Next week the population of Appleby-in-Westmorland is likely to grow to around 16 times its usual size – just as it has been doing every June for more than 300 years.

An estimated 10,000 Gypsies and travellers, plus around 30,000 visitors, are expected to descend upon the town for the week-long and world-famous Appleby Horse Fair, which begins on Thursday.

It is, says Billy Welch, “the most important day in the Gypsy and traveller calendar on Planet Earth”. It’s a chance for them to meet and do business, put horses on display and buy and sell animals and goods.

It’s a longstanding tradition, but it’s not something that has always been universally welcomed by townspeople.

However, the destruction and devastation caused by Storm Desmond six months ago was even less welcome. And the hope this year is that the event will not only be trouble-free but good for business.

The expected crowds and their money could be just the kind of boost that the town’s shops and eateries will need after the losses caused by the floods.

This will be Robin Hooper’s sixth horse fair. Mr Hooper is chief executive of Eden council and also chairs the Multi-Agency Strategic Co-ordinating Group which oversees the event. 

It brings together district and county council staff, the police, fire and rescue service, organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and representatives of the Gypsy and traveller communities, such as Mr Welch, to ensure everything runs as smoothly as possible. 

Robin Hooper The town has been through a lot, he says, so townspeople are seeing the horse fair as a return to normality and business as usual.

“Appleby has seen probably some of the worst impact of flooding of any community in Cumbria. We hope visitors will reflect on and respect what the people of the town have gone through.”

And he adds: “The business owners are very resilient and have a great deal of confidence. It should be an opportunity to generate revenue.

“Having the chance to sell the goods and services they offer is more important than ever this year because of the floods. We hope people coming will use the local shops and cafes and pubs.”

But will extra customers outweigh any crime or anti-social behaviour? Both have been associated with the event in the past.

“Year on year the number of people being arrested and the number of crimes being reported has been reducing, which is really good to see,” he replies. “We’re hoping that will continue.”

And meetings Mr Hooper has had with Appleby townspeople show that crime is not a major concern for them. “They ask about horses being raced late at night, or where buses will be stopping,” he says.

The town’s new mayor John Pape agrees. “People aren’t as worried by the fair as they used to be,” he finds. “Some still don’t like it, but it’s nothing like as bad as it used to be. There’s a lot of business coming from it.

“We’ll have a lot of traffic but the police have got it well organised.”

Indeed the continuing drop in crime means that traffic is more of a concern for Cumbria Police, as Superintendent Mark Pannone explains.

Supt Mark Pannone “This year’s top priority is road safety,” he says. “We are committed to keeping the roads as safe as possible throughout the whole event. It is important for all road users to be aware of the large number of slow-moving horse-drawn vehicles that will be on the county’s roads during this time and to drive accordingly.”

He advises those planning to come not to arrive before Thursday and to check the availability of stopping places on the website at

The force always adopts a “community policing” approach to the event, and Supt Pannone adds: “Working together is the most productive way of ensuring that the fair is safe and enjoyable. We are keen to listen to everyone visiting and those living in and around Appleby.”

But one potential crime is animal cruelty. Rob Melloy of the RSPCA has been attending Appleby Horse Fair for eight years now – along with many of his colleagues. “It’s the biggest deployment of RSPCA staff annually,” he points out.

As well as the 30 RSPCA staff there will be another 20 people working alongside them, including vets, horse specialists and a team from the Blue Cross animal charity.

“There’s a small minority who aren’t that worried about their animals, or are working them too hard, or working them when they are injured,” he says. “If we see cruelty or someone causing an animal to suffer we take action.”

A common practice every year is to take horses into the Eden to wash them, or just to allow them to cool down.

But the December floods deposited around half a tonne of rusty metal in the river, which has all had to be cleared by the RSPCA.

“There were bits of farm machinery, parts of an engine, parts of gates and fences,” Mr Melloy says. “It could cause serious injury to horses or people.

“Every year we go out in the morning to clear cans and bottles from the river, but normally we do that the day before the fair. Because of the floods we knew there would be a lot more stuff.”

It’s not just horses that are traded at the fair. In the past some people have been arrested for illegally selling puppies and Mr Melloy advises against buying one.

“They will probably have come from puppy farms, they won’t have been weaned properly or vaccinated,” he warns. “It’s not as bad as it used to be but every year we see it.”

Sometimes the animal suffering is caused by visitors who leave their dogs in their cars, where they can easily die from overheating.

“Every year, without fail, we have to break into cars to release dogs.

“Dogs can’t sweat like us, so they can’t regulate their body temperature and in a hot car they can be cooked alive.”

The horse fair is the biggest event of its type in Europe and any gathering of its size will include some troublemakers – whoever turns up.

Billy Welch Gypsy Billy Welch makes the point. He has been to the fair almost every year of his 55 years and says trouble these days is minimal.

“If you think of Glastonbury, or any large crowd of people, there’s going to be the occasional incident,” he says. “Go into Carlisle on a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll see 50 times more trouble than you’ll see at the horse fair.

“Last year there were 11 arrests – none were for anything serious.”

This year, he adds, the Gypsies and travellers will be raising money in aid of the flood appeal. “We’re going to have collection buckets for whatever people can donate.

“It’s just a way for us to give something back to the community for the welcome they give us.”

And even those who are working there are looking forward to the event which last until June 8.

“People come to show their horses off, so you see some fantastic animals and some fantastic displays of horsemanship,” says Mr Melloy.

“It’s certainly different from the day job! And if the weather’s good there’s no nicer place to be.”

Mr Welch adds: “It’s not just for Gypsies and travellers. It’s for anyone who wants to come and enjoy it.”