The aptly named village of Horsmonden in the High Weald is the site of an annual horse fair, held on the second Sunday in September and one of the last horse fairs in the calendar. It belongs to the genre commonly known as Gypsy fairs, a misnomer, since Gypsies are neither the items on sale nor its exclusive clientele. Many of these fairs were founded hundreds of years ago, in a time when simply being a Gypsy was technically illegal but when horses were in much more general use than they are now. As the need for horses receded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Gypsies and farmers were left as the dominant customers.
Although not as famous as Appleby and vulnerable to periodic calls for its suppression, Horsmonden Fair still manages to pack a few hundred Gypsies, their horses, traps and trailers onto the village green, where they bargain from morning till late afternoon. The narrowness of the venue perhaps explains why it is strictly a horse fair. There are no stalls for the refreshments or knickknacks and none of the entertainments usually associated with fairs. It was horses, harnesses and traps. Gorgios are not unwelcome but there is not a lot for them to do.
The Rural Voice’s correspondent dropped in for a gander and was advised that the authority on the fair was a seventy-three-year-old great-granfather, whom (for reasons of privacy) we shall call Aaron. Although normally resident in London, he has been visiting the fair for as long as he can remember, accompanied by representatives of each new generation of his family. He has seen the fair change in that time and not always to his liking. Like many an Englishman, he mourns the closure of most of the village’s pubs and reminisced proudly about the indiscriminate drunkenness, which once added that little extra frisson to the day.
While we were talking, he pointed to a crowd behind us, from which a cheer had just erupted, signifying a successful transaction. “You missed it,” he said and added “They’re gone like that,” illustrating the point with a click of his fingers.
This is the usual way business is conducted. From time to time a horde would coalesce, as though by auto-suggestion. At its epicentre would be two or three men haggling, or rather arguing as it often seemed. Eventually a price would be agreed, hands would be slapped and the huge audience who had gathered for the entertainment would loudly express their approval.
The animals themselves are not the only items on sale. Two officials had been sent in at the request of Kent Police to distribute information on equine safety and gelding (two subjects that, to this correspondent, seemed somewhat at odds). A few feet from them were an old man and his grandson, selling tackle and harness. Unlike a lot of Gypsies today, they still lead a fully itinerant life, with beds in their trailer. They had driven down from Middlesex at five in the morning and would be going to Leeds later in the week and after that to Ireland. When asked where he would pitch that night, he confessed he did not know.
He also did not know when Horsmonden Fair started and neither did Aaron. The earliest fair on record in the village was a cattle fair, held on Saint Swithin’s Day, in 1659. This fair continued into the late eighteenth century and was apparently replaced by the September horse fair at some point in the nineteenth century but the precise date has escaped both the collective memory of the fair’s attendees and the investigations of local historians.
Despite having lived not far from Horsmonden all his life, this was the correspondent’s first visit to the fair, a fact that amazed Aaron. “Make sure you come back next year,” he said. “Every September.”
Photo credits: Scenes from Horsmonden Fair (James Lloyd)