THOUSANDS of travellers have descended on a small Cumbrian village for the biggest gypsy gathering in Europe.

The annual Appleby Horse Fair got underway on Thursday for what promises to again be another bumper event.

Many eager travellers have been camping on roadsides and at temporary stopover sites in the region over recent weeks and days as they made their way towards the event.

Every summer the Cumbrian town is completely taken over by members of the travelling community who gather in their thousands to buy and sell horses and to socialise.

Vintage and modern caravans cover the festival fields and travellers can be seen tending to their horses and smoking outside.

The fair runs until next Wednesday, but most of the activity takes place over the weekend.

A highlight of the event is when the horses are taken down to the Sands, near Appleby town centre, where they are ridden into the River Eden to be washed.

But whilst the first day of the event was blessed with dry and warm weather, that was expected to change.

Heavy rain is predicted for tonight and tomorrow so The Multi-Agency Strategic Co-ordinating Group (MASCG) issued a safety warning.

The MASCG– which includes members of the gypsy and traveller community along with police, council, environment and animal welfare representatives– monitor river levels at all times.

A spokesperson said: "Over the weekend, if the heavy rain raises the river levels too high, the river ramp could be closed on safety grounds."

Motorists travelling in the area are warned to expect delays and urged to drive slowly and to be patient with slow moving horse-drawn vehicles.

The Police Gold Commander for the Fair, Temporary Chief Superintendent Rob O’Connor told residents at a public meeting in Appleby last month that Cumbria Constabulary had responded to criticism to its handling of the ingress to the fair.

He said more community engagement, officers and 101 call-handlers had been in place particularly in Kirkby Lonsdale, Sedbergh and Kirkby Stephen areas prior to the fair.

The RSPCA has more than 34 officers at the fair and chief inspector Rob Melloy said that exhaustion of horses will be a major focus for their work.

Mr Melloy said the charity had to deal with overworked and dehydrated horses for the past three years.

Whilst the majority of owners at the fair are good, he added, some need reminding it is okay to allow a horse to drink immediately after exercise and if a horse has just been bought the owner should bare in mind that they may have already been worked and should not be pushed too far.