The Stow Fair Experience
The Stow Fair Experience
‘There are few sights more romantic than that of a brightly coloured gypsy wagon pulled onto a narrow verge with a glossy piebald horse feathered nearby and the smoke of a campfire snaking into the dark’.
The Stow on the Wold horse fair has been held twice annually, in May and August respectively since 1476. It is an ancient Romani tradition, a genial and colourful affair a chance for travellers to re acquaint with old friends and meet new ones. Hundreds of horses are paraded and sold in a single day. Exotic spices and decorative trinkets exchanged. Paintings, cushions, lamps and house signs were also up for sale as well as an abundance of saddlery gear.
Stow Fair is frequented by hundreds of visitors twice a year. Ex agricultural workers from the east end of London who worked alongside Romanies earlier in the century, stand alongside rag and bone men whose passion for horses has outlived the demise of their trade. Together they all make up Britain’s horse culture. Once I arrived at the fair camera fully loaded and curiosity and expectation building our group adjourned for a formal brief on the day’s activity. With the formalities out of the way I braved entry into unchartered territory. A brief walk past the hotdog vendors and dodgy candyfloss stands the fair opens up into an array of new experiences assaulting the senses from every angle as we all bore witness to a way of life little changed in centuries.
As a child I remember my reluctant summers spent in Skegness or Abersoch, ‘holidaying’ in a caravan. I remember my dad saying, “It’ll be great lad, why go to Spain when you’ve got the weather in England!” To my utter dismay I found myself spending two weeks in a cramped plastic box eating jam butties, getting cramp and no doubt incurring permanent neck damage in later in life, indulging in pleasant activities all young lads enjoy like walking and keeping quiet or homing my talents as a future Grandmaster Chess Champion due to Britain’s somewhat unpredictable climate. The romantic notion of the travellers lifestyle was one of which personally I just never quite understood. However, it took only half an hour at Stow Fair to completely alter my entire opinion and appreciate the duality of people’s perceptions towards this subculture.
Once inside I began to navigate my way round the fair. It is impossible to fully appreciate everything going on around you, so I decided to take a leisurely walk around savouring each new experience at a time. Over two hours later I had a good idea of all the places which I wanted to re-visit camera – in – toe and initially made my way to the rear of the fair. There were old gaudy Romani caravan’s with their proud owners just wanting to show off their heritage. This was my first port of call. It is almost difficult to describe the majestic beauty of these ‘vardo’s’. One in particular caught my attention. With a maroon exterior complete with intricate patterns entwined with paintings of pictures and flowers running the full length of the home in an egg yellow colour, one couldn’t help but admire the pride these people took in the decoration of their home. The interior was decorated with the same amount of care and attention. I noticed wind chimes adorning the doorway, two small bunk beds on either side of the caravan with duvet covers complete with the most extraordinary stitch work, a painted maroon flooring which gave the home a most pleasant feel and handcrafted mirrors and other vanity items. The wagon itself was no more than one of the old vehicles people of my generation are used to seeing in cowboy films from Hollywood, however the pride, passion, love and affection these people took in their homes and lifestyle is something to be admired.
I was drawn to an old woman sitting quietly, walking stick in hand, and chatting pleasantly to curious visitors. She had an old leathery face, piercing green eyes and wiry back hair tied in a shawl. She seemed like she’d ‘lived a life and a half’ and was enjoying regaling crowds on the ‘tales of a traveller’. I instantly realised I knew nothing of their culture, beliefs or way of life and was anxious to learn more. The woman in question was happy to pose for pictures and seemed at ease conversing with strangers. She explained the purpose of the fair to travellers, to catch up with old friends, meet new ones, the buy and sell of trade – primarily horses and the celebration of their heritage. I noticed after a while that I could barely understand what she was saying. She spoke in a heavy Irish accent complete with its own jargon and syntax. She mentioned her family and its history, answered questions about her basic lifestyle and experiences and why the fair is so important to herself and all travellers. I felt myself eager to learn about this lifestyle I was discovering and its core differences from my own. This as it turned out was a rare treat. Later in the day I learned that travellers are rarely this open and candid to ‘outsiders’. They are equally as proud as they are protective of their way of living. They seem perfectly aware of the negative attention they receive from the press and such people whom are not so open minded and find it intolerant having to constantly justify the only life they’ve ever known. I was warming to the mentality of the traveller and began watching the way they conversed with those around them and each other. It was then I noticed something peculiar with the teenage girls and young women.
Once inside Stow Fair you are firmly immersed in the traveller’s culture. As an outsider privileged to experience a different subculture you notice the travellers home life, social interactions hierarchy and status. The more experience of the people you gain, the more you begin to understand their values and beliefs. I began to notice all the girls and young women were all dressed in their nicest threads. Short skirts and boob tubes seemed to be the theme of the day whereas the men didn’t seem over enamoured with their appearance. I asked a fellow patron why this was the case. He informed me that “The girls all look the best for the Travellers Times.” – A publication for travellers. “They all aspire to have their picture taken, have it published in the magazine and a bloke come along to make an honest woman of them.” I had inadvertently discovered another purpose of Stow Fair. It seemed to represent another aspect of the traveller’s culture. It seemed to be an ideal way of meeting one’s life partner. A mass dating service for those eligible and showed again just how this way of life differs from my own.
