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Horse-traders in the Yorkshire Dales


The horse-traders of the Swaledale and the sister dales are mostly of one family, the Nicholsons; and they are part of the peculiar and fascinating way of life of the dales. The present generation of horse-traders can trace back their descent as far as the dalesmen have memories of horse-dealing with the Gypsies and others of like kind: and that is very far. The Nicholsons mostly deny Gypsy blood, though certainly many of that family, past and present, have married with the true kawlo rat (dark blood or Gypsy blood).

It is probable that the Nicholson family are descendants of the Scottish tinker tribes, with therefor the blood of the Pictish kings in their veins: they possess a marked dignity and nobility, and some of the women much beauty, while branch marriages of the family with Gypsies, and their constant association with them in their horse-trading, has caused them to resemble the Romany race in both appearance and character. The Nicholsons can speak and understand much Romany and in addition they have good knowledge of Shelta, which is the little known speech of the tinker brotherhood -”cant”, they call it.

Those of the Nicholson family whom I have known, possess Gypsy ways which are often far nearer to the true kawlo rat than is met with often amongst many of the Gypsies proper. They crave the free life of the open air, and are stifled in houses. They are ever away down the roads and over the moors – “jallin the drom”. They are exceptional horsemen, knowing mostly all that is to be known about horses, loving them, and possessing remarkable power over them; and are also expert shoe-smiths and wheelwrights. They are skilled in the things of the camp: tent-pitching, fire-lighting, cooking, mending. They are very knowledgeable concerning the wild life of the moors and the Pennine hills, some of them are also herbalists. They can doctor skilfully their own horses and dogs, also cows. And above al their characters are typical of the best traits found amongst the pure-bred Gypsy people. On the lighter side they are excellent singers and dancers, and the men are formidable pugilists and wrestlers.
All the northern Yorkshire dales bear the scars of the Nicholsons’ camp-fires. Very often I used to come across the black circles of charred earth, on my walks in Swaledale and Wensleydale. One such place, in regular use, was by the bridge across the beck which flowed through the woods wherein I was mostly making my home for two years, Barney Swale. My veterinary work often took me away from the dale, sometimes for weeks, and always on my return I would walk to the various camping places to see if “the Gypsies” had been. They had lit their fires often enough and gone away; I began to think that it was ordained that I should never meet with them. Sometimes the wood ash of a fire was yet warm beneath my hand, but the Gypsies were far away.
However, in the early spring of 1947, the Hutchinsons, above whose cottage I rented rooms, brought back the news from Reeth village that the Kakkis – being a local dialect name for the horse-traders – were back in the dale. They told further that the horse-traders had with them a magnificent red riding mare. The Hutchinsons’ schoolgirl daughter, Margaret, had long been promised a horse to ride at the local pony shows, and the Nicholsons had been asked to bring up the mare for trial that evening.
Several hours later there came to me the scent of woodsmoke, seeping up across the fields, from the camping place by the beck bridge. That wonderful Gypsy fragrance, wood smoke, and woodsmoke mingling with the fresh air of out-of-doors, which is best of all. At last the horse-traders were in the lane, and I was at Thiernswood! As soon as the smoke scent came to me I delayed not a minute, but hastened from the cottage away to the bridge, to see for myself what manner of people were the horse-traders, concerning whom I had heard so much accounts- sometimes legends -good, strange and, also, displeasing. I remember well how I ran all of the way down the lane, so much was my impatience. The beck bridge was a goodly distance out of sight. When I arrived there my eyes were well rewarded. On the short spring grass of the lane-side, al pricked with the sulphur stars of the primroses, a big brown and green painted vardo (caravan) was drawn up. A long, low tan (tent) of black canvas was pegged close by, and there was also a flat cart. Two large dray-horses cropped the primroses, and tethered to a gate-post was the red mare. She was superb; not a pure red, being patterned all over with golden dapple markings, as if the grass-starring of the primrose flowers was continued over the body of the horse. Her mane was like a long, fringed shawl of amber silk, draped around her proud neck.

