Appleby residents last night demanded an apology from “King of the Gypsies” Billy Welch for his claim that locals were racist, during a tense post-horse fair meeting.
Calls were also made for the annual fair to become a ticketed event — something Multi-Agency Strategic Co-ordinating Group leaders have agreed to consider and which has gained the personal support of the gypsy head.
The plea for an apology came in an impassioned speech from Allsorts shop owner Sue Spence, who said: “We have had a difficult year just trying to keep open and then we get abuse, threatened and spat at. We are not racist, we are protecting ourselves.”
She asked Mr Welch to apologise for his comment during last month’s horse fair in which he branded the move by a host of local shops to close “one million per cent” racial discrimination.
Mr Welch, who appeared to be a lone voice of the Gypsy, Romany and Traveller (GRT) community at the public meeting, said the comment had been a “knock-on effect, a chain reaction” to racial abuse the GRT community received in the run-up to the fair. “I just thought it was another attempt to stop the fair and get rid of it,” he said.
The meeting was held in Appleby public hall and, due to COVID safety measures, had a maximum capacity of 100 seats. With residents keen to have their voices heard about this year’s controversial events, seats filled up quickly forcing residents refused entry to hang their heads through open windows keen to hear what was said.
The idea for Appleby Horse Fair to become ticketed was made by several residents in a bid for more control over the event, which this year was described as a “free for all”.
Although it was evident that leaders had reservations about the practicalities of this — such as it spanning both private and both public land — MASCG leader Les Clark gave assurances that the group would consider whether it was possible and how the fair could change.
Backing for idea
While Mr Welch gave his personal backing to the idea, he also expressed concerns, likening it to Penrith’s Kendal Calling music festival: “Kendal Calling is a ticketed event and there is 20 times more violence so having tickets won’t solve your problems,” he claimed.
Opening the meeting, Mr Clark said MASCG would be publishing an evaluation report about the fair in forthcoming weeks. Broadly speaking, he said numbers had been at the same level as previous years for the phase one build-up to the fair, but saw a surge in day visitors to Appleby during the phase two main days. This had caused The Sands to be closed to traffic a day early and issues with toilets and the post-fair clean-up.
He was forced to apologise to Appleby Manor owner Mike Dunbobbin who questioned how the date of the rescheduled fair had been leaked prior to an official announcement and spoke of problems it had caused his business. He also raised the possibility of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s proposed Police Bill being introduced which could give police more powers to move travellers on from roadside verges and asked if it would be implemented at the fair.
Superintendent Matt Kennerley, who acted as Cumbria police’s gold commander for the fair, said in reality officers may not be able to enforce it but would take a “really different approach” to this year.
He revealed there had been around 200 officers posted in the Appleby area each day of the fair, with more drafted in for specific threats. He said the move to bring in emergency section 60 stop and search measures were in response to a specific threat and were unheard of in Cumbria.
During the fair, he said there had been 13 arrests, 25 crimes recorded, 58 fixed penalty notices issued, nine stop and searches, and six dispersals. This was for thefts, making off without payment, public order, criminal damage, drugs, assaults and possession of an offensive weapon and bladed article. However, when asked where in his figures an alleged rape wa,s he conceded it was not included.
Cumbria’s director of public health Colin Cox outlined COVID levels in Appleby during and after the fair and said a surge in the settled community had not been seen.
Appleby resident Ernie Brabbins was later met with applause when he suggested to Mr Cox this may be because Appleby residents could not leave their homes during the event.
Members of the newly-formed Appleby Community for a People’s New Fair asked for town residents to be members on MASCG but were told there is already a pathway of communication through Eden District Council’s Karen Greenwood, for Appleby, and Kirkby Stephen’s Phil Dew.