passing the trailer caravan and the wood fire with its black iron pots,  tripods and hooks, I walked up the verge to the shade of the trees where the horses were standing in deep grass, quietly watching the day go by. The black and white gelding considered me carefully, then moved up to sniff my knuckles. He was a strong little cob, standing about 14 hands with a lot of bone and a decent amount of feather. He took several deep breaths, then  pulled up his top lip to hold and analyse my scent. I must have smelt satisfactory, because he then let me stroke his muzzle. I didn’t disturb him further though, as tethered animals can’t get away, and the half-circle of their tether has to be their rest space as well as their feeding area. I walked back to the brown and white mare, who was a fine strong sort of about 15 hands, in really hard, fit condition. Like the gelding, she was tethered to a tree by a neck-strap and chain, which was sensibly covered for the first ten feet by plastic hose so it could neither rub nor kink around an unwary hoof. Both horses looked like good kind animals who knew tethering as part of their job. I spoke to the mare, who flicked an ear at me in acknowledgement, but her attention seemed to be on something several fields away so I admired and moved on.

A rough coated terrier tethered to a wooden kennel yapped at me briefly as I passed by the trailer caravan, where the older lady of the family was tending the fire. I smiled and she called a cheerful greeting. I replied with a complimentary remark about the two cobs, and we were off! Within five minutes we were sitting in folding chairs by the fire and talking “horses and driving” nineteen-to-the-dozen. She told me about their trip over the Pennines from the North-East along the Middleton-in-Teesdale road, and we discussed its quietness in terms of traffic and the steepness of its banks and drags. She described how the horses had tackled them with the living van and the dray, and how long her husband had given them to rest at the tops of some of the steeper hills. “He got a bit wild, said he wouldn’t come by that road again, it was cruel on the horses.”

Would I like a cup of tea? I accepted, though I’m normally a coffee drinker. She hung the black kettle over the mended fire and very soon it was steaming merrily.

“I don’t like cooking in the trailer,” she said. “I like my open fire, and to be outside in the sunshine.” They didn’t normally camp out here, she said, but it was good to be away from the main bustle of the Fair, where some of the menfolk were too prone to drink themselves silly and then “make a noise late at night and disturb everybody” or go driving their horses, “which isn’t fair on them.” However, her husband didn’t drink, so although she didn’t know quite where he was right now, she wasn’t worried about him.  It was easier to tether the horses here, too, with the trees for shade.

“There’s a lot of lads come over for the Fair and they think because they have a coloured horse and they drive it here they know it all, but they don’t. They know nothing. They don’t know how to treat them, not like us, we've been born and bred to it."

Two PG Tips teabags went into the Harrods china mugs, and we sat and sipped and chatted some more.

The disadvantage of the quiet roadside was that there wasn’t a handy water supply and they’d had to go to the village pub to fill up. She said, “I like to stop where there are lavatories really, but it’s all right in the trailer.” Their refuse was in two plastic sacks which they would take to the skip on Fair Hill once the main site was open.

I mentioned that I had been taking photographs for a book and she at once went into the caravan to bring out a big shiny hardback in which she showed me photographs of her family. If I’d had a tape recorder running I could have catalogued all her brothers and sisters and their spouses and offspring right then and there, but as it was I nodded and smiled and made the wordless noises of agreement that keep conversations going. 

We discovered an acquaintance in common, Walter Lloyd, a very well spoken and well educated man now in his eighties. “When we met him he was cooking a hedgehog and he asked if I would like a bit. I said, No, I would NOT!” Later that weekend, she had had “a bit of an upset stomach, oh I was badly” and Walter had taken a pan and gone picking leaves out of the hedgerows for her. “Grass and weeds and all sorts, and he brewed it up and poured it into a pot, as black as that kettle, I wouldn’t have drunk out of it. He said, ‘Drink that and by the time it’s all gone you’ll be better.’ Well I didn’t like to offend him so I took it, but I poured it all away. I went to the doctor instead. I wasn’t going to drink that, I didn’t know what was in it. Would you have drunk it?”

I have a garden full of medicinal plants and a head full of botanical trivia, and I admitted that if the brew had been made by Walter, I probably would have drunk it. We both laughed, but she shook her head: “Well I wasn’t going to risk it!”

As I stood up to take leave, I mentioned that a family from her area were coming to stay with us for Fair Week, but that the husband would be going home each night to tend his stock. He wouldn’t bring a horse to the Fair for fear someone let it loose for a lark, or even stole it.

“Oh yes? Who’s that then?” I gave the surname and she said at once, “Oh, that’ll be Joe and Violet. They live a couple of miles from us. When you see them, tell them you’ve met Michelle.”


Sue Millard is the author of "Hoofprints in Eden" (2005), an exploration of the Fell pony breed supported by interviews with breeders of the ponies on the fell. Her equestrian writing is featured at Jackdaw E Books while "Hoofprints" can be purchased from Hayloft publishing or from Sue directly. Please see


Angels' Roost said...

Sue, I loved this. Your account of the experience made it feel like being there. I could see the area, smell it, see the caravans, here the cadences of the speech . . . Thank you. elizabeth allen aka eliza chastain.

Nancy Taylor Rojo said...

Hi Sue. I really enjoyed your visit with Michelle. Thanks for taking me along. What a life these folks live with their horses.