And the horse-traders themselves; I saw the shapes of three men grouped around the leaping wood-fire that they had kindled. Two tall powerful bodies; one of lesser build. The horse-traders, hearing the tread of my heavy country boots on the stone path, turned to face me. Tom Nicholson was the eldest of the brothers whom I was to come to know well, and of the three men around the fire that day he was the most magnificent. The two fireside companions were his brother George and a Cockney soldier who was then apprenticing himself to the Nicholsons for the learning of horse-trading. Tommy’s build was tall and powerful, and he was sun-dark as a Spaniard, and with the deep-set, black, burning eyes of the Spaniard. His attire was very Gypsy. A brimless felt staadi (hat) of light blue colour atop his thick crop of peat-turf dark hair, a coral-tint dicklow (scarf), brown tweed jacket, fern-green waistcoat, fawn narrow-legged trousers, and big, very muddied, clumper boots. Especially memorable was the sight of his face dripping with blood welling from a deep cut above the right eye, and which injury seemed of no concern to him. He told me that he had been breaking green ash boughs for the fire, and one had cracked over-quickly and thus treated him.
George was of more slender build. He was hatless, his barley-coloured hair so thick and upstanding that it indeed
photos here, scan 21 & 22
bore resemblance to a stook of barley stood upon the earth brown flesh of his brow. Wide blue eyes of shy expression, so that when talking he was apt to keep them turned down in the direction of his boots. A dicklow of paisley design, red pattern on chrome, rough cloth suit of a fox colour, and a very tattered around the cuffs and trouser end. He was barefoot, his swarthy feet spread strong upon the earth.
The Cockney man looked as a sparrow in the company of two Gypsy peacocks; he in his drab tweed cap, dirty grey shirt and suit, and being aso so miserable of both build and expression of face. He indeed at that time was beginning to regret that he had ever had a wish for the country life of the horse-traders,and he quitted the Nicholsons soon after, returning to the narrow life of the streets and houses. He was a dealer in old bottles and jars.
The roadside setting for the Gypsies was admirable. The foreground of primrose-golded grass, the granite wall and the arch of the bridge raced the honey-brown waters of the beck – dark as the heather honey of the Pennine moors – now all tempestuous with the big volume of melted snow that was being borne there on journey to the equally flooded nearby river Swale. Far away, but not too distant to enter into the picture of the horse-traders, were the tall shapes of the Pennine hills, then turning as blue-purple as the lane-side dog-violets, in the settling dusk. Always the transcendent beauty of the Pennine hills as the back-cloth to the traders and their horses, and ever present also for most of the North Country horse fairs, which beginning at blackthorn time in March, continued in the many Yorkshire and Westmorland dales and  towns until the dying of the hill bracken in November.

I talked with the men on the ever fascinating subject of the buying and selling of horses and dogs. We exchanged words of the dialect of the traders, I giving Romany for their Cant. Our laughter added to the music of the beck waters. I was happy with the men; their conversation was filled with wit and also kindliness, and the open air is always the best place for talk, especially when there is the nearness of a great flaming wood-fire, colour of a bed of tulips, with its glow of ochres and golds and scarlets.
page 50


Amongst the subjects we discussed was that of pooving the gry, a matter known to al Gypsies and travellers with horses, and as old as horse- trading itself, this being the putting of horses into farmers’ fields after dark, to feed away the travel hunger of the animals, then removing them at dawn. It must be stated that wartime and present-time ploughing up of pasture land has often caused grass and hay shortage for the farmer’s own stock. But most travellers would pay for such grass feed for their animals; only the modern over-commercial farmer is become mean indeed, and frequently keeps count over every blade of grass in his fields, and has nothing to spare for the passing horses of the Gypsies and others, though they come but rarely and demand but little. He seldom gives thought to the fact that travellers’ horses in his lane must have need of green feed, and himself comes forward to offer a night’s grazing, such goodwill being a rare thing to meet with in the countryside of England in the present period of farming prosperity. So the Gypsies and other travellers often enough when the grazing is scant, poov the griaws.

Tommy told me a new version of poovin’:” Tell to the givengro (farmer) that you ‘ave intention to put your ‘orses into his poov (field) for feed. He’ll little think that you’ve intent to do wot you dare tell ‘im, he’ll think it a guid joke of yourn. Then come night, into the poov go the griaws, an’ youm can sleep well in your bed, fer if the ghivengro be out o’ bed in t’ night or afore youm in t’ mornin’, there is but to be sed that you told to ‘im your intention afore witnissis, and he sayin’ nowt, you took ‘is permission.” “But,” he said further, “if you’ve bin successful wi’ the poovin’, and not bin seen, then tis best to go round’ the poov ‘as no tales to tell on youm.”

“I’ll remember that,” I said, “when I jal the drom wi’ my own gry an’ vardo.” And we all laughed together in friendship.



The Gypsies brought the red mare to Thiernswood before the hastening dusk made the outdoor scene too dark to be able to see well the beauty of the horse that they wished to sell. The Hutchinsons and the young Margaret and I, all crowded in excitement around the mare, and the Gypsies talked the old talk of the horse-trade, their voices chaunting and soaring like larks. They told how their gry was the finest that had ever trod the Pennine roads, the swiftest, the most gentile, the most intelligent of all the griaws in the North Country, and the price that they wanted for her was so little that it was a joke on them for them to name it, and moreover was an insult to the most perfect of mares. But -we all being friends together- they were making a very special price for us. The old, old talk o the trader, the men backing-up each other in swift-spoken words, their eyes flashing, brown hands gesticulating, enjoying the trading. The Cockney in the background added his few words to the swift talk of the brothers, his words coming as but chirps of a sparrow. The price asked for the mare was fifty pounds; and this was higher than the Hutchinsons wanted to pay for a riding pony, and it looked as if the Gypsies were going to lead away the mare unsold. But already I loved the proud red creature, all dappled with gold like a thousand sovereigns, and I was determined not to lose her. So I myself then took up the trading and after one hour of amusing talk she became mine for forty pounds. I promised Margaret Hutchinson that she could ride the mare daily if she wished, for the girl loves horses passionately, and I have much friendship for Margaret. My purchase of a horse at that time was an extravagance, for I knew that my work for the rest of the year would be taking me much away from the north of England, and before the year’s ending I would be journeying to Mexico. But the trading had got into my blood, and I wanted that mare, and moreover I wanted my first horse to be from Gypsy traders and from no other.

