Market town's fears over the horse fair goings on
"Ghost expert" Martin Jeffrey told a January 2010 issue of the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard how gypsies were once "brought to a standstill by a mysterious snowstorm" and that "ghosts were said to gather around the caravan, whining and screeching through the windows".
We now know it wasn't ghosts but Stow-on-the-Wold residents moaning about the gypsy-run May and October horse fairs.
"Will you be closed too?" I asked a young bank teller, shopkeepers having told us they'd be shut and what nuisances gypsies were, unaware that to us a nuisance was a shopkeeper that closed his shop.
"No, but Lloyds will be. We employ a security guard. Everyone's dreading it."
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"What do you mean?"
"There's usually one death every year," she said. When I looked blankly I sensed she thought she'd said too much and added: "They've never been a problem to me."
Still, while the fatality claim was untrue, the stabbing at the 2010 May fair hadn't helped. It was a family feud, it turned out, involving no risk to the public.
While it was put into perspective by Chief Superintendent Gary Thompson, no less, he probably didn't make it to Number 1 on the municipal agenda by saying: "Stow Fair is a large event, enjoyed by many people from different communities, and while we are naturally disappointed that this incident has occurred, we realise that it is highly unusual for something like this to happen."
His words are as telling for their trusting tone as the fact that he'd called it the 'Stow Fair', a term which local councillors would try to correct the copper by asserting it could ban it two years later.
Gypsies and travellers ignore the town council saying "it was not a proper charter fair", reported the Wilts & Gloucestershire Standard on May 19, 2012, "and forbid the organisers from using that name, instead asking that it be called the Stow Horse Fair or the Gypsy Gathering." Travellers' Times also still calls it the Stow Fair, its community more concerned about their 500-year-old trading being washed out by real mud.
Meanwhile, why would former visitor information centre worker Ralph Green like the Horse Fair if the organisers' families really were pillaging the town that helps it survive? Writing in cotswold.info, he explains how "in recent years the fun fair stopped visiting the town and the horse sales involving the farmers and dealers split from the travelling people and moved to Andoversford, [near] Cheltenham", the gypsies' horse fair now being "one of the biggest gatherings of its kind in England", "traditional horse-drawn caravans" making it "popular with photographers, artists, and the public who don't want to miss the atmosphere of such a colourful event".
Then there's the problem of throwing the baby out with the bath water. I recently met Perry Hatwell, who runs that fun fair, whose vibrant current travelling circuit used to include Stow, but no more. Just as he told me that some people assume incorrectly that they, too, are gypsies, misinformation rather takes over whenever a bit of colourful life threatens to visit.
Perhaps the most revealing statement comes from "fair stalwart Les Elliott" who told This is Gloucestershire in May 2009: "The old residents of Stow love us but the new people don't much care for the fair – all they do is keep complaining. But we grin and bear it." Perhaps it's time for Cotswold newcomers like me to go on a course.
The suggestion that gypsies set up a horse fair so they can sneak into town to rob and pillage is as silly as Stow residents imagining they have no crime of their own: nice non-gypsy sons and daughters who cause trouble. And what about all the family tussles the police know about that stay unreported behind closed doors during the festive season, while Bing Crosby is crooning?
Men and women from "good Cotswold families" waiting to mount the pulpit to list gypsy failings could wonder why the Samaritans has branches all over the UK and Ireland, including Bath, Bristol, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Salisbury, Swindon, Taunton, Weston-super-Mare and Yeovil, their 2009 statistics stating that they'd seen "call volumes climb some 28 per cent in January, amounting to around 14,000". Toys aren't the only things being wound up at Christmas.