Our writer, John Barlass, tells us all about Fairport’s Cropredy Convention; what it means to him, and why it is one of the greatest festivals in the land.
Here at At The Barrier we all feel tremendously honoured that the members of Fairport Convention, one of our favourite bands, contributed to our “Why I Love….” feature (read those articles here).
If I was to write a feature for this series – and who knows; one day I might – my subject would definitely be Fairport themselves. They are a band that I first discovered during the early 1970’s when a friend (he was giving me bass guitar lessons at the time) dissed my (then) obsessions with Jimi Hendrix and the Edgar Broughton Band and played me an album called Morris On.
Talk about a life-changing lesson! I was instantly hooked and immediately set about discovering more about the entire genre of British folk-rock and about the band, Fairport Convention, who formed the core of the musicians who played on the Morris On album. Nearly 50 years later, Fairport and folk-rock remain my true musical love.
Of course, the story of Fairport Convention since their ‘break-up’ in 1979 has been largely centred around their annual Festival, held in the beautiful Oxfordshire village of Cropredy. The band played their ‘farewell’ concert in the village on 4th August 1979 (after having opened proceedings earlier that day at Led Zeppelin’s massive show at Knebworth Park) to a loyal band of around 2,000 fans gathered in a field at Pewitt Farm on the edge of Cropredy village. I was there. The show was such a success and, I like to believe, the bond between band and following was so unbreakable, that Fairport reconvened in the same field 12 months later for their first ‘reunion’ show.
The annual gatherings continued; in 1986 Fairport formally relaunched and the shows have continued to grow and gather momentum. Nowadays, the festival attracts crowds of around the 20,000 mark and the strength of the festival line-up has grown from the early days of Fairport plus a few local and nationally known folk acts to a true multi-genre, 3-day event featuring international stars of the reputation and calibre of Alice Cooper, Brian Wilson and The Waterboys (to name but a small selection).
In 2019, the festival celebrated its 40th anniversary and, with one exception (the 1981 festival which was the only one to be held away from Cropredy village – I was on holiday…) I have attended every year. For many of the festival regulars, myself included, Cropredy is the highlight of the summer, the event around which all other summer activities are shuffled and scheduled; but what are those magical ingredients that make Cropredy Festival so special? Well, for myself there are many strands which all come together to weave this special magic but, as I’ve been pressed to “keep it brief,” I’ve condensed those ingredients into ten key elements – see if you agree….
Of course, the quality of the bill is the main reason for most people’s attendance at a festival. We allow ourselves to be drawn in by the headliners, perhaps acts that we know and love, or possibly names we are familiar with, without knowing much of the music. Lower down the bill, there may be names that we know or, in many cases, acts that are completely new to us. At Cropredy, the choice of Saturday night headliner is a given – it’s Fairport – the reason why we all started attending in the first place.
Fairport’s followers are an eclectic bunch and span a huge age range and Fairport understand the type of act that is likely to be well received. I’ve occasionally been flabbergasted by the acts that have been enticed to play what is, in many circles, still considered to be a “folk” festival. As well as the aforementioned Alice Cooper, Brian Wilson and Waterboys, it has also been our pleasure to enjoy acts such as Emmylou Harris and Rodney Cowell, The Proclaimers, Status Quo, The Incredible String Band, Bellowhead, The Home Service, the Blockheads, Little Feat, Steves Winwood and Hackett, UB40 (reggae is a huge favourite at Cropredy!), Rick Wakeman, Al Stewart…. The list goes on, and on, and on.
At the other extreme, there have been many acts that were new names when the bill was announced and who, following their Cropredy appearances, have become firm favourites – I’ll come back to these later. In forty years, I can say in all honesty that the number of festival acts that I have not enjoyed can be counted on the fingers of one hand!
The Surprise Guests
Not something that happens every year, but when it does, it’s a real treat. Fairport have been around a long time; they’re highly respected and have many famous, talented friends. As well as their own illustrious former members (Richard Thompson, Jerry Donahue, Trevor Lucas, Iain Matthews et al) the band have, over the years, been joined on stage by such luminaries as Robert Plant, Cat Stevens, Roy Harper, Gary Brooker, Roy Wood, Andy Fairweather-Low, Tom Robinson, Nik Kershaw, Ian Anderson, Dave Cousins and Alain Simon for what the band refer to as “Sets within a set.” On these occasions, the guest will perform a selection of their own “hits,” using Fairport as their backing band. On other occasions, Fairport’s arrival on stage for their Saturday night spot has been preceded by unannounced appearances of comic genii Billy Connolly and Jasper Carrott. Great memories!
