The fate of a centuries-old Gypsy and Traveller horse fair in Cumbria is hanging precariously in the balance, pending a crucial government decision regarding National Highways’ proposal to expand the A66. This proposed expansion threatens to obliterate the current site of the much-loved Brough Hill Fair.
Campaigners are expressing deep concerns over what they perceive as National Highways’ inadequate consideration of the fair’s profound cultural significance. Furthermore, the absence of a viable alternative site in the proposal raises questions about its vulnerability to potential legal challenges.
The importance of place
The value of cultural heritage knows no boundaries, and its safeguarding is an obligation we owe to every community, especially those whose heritage has too often been overlooked.
Place is an indelible thread woven into the fabric of heritage and community. It serves as a conduit for cultural identity, a keeper of history, a catalyst for community cohesion, and a source of economic and social prosperity. The significance of place extends beyond mere physical space; it encompasses the very essence of who we are as individuals and communities.
The importance of a sense of place becomes even more pronounced in deprived or marginalised communities. To preserve and cherish these places is to safeguard the richness and diversity of our cultural heritage, ensuring that future generations can continue to draw inspiration from the profound importance of place in shaping our world.
National Highways plans and Brough Hill Fair
Rooted in history dating back to the 1300s, Brough Hill Fair holds immense cultural importance, not only for the Gypsy and Traveller community but also for the broader region. Over the years, the fair has found its place in various locations in and around Brough.
National Highways’ ambitious plan involves converting the existing A66 route into a dual carriageway, linking the A1 at Scotch Corner with the M6 at Penrith. Unfortunately, this endeavour necessitates the use of the current location of the cherished Brough Hill Fair.
In early August, a panel of government experts reviewed National Highways’ £1.5bn proposal for the A66 extension. Subsequently, they submitted their findings to transport secretary Mark Harper. Now, the fate of this long-standing tradition lies in his hands, as he has three months to deliberate upon their recommendations. Regrettably, this means that this year’s Brough Hill Fair, scheduled for the end of September, may very well be the last of its kind, pending the decision’s outcome and the campaign’s efforts to preserve this cherished event.
A living cultural heritage rooted in the land
Emphasising the importance of the site’s heritage in an interview with Travellers Times, John Henry Phillips, a respected Romani archaeologist, author, and presenter of Channel 4’s The Great British Dig, eloquently underscores the vital importance of recognising and preserving the cultural heritage of Romani Gypsies – a heritage that is often overshadowed or neglected in policy and decision-making processes.
Phillips highlights that the cultural heritage of Romani Gypsies is woven with traditions, knowledge, and skills deeply rooted in the historical connections between the community and the land they inhabit. It is a heritage that is both tangible and intangible, a ‘living’ heritage that continues to evolve and thrive.
He emphasises that events like the Brough Hill Fair are paramount for the Romani Gypsy community, serving as vital opportunities for them to come together, just as they have for centuries, to practise, preserve, and share their cultural heritage. These gatherings are not just social events but essential for the survival of a heritage deeply intertwined with their way of life.
Intangible cultural heritage as important as physical remains
Furthermore, Phillips asserts that the Brough Hill Fair is no less a part of the historic environment than physical archaeological remains, which are traditionally valued and protected. He challenges decision-makers to recognise that intangible cultural heritage, like the practices and traditions of the Romani Gypsy community, holds equal importance and deserves protection and support.
In conclusion, he urges the secretary of state and the government to acknowledge and uphold their responsibilities towards Gypsies and Travellers by assigning the same value to their cultural heritage as they would to any other heritage asset. This call for recognition and preservation reflects the broader movement to ensure that all cultural heritages, regardless of their nature, are safeguarded and celebrated as integral parts of our shared human heritage.
An ancient and sacred fair
In the same article in Travellers Times, Billy Welch, spokesperson for Appleby Fair and the Brough Hill Fair Community Association, says, “Brough Hill Fair is ancient and is sacred to Gypsy people. It has been part of our culture for generations”. He accepts that the road is necessary and the fair will have to find a new site, but stresses that the location they’ve been offered – squeezed between the new dual carriageway and an industrial scale farm and cement works – is unsafe, unacceptable, and discriminatory. He goes on to add that, without an adequate alternative site, this “will lead to the death of the Fair and another blow to the Gypsy way of life”.
In a world where the significance of place is undeniable, whether it be in the preservation of cultural identity, fostering community cohesion, or driving economic prosperity, there emerges a stark reminder of its sometimes unequal distribution. It is crucial to remember that heritage encompasses the living traditions that define who we are. To overlook the cultural heritage of marginalised communities is to diminish the richness of our shared human tapestry.
As the government’s decision on the fate of the Brough Hill Fair is awaited, we must heed the voices of those like Billy Welch, who aptly describe its significance as “ancient” and “sacred”. For the Romani Gypsy community, its loss would not only be the end of a cherished fair but also a further undermining of a way of life deeply intertwined with cultural heritage.
Brough Hill Fair is being held between 29 September until 2 October. A rally is being held on 1 October in Brough village.
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