After this year’s Appleby horse fair, the Gazette reported that Dene Stansall, who works for Animal Aid, wanted to see an end of the whole fair.

His call came after two horses died as a result of accidents on the ‘flashing lane’, a half mile lane from Fair Hill down to the River Eden. The lane and the river are used to prepare and show off horses for sale.

I cannot agree the fair should be ended. It is a wonderful event, a highlight of the year for those who come to Appleby and a splendid opportunity for Cumbria to welcome the amazing diversity it represents.

Appleby Fair is a cultural phenomenon with a long history. It should be fostered and enjoyed, in much the same way other great public events are celebrated in other parts of the UK. For example, the London Marathon, Edinburgh Fringe, the Uppies and Downies football at Workington and the Notting Hill Carnival.

What has exercised Dene Stansall is the way the horses are ridden down the lane. He is concerned about the risk to human and animal welfare. He would like to see the fair ended or more rigorous policing. He states: “The RSPCA and police are intimidated and reluctant to get into confrontation. A much more regulated, hardened approach would be more beneficial for the horses.”

As a historian, I am aware the police 150 years used to act in cases of 'furious riding'. For example, in Keswick in 1853: 'James Wilson, …pencil maker, was charged with cruelly abusing and over-riding a pony, the property of C Dewar, of Keswick; the defendant was further charged with furiously riding the said pony along the main street of Keswick. Mr Dewar declining to press the charge of cruelty against the defendant, only the latter charge was only gone into, but this being the defendant’s first appearance before the bench, the justices fined him in the mitigated penalty of 2s 6d., and costs, in all 16s., and gave him a severe reprimanding.' (Carlisle Journal, January 27,1854).

This case is typical many in the 19th century. The concern was not the welfare of the animal, which was a matter entirely for the owner to determine, but of public safety. The most apt comparison is with the speed limits on our roads today.

Fairs, like Appleby today, were always occasions of high excitement, so it is not surprising to find cases of ‘furious riding’ on fair day.For example, 'H. Atkinson, of New Hutton, was charged … with furious riding in Stramongate the evening of Wednesday, the cattle show day.' (Westmorland Gazette, September 23, 1865).

Brough Hill Fair was far bigger and better (or worse, depending on your point of view) than Appleby. My research has enabled me to examine all the prosecutions arising from Brough Hill Fair from 1856 to 1910. In over 50 years, there were only two prosecutions for furious riding.

Horse dealers at Brough Hill were just as keen to show off their animals as dealers at Appleby today. We can infer there was at least as much daring riding going on as there is at Appleby today, but if the riders behaved in town and took a care of other people’s property, risky riding was tolerated.

Victorian policemen would have had a far sharper eye than modern police officers for the finer points of riding safety and style, but where they were as one with today’s police was in understanding the need for sensitive policing. Officers, then and now, needed to take a tolerant view of the proceedings, to use a bit of discretion and turn a blind eye to behaviour that was tending towards the reckless.

Accidents will happen from time to time, but since horses are far less dangerous than cars, the risk to humans is slight and is, in my opinion, a price worth paying in order to preserve a very rich part of our cultural heritage.

Mr Stansall’s priority is the horses, but for me it is the people who matter, the people like me who come and enjoy the occasion for what it is. Long may Appleby Fair continue, and long may it welcome travellers from the UK and beyond.

Guy Woolnough