The Festival Facilities
To a veteran of 1970’s festivals at Buxton and Knebworth, where the facilities were awful and massively inadequate, and Reading, where they were marginally better, the facilities at even the earliest Cropredy Festivals were a revelation. The toilets were clean and useable, the food was plentiful and edible and, best of all, the beer was good.
Cropredy has maintained and developed its policy of quality throughout its 40 years of existence. There is a good selection of food available (and perennial fixture Leon’s vegetarian stall deserves special mention in this respect), the toilets are plentiful (they need to be – Fairport’s original followers are not getting any younger!) and are kept clean and serviceable throughout the event and the bar facilities would do credit to any CAMRA beer festival.
I have heard it reported that more beer is sold at Cropredy Festival than at CAMRA’s annual Great British Beer Festival, yet the taps seldom run dry, service is always quick and efficient and the beer quality is excellent from start to finish. I can never taste Wadworth’s 6X without a picture of the field at Home Farm forming in my mind!
Cropredy bills itself as “Britain’s Friendliest Festival” and it’s the truth. Sadly, there can’t be many places in today’s world in which 20,000 people can gather, with copious amounts of alcohol available and consumed, and produce an atmosphere of absolute love and peace. Everyone is polite and friendly – talk to the person stood or sat next to you and you will find a like-minded, generous individual; go for a snack or a drink and you’ll find yourself in an orderly queue; head down to the stage to see a favourite act and people will move aside to accommodate you. This friendliness may have started as a “hippy vibe,” but it is being carried on down the generations.
Only One Stage!
Cropredy Festival is a manageable size. All the action takes place in one field, on a well-proportioned stage. This means that those there just for the music (and there are many other attractions in and around the village, which I’ll come to) can relax in one place and take it all in. It also means that all acts get the full attention of the crowd – whilst they are performing, they are the focus of the field. The view is good from all over the field and the crowd is well marshalled, albeit unobtrusively, to allow everyone the opportunity to see what they want to see.
The gathered masses.
Cropredy village comes alive during the period of the festival. For 51 weeks of the year, Cropredy is a delightful but sleepy village with action confined to the two pubs and the events in the village hall. During the festival week, pop-up stalls selling all manner of food and merchandise appear around the village’s lanes, bars are set up in farmers’ fields around the village, a bustling car-boot sale is operated and both pubs, The Brasenose and The Red Lion hold music performances by local and, increasingly, well known acts in their respective gardens. This whole scenario has become known as “The Fringe” and it extends the coverage of the festival to reach the whole area. The villagers love the festival and, during the weeks leading up to the main event, the whole place is abuzz with preparation. Locally, the festival is known just as “Fairport” and it’s a word that you’ll hear regularly spoken in and around the village throughout the year.
Cropredy village has benefitted hugely from the festival; the annual influx of visitors and the money they spend with the local businesses has made it possible for this small village to retain its two pubs and village shop and to establish a thriving Cricket, Tennis and Football club with facilities that are the envy of many other similar clubs. Famously, income generated by the festival has also helped to fund the replacement of a bell in St. Mary’s Church in the village, and this achievement is celebrated each year by a ceremonial ringing of that bell and a rendition, by Fairport, of Chris Leslie’s song, Festival Bell.
The Oxford Canal
This is a bit of a selfish one… The Oxford Canal passes through the heart of Cropredy village and every year, canal boaters (including myself) base our boats in Cropredy for the duration of the festival. I love the opportunity that this gives to sample not just the village life, but also to enjoy the community that forms around the canal before, during and after the festival. My boat is called “John Barleycorn,” named after the song that regularly features in Fairport’s set (it’s even had a dedication from the stage) and the recognition of the name by passers by makes me feel part of the Festival vibe.
You see it all around the village and in the concert field. Friends who perhaps haven’t seen each other since the previous festival, who perhaps even first met at previous festivals, getting back together to enjoy the weekend’s festivities. Looking out for familiar places at your favourite “pitch” in the field and reminiscing about last year’s show, or what has happened during the past year. A tradition of meeting “on the ledge” has always been part of the Cropredy culture and, as the years pass and we get older, such an opportunity has become more and more valuable. Everyone seems to have their ritual; for my friends and I, this now starts in Banbury on the Tuesday before the festival when we attend the warm-up show, continues on the Wednesday night when we reconvene for a Chinese meal and then goes on throughout the weekend as we gather each day in our favoured viewing position just in front of the sound tower.
My record collection is crammed with albums by acts that I first heard at Cropredy festival. Starting from that very first event in 1979 when I bought Steve Ashley’s “Stroll On” album after I saw him perform with Chris Leslie that year. I went on to explore offerings by Bob Fox & Stu Luckley, Ragged Heroes (featuring a young Vicki Clayton), All About Eve, Bellowhead, Little Johnny England, Ahab, Peatbog Faeries, Ellen and the Escapades, Travