Appleby-in-Westmorland, a Market Town and Home of the Biggest Horse Fair in the World

The cloisters by Sir Robert Smirke.~ Visit Cumbria

Appleby-in-Westmorland, the smallest county town in England with a population of 2600, lies to the east of what is referred to as “the Lake District.” Its history goes back to the 9th Century when the Vikings settled in the area. The first Viking dwelling appears to have been built near what is now Bongate. They called the new settlement Appleby, from the Norse words for “place of the apples.” Appleby was once the capital of the county of Westmorland, but that changed in 1974 when Westmorland no longer existed under the government reorganisation. In that year, Westmorland merged with Cumberland to become the modern “Cumbria.” The name “Westmorland” was added to Appleby to preserve its former position in the county.

The Normans realized the strategic position of the ford across the River Ede at Appleby. Therefore, Appleby Castle was constructed. “The first castle was a simple motte and bailey, probably defended by a simple timber palisade. In the 12th century a stone keep was built atop the motte. The keep was enlarged after it was captured by William the Lion of Scotland in 1174. The defences were dismantled by Parliament in 1648, but restored by Lady Anne Clifford from 1651. The castle consists of a 12th century keep known as Caesar’s Tower, linked to a much later mansion house, home of the powerful Clifford family from the 13th century. The entire complex of buildings is surrounded by a high curtain wall and stands at the upper end of Boroughgate.” [Britain Express]

The area’s most prominent benefactor was Lady Anne Clifford, the daughter of the Earl of Cumberland, who staged her own private three decades-long battle to inherit her father’s estates. Appleby Castle served as her home, but she also assisted in restoring other properties in Cumbria and Yorkshire. After her death, Appleby Castle passed to the earls of Thanet and then on to Lord Hothfield.

Appleby has produced two of England’s Prime Ministers: William Pitt the Younger and Viscount Howick, who became Earl Grey.

St Lawrence church was built shortly after the castle. It was damaged by raiding Scots in 1388, but rebuilt by Lady Anne Clifford.

Appleby’s uncommonly wide main street, Boroughgate, has been described as one of the finest in England. It runs from the north end, by the cloisters which were designed by Sir Robert Smirke in 1811, to the south end, by the Castle entrance. At the north end is the Moot Hall, with a plaque above the door dated 1596, and now used as the Tourist Information Centre. The beginning and end of Boroughgate is marked by the ‘Low Cross’ and the ‘High Cross’.

Appleby Grammar School dates back to two chantry bequests in 1286. It was incorporated by Letters Patent of Queen Elizabeth in 1574. George Washington’s father and two half-brothers, born in Virginia, were educated at Appleby Grammar School. He would have followed, but in 1743, when he reached the age at which the two older boys had made the voyage, his father died suddenly. [Appleby-in-Westmorland]

Appleby and surrounding villages host long-established events such as Warcop rushbearing, which dates back to at least 1716.

The four-day Appleby Horse Fair is customarily held on the first weekend of June. It is considered the biggest traditional Gypsy Fair in Europe. The earliest known record of the fair appears in a 12th-century. Some ten thousand Gypsies and Travellers arrive in Appleby for the celebration. This year because of COVID and various lock downs, the fair will start tomorrow, 12 August. It was postponed from the traditional June dates due to the COVID restrictions, although a small group still gathered in the area, in fear that the fair would be cancelled permanently. The fair was cancelled in 2020 at the height of the pandemic and once previously in the early 2000s for a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. Generally, 1000 caravans and 30,000 visitors arrive for the event. Attendees include British Romanichal, Irish Travellers, Scottish Gypsy and Traveller groups, Kale (Welsh Romanies), and more.

The event occurs outside the town where the Roman Road crosses Long Marton Road at Fair Hill, which was originally called Gallows Hill for the obvious reason. The fair was established by a royal charter from King James II in 1685. However, recent research has shown that the 1685 charter, which was cancelled before it was enrolled, is of no relevance. “Appleby’s medieval borough fair, held at Whitsuntide, ceased in 1885. The ‘New Fair,’ held in early June on Gallows Hill, what was then enclosed land outside the borough boundary, began in 1775 for sheep and cattle drovers and horse dealers to sell their stock; by the 1900s, it had evolved into a major Gypsy/Traveller occasion.” [Andrew Connell (2015). “Appleby Gypsy Horse Fair: Mythology, Origins, Evolution and Evaluation”. Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society.]

The legal status of the Fair does not depend on a charter, therefore, but on the legal concept of ‘prescriptive right’, that is to say easement by prescription or custom. Praescriptio est titulus ex usu et tempore substantiam capiens ab auctoritate legis. ‘Prescription is a title by authority of law, deriving its force from use and time.’ [Andrew Connell]

The horses are washed and trotted up and down the flashing lane most main days. There is a market on Jimmy Winter’s Field selling a variety of goods – some traditional to the Gypsy travelling community – and a range other horse-related products.

The legal status of the Fair does not depend on a charter, therefore, but on the legal concept of ‘prescriptive right’, that is to say easement by prescription or custom. Praescriptio est titulus ex usu et tempore substantiam capiens ab auctoritate legis. ‘Prescription is a title by authority of law, deriving its force from use and time.’ [Andrew Connell]

Washing the horses at Appleby Horse Fair, Cumbria. ~ Public Domain

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, tradtions, travel and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.