When I first went to Appleby Horse Fair, the annual gathering of Gypsies and Travellers in Cumbria, I was transfixed by the young women. It was freezing cold and drizzled for most of the four days but they wandered around the fields and village like neon, fake-tanned birds of paradise - decked out in some of the skimpiest clothes you'll see outside a nightclub. It was utterly unexpected. As I learned more about their culture, this display became even more of a conundrum. These remain some of the UK's most traditional communities in terms of moral values and a girl's honour is all. Couples usually marry young and often start families by the time they are 17 or 18. Sex before marriage is frowned upon, divorce is rare and family is everything. Appleby, I learned, is not only about horses - there are actually two distinct parallel events taking place. Just as the animals are washed and groomed in the hope they will catch a buyer's eye, the 300-year-old fair has become a time when many single Traveller girls primp and preen in the hope they will snare that special someone.
"We go out and buy new clothes, and we go for spray tans and have our nails done and that…some people even go and have different suits made for Appleby – like most of the girls down the town, they wouldn’t have just gone out and bought that, they would have been having it made for months and months. I think some girls do go over the top – they wear belts for skirts and that. But then other girls are absolutely handsome.
"When they do go to Appleby, most girls do go to meet potential boyfriends and husbands and that, and like they want to look their best and they want to let them see, but it is like ‘look but don’t touch’.
"People marry a lot younger. I think for Travellers, you get expected to marry when you’re 16, 17, 18. And all ages mix when you’re Travellers. Say if you’re 30 or if you’re 15, everybody mixes because you’re still classed as a little girl if you’re not married.
"I think most of it’s not just your pride, it’s more like your family’s pride. Say if I did something with a boy and ran off, my dad would be shamed, and my granddad and my granny and my mam and that, and then that would just make them outcasts. So I couldn’t do that to my family, and I wouldn’t really want to do it to myself."