I ventured further towards the rear of the park and noticed a solitary stall with a middle-aged lady in brightly coloured attire and numerous hand made jewellery adorning her neck. As I approached I noticed a highly pungent smell of food cooking over what I thought looked like a cauldron on an open burning fire. It smelled delicious and reminded me of corn beef stew and vegetables my mum cooked for me as a child, a personal favourite of mine. Her face seemed welcoming and she offered to read my palm. I politely declined; my faith in psychic mediums is somewhat limited. However, I thought it interesting that palmists are a part of Romani culture and that it draws stark contrast or association with the beliefs of different cultures that exist in today’s society.
Over the years the fairs have changed, but they have lost none of their social importance for courting or binding far – flung communities together. Horses may be less useful these days, but are still vitally importance to the traveller’s families. Pride of place among the horses is Skewbald and Piebald Cobs. These are extremely robust horses that have been used by travellers for hundreds of years. Renowned for their good temperament, strength and versatility, they can be recognised by their distinctive black, brown and white markings and unusually hairy or ‘feathered feet’. During Stow Fair the travellers take great pride in the presentation of their horses. They shampoo and backcomb the feathers of the horse into an immaculate design of supreme craftsmanship. The visual impact of these splendid animals is outstanding. Upon glancing over them one cannot help but admire the necessary skill and effort shown by the owners in the presentation of their animals. As a city boy with limited knowledge and even less experience the great outdoors I did not fully appreciate the majesty of these animals. Up close they are a somewhat daunting sight. I approached a large Piebald Cob and was immediately struck by its placid and docile demeanour. I was then thrust a handful of oats to which the horse gobbled up hungrily from my palm. The smell of hay, wet grass and the horses mane filling my nostrils I felt like this was truly summer and this filled me with a warm and comforting feeling. Pointing and composing my camera the horse’s owner allowed me to take a number of pictures to remember the moment and I then went happily on my way.
I proceeded to venture even further into unchartered territory, when I was confronted with the smallest horse I’d ever seen! It was a rare breed of Shetland pony, no larger than the size of a small pig and considerably thinner. I’d never seen a Shetland pony that small before and it was a sight to be seen. Chestnut brown in colour with a unkempt dark mane it looked almost irregular compared with the Piebald Cob’s I’d seen earlier in the day. It was tied to a stick in the ground and seemed completely contented grazing in its surroundings. I look the time to try to interact with him, although he seemed considerably shyer than his larger companions. However, moments later the serenity of the atmosphere was abruptly changed as a horse drawn vardo, approached scattering people in its path.
Romani culture and the fair’s held to honour these people’s culture are steeped in tradition. Just as it is significant for the exchange of goods and the trade of horses, the fair is also used as a showcase for men and boys to parade their horsemanship. They will ride and drive horses through the crowd without warning, scattering spectators everywhere. The chaos that ensues seems to be more suited to the celebration of Mardi gras, than the sterile Cotswold countryside, but it provides a sense of excitement and awe as it is not often you are privy to seeing a seven-foot horse cantering past you, no more than a few feet away. It certainly gets the old heart racing!
Over the last few years Stow Fair has been the subject of much controversy and along with other traveller’s fairs, such as The Horsemonden Fair has been the subject of numerous attacks. The fair’s themselves are simply the rural equivalent of the Notting Hill carnival to Britain’s Romani population, but are treated very differently by the local constabulary and townsfolk. Upon approach to the fair it is evident that the police are armed and in constant surveillance of the entire goings on. Hundreds of traveller’s do attempt to enter the town only to be held up at roadblocks for hours. It is clear that whereas some of the residents of Stow on the Wold are permissive to the fair itself and welcome the traveller’s and patron’s, others do not share this point of view and would rather this ancient tradition extirpated from their town.
On September 10th 2000 the police, working in conjunction with the local councillors in Horsemonden, Kent erected a five-mile exclusion zone, complete with armed units and roadblocks in order to ban the one-day Horsemonden fair. Locales, having become irritated by the invasion of their town held a single Parish Council meeting. As Horsemonden was the only traveller’s horse fair without a royal charter guaranteeing its existence the decision was made for the fair to be outlawed. However, this decision was met with much controversy. Eli Frankham, president of the National Romani Rights Association was enraged at the way his people were treated. “My grandmother was born on Horsemonden green.” “In an age where nomadic life is outlawed, fairs such as these bind our community together. They are places we meet, trade and continue our traditions. The attack on this fair is a direct attack on the Gypsy community of this country.”
The ban of the Horsemonden fair is only the tip of the iceberg in a campaign of cultural cleansing which is continuing throughout Britain today. Getting rid of the larger fairs at Appleby and, of course Stow on the Wold will require an act of parliament unless people no longer attend the fair’s or there is a change of tradition. However, those opposed to the fair’s themselves continue a war of attrition in the form of court injunctions and police harassment. Vera Norwood, the former chair of Stow town council, however disagrees with those who favour the eradication of Stow fair having previously stated, “My personal opinion is that the gypsies should be allowed to hold the fair without interference. They own the field and should be allowed to get on with it.” Which is a more than clear indication that this prestigious Romani event is set to continue for many years to come.
In summation I am pleased to admit that my Stow fair experience was a thoroughly enjoyable one. I felt culturally enriched in learning about the traditions, beliefs and customs of these people. There was so much to take is I felt myself consistently spoilt for choice when composing my photographs. The fair itself is a visual assault, with so many colour characters, unique wagons, caravans and other vehicles, a plethora of fine horses and noble traditions which all provide a firsthand insight into subculture I knew nothing of before. Stow fair is indeed an experience!