The deal decided, George Nicholson, whose mare it was, then struck hands with me, palm upon palm, the old traditional sealing of a bargain, no papers necessary with written signatures, the striking of hands being enough. And when the money was paid to him, he returned to me “a bit o’ silver” the tradition of the vendor returning a piece of good-luck money -the lovva bock- to the purchaser. We had an old saddle and bridle at the cottage, and i was able that evening to have my first ride on my new purchase. I had already tied her up and down the Thiernswood path before purchasing, and found her to be spirited and fleet of hooves. I gave my mare the new name of “greensleeves”, and sprinkled beck water upon her fine red brow as I so named her. I then cantered her away over the moors which came down almost to the cottage. As the mare took me swiftly over the springy heather turf, mysterious and wonderful in the evening twilight, I knew a great happiness had come to me, and once more I blessed the Gypsies.
The following noon I took Greensleeves over the moors towards Muker, for my first long ride. I went first to the Nicholsons’ camp to tell the brothers how very pleased I was with the horse that they had traded me. I was wearing a shirt of geranium red colour and a larch green hat, I loving Gypsy clothes of bright colours. George Nicholson came forward to tell me that the sight of me on the mare so well pleased his eyes, that as reward he would have a luck gift waiting for me when I returned from my ride. Throughout my journey over the moors I thought childishly about my promised gift. Above all people the Gypsies love the giving and receiving of gifts, and I possess a collection of Gypsy komelo dinos, from crude clothes-pegs and artificial flowers to many baskets, a fine penknife and beautiful ear-rings.

As I rode down to homeward lane to Barney bridge, I could see there the tall figure of George awaiting me, his fair hair blowing like flowering broom in the wind. I halted Greensleeves alongside of him and from behind hi back he brought forth his promised gift, which he shyly presented to me, his blue eyes the meanwhile kept turned towards hi boots. It was a fine-looking snaffle horse-bit.

He then told me: “there’s guid luck for youm wi’ this bit, neer do you part wi’ it.”

Delighted with the gift, I thanked George sincerely and told him of all truthfulness that the bit would stay with me for ever.

The next day the Nicholsons took their vardo further up the dale, and then continued to sleep crammed into the small hoop tent for their further brief time of horse-trading. I was sorry when the vardo went, for it was a good place in which to be on stormy nights, warm and cheerful with its wood-fed stove where potatoes and chestnuts could be well roasted, and when the wild moorland winds came snorting down the hills, the vardo would rock like a cradle, and the side windows make music with the flying rain and drumming sleet. The further days of trading produced a string of horses of all kinds, cropping the spring grass alongside Barney beck, and Greensleeves cried out in delight whenever we passed by them. She was a true Gypsy horse and liked company.

I shall always remember the first departure of the Nicholsons that I witnessed, so dramatic and so colourful and typical Gypsy. I was away on the hillside with the three dogs, exercising them there on the heather stretches, when i saw the Nicholsons jalling the drom. They were going high up the mountains into Askrigg, a ten-mile ride up the sheer mountain road. The hour was then evening, the wild violet-blue hills again the splendid setting for the men and horses. The setting was not wholly purple, for there was rose tent there also, there being a wild weather sunset above the hills, gold and rose wrack of clouds staining the twilight purple. The mounting flat-cart driven by Tommy, was etched against that painted cloth of hills and evening sky, as also was the figure of the man and the white horse harnessed to the cart. The cart itself was piled with brown sacks, making lovely shapes there, each sack stuffed full with sheep wool and skins, in which articles the Nicholsons also traded, the pear-blossom white curls of the spilling wool garlanding the heads of the sacks. Lying amidst that cargo was the Cockney, his cap pulled low over his eyes, and thus blinded to the passing beauty of which the Nicholsons were also so well aware. Then in the rear came the long string of newly purchased horses, with George sitting astride one tall roan, riding bareback in his accustomed way. All was silhouetted against the hill scene. The men saw me with the dogs, and waved their hands in farewell, and I waved back at them with great bunch of wild cherry blossom that I had been cutting. And so they passed by, away over the hills, to the ever enchanting music of beating hooves and clatter of cartwheels and the thin tintinnabulation of harness fittings. I well remember how the rose hue of the sky turned to the red of Gypsy fire flames as the men and horses went over the hill ridge, and how the flame colour was reflected on the metal parts of the cart and of the horse bridles, and etched the splendid faces of the traders.



  1. I’ve so enjoyed this chapter about the ride to Appleby fair on the lovely Greensleeves and now I’m wanting to find my old National Geographic circa 1970’s that had a good article on the Fair! Thanks again for this wonderful book.

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