Historic Gypsy and Traveller Fair threatened by National Highways road plans

19 September 2023
Brough Hill Fair - Historic Gypsy and Traveller gathering threatened by new road

The fate of a centuries-old Brough Hill Gypsy and Traveller horse fair on Brough in Cumbria hangs in the balance as campaigners wait for a government decision on a National Highways proposal for the expansion of the A66 trunk road, which is set to destroy the Fair’s current site.

Campaigners say that National Highway’s failure to properly consider the cultural significance of Brough Hill Fair alongside its failure to offer a viable alternative site could leave the proposal vulnerable to a legal challenge.

Romany leader Billy Welch, on behalf of the Brough Hill Fair Community Association and Gypsy community, accepts that the Fair may need to move, but believes National Highways’ proposals to relocate the Fair onto a narrow site squeezed between the new dual carriageway and an industrial scale farm and cement works are unsafe, unacceptable, and discriminatory. 

“Brough Hill Fair is ancient and is sacred to Gypsy people. It has been part of our culture for generations. We would prefer if we did not have to move, but we accept the road is needed, and are willing to relocate to a good site. But what we have been offered is not fit for pigs, although, according to National Highways, it is fine for Gypsies. We will not use it and it will lead to the death of the Fair, and another blow to the Gypsy way of life.” 

Billy Welch
Welch's Grandmother and mother at Brough Hill Fair in the 1970's (c) Billy Welch

The Fair dates back to the 1300s and is of great cultural significance to the Gypsy and Traveller community, and the wider area, say the campaigners. The Fair has previously occupied different sites in and around Brough.

The National Highways proposal to dual carriageway the existing route of the A66, which links the A1 at Scotch Corner with the M6 at Penrith, requires the current site of the historic Brough Hill Fair. 

John Henry Phillips, a Romani Archaeologist, author, and presenter of Channel 4’s ‘The Great British Dig’ said that he was “acutely aware” of the tendency for the cultural heritage of Romany Gypsies to be overlooked in policy and decision making when it should be recognised and protected.

“Characterised by a wealth of traditions, knowledge and skills that are deeply connected to the historic relationships between Romany Gypsies and the land, the Cultural Heritage of this group is as much intangible as it is material, it is ‘living’ heritage,” said John Henry Phillips.

“It depends now more than ever on opportunities like the Brough Hill Fair for the community to come together as they have done over centuries to practice and share it to survive,” he added.

“The Fair is no less a part of the historic environment than the material remains left behind, and still valued and protected by settled people.”

"Part if the historic environment" - old postcard of Brough Hill Fair in full swing, courtesy of Bill Lloyd
"Part of the historical environment" - old postcard of Brough Hill Fair in full swing, courtesy of Bill Lloyd

The panel of government experts who examined National Highway’s A66 extension £1.5bn proposal to upgrade the A66, sent their report to Transport Secretary, Mark Harper on the 7th August, and he now has three months to decide on their recommendations. This means this year’s Brough Hill Fair at the end of September may be the last one ever held, if the decision goes against the campaign to save the Fair.

The Brough Hill Fair Community Association is hopeful that a remedy can be sought on the back of the panel’s instruction to National Highways to enter into further dialogue with Mr Welch and his community to resolve the issue and suggest more suitable sites. Until now National Highways have rejected all the detailed arguments against their proposals, but without a better replacement site, the fair will not survive.  

Rally poster brough hill fair
'Please come to the Fair to show your support' - a campaign poster for Brough Hill Fair

The outcome of the Fair ultimately lies with the Secretary of State.  Supporters of the Fair and the Gypsy and Traveller community hope Mark Harper will recognise the health, safety, and environmental issues with the proposed replacement site.

Michael Hargreaves, planning adviser to the Brough Hill Fair Community Association said:

“National Highways has failed to recognise that the Fair should have been properly protected as an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage Asset’. 

The Equalities Impact Assessment for the road expansion project assessed the Fair as being of ‘high sensitivity’ and appears to commit the National Highways team to mitigation in the form of ‘agreeing a replacement site that the Gypsy and Traveller population and the local resident population will find acceptable.’

However, despite having explicitly recognised the relevance of the Fair to the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Romany Gypsy community in the Environmental Management Plan, it has refused to take the community’s needs seriously and only offered a scrap of land which is left over after building the road.

National Highway’s approach ignores the obligation to protect the Gypsy way of life. It would not have ignored something of such importance to another community.  Its proposals are discriminatory and are vulnerable to legal challenge.” 

Gypsy and Traveller Representatives have been advised that the questions they have raised are sufficient grounds to make National Highways’ proposals morally and legally unacceptable. If the Transport Secretary approves the proposals in spite of these unanswered questions, they intend to seek Judicial Review.  

A Crowd Justice fundraiser will be launched on Sunday 1st October to support the campaign work.

Mike Doherty/TT News

(Lead photograph: Brough Hill Fair (c) Alan Mawdsley. Video and music by Bill Lloyd, original lyrics by Dorothy Una Radcliffe adapted by Bill Lloyd, original tune written by Brian Bedford, with some adaptions by Bill Lloyd)

Brough Hill Fair
Brough Hill Fair - use it or lose it say campaigners (c)Alan Mawdsley