Stow-on the-Wold stands on top of a 700 foot hill at the junction of seven major roads including the famous Roman Fosse Way. Always famed for the livestock markets where once 20,000 sheep were traded at one time, the area is still famous for its twice-yearly horse fairs. It is mostly Travellers and Gypsies that are the main horse traders these days flashing their hairy-legged heavy piebald cobs up and down the roads or their famous trotting horses. Not everyone’s cup of tea it remains however, one of the great spectacles of Gloucestershire.
The gypsy horse fair attracts hundreds of horse dealers, sightseers, and tourists to Stow-on-Wold twice a year in May and October where hundreds of horses and ponies are paraded and sold. The origins of the fair are steeped in history and because of the location at the intersection of many travellers by ways; the area soon became a trading post for travellers and traders from Wales, the West, the Midlands, and Thames Valley. Salt from Worcestershire, fish from the Severn estuary and charcoal and iron from the Forest of Dean were all traded here along with local crafts of saddlery, weaving, and pottery.
After the Norman Conquest, contacts between England and the continent expanded via agents based in London and Stow-on the-Wold was now within reach of travellers bringing more exotic goods such as silk and spices. In 1107, Henry 1 granted a charter, which gave the people of Stow-on the-Wold the right to hold a market every Thursday in the square. Additional concessions were acquired over time from the king giving the market great status. A market cross was erected as a symbol to people that they could do business safely and honestly. This market continued for 800 years ceasing in 1900.
The dates of the two gypsy horse fairs are the same dates of May 12th, which is the feast of Saints Philip, and James and October 24th the feast of St. Edward the Confessor that were granted for fair days in the 1400’s. Horses were imported from Ireland in these early fairs and not much has changed today with many of the horses beginning life in some part of the Emerald Isle. It was only due to the decline of the sheep trade in the Cotswolds that saw a swap to horse trading. These colourful events would have jugglers, tumblers, and musicians playing fiddles and flutes.
Farmers, huntsmen, professional horse dealers and gipsies all were the original buyers and sellers at the horse fair. In recent years, the horse fair split with the gypsies remaining in Stow-on the-Wold and the horse dealers moving out to Andoversford to the east of Cheltenham. The spectacle of the gypsy horse fair as it is today is a magnet for artists, photographers, and tourists to see the horses, horse drawn caravans and some good old fashioned bartering and horse trading which is an entertainment in itself. The colourful event is not to be missed, there is plenty to do and see, and a glimpse of Old England as it was back hundreds of years ago at this unique intersection where all roads lead.
If you are staying at Cooks Green Cottage in May or October, be sure to check out the dates of the gypsy horse fair in Stow-on-the-Wold, as it is one Gloucestershire event you do not want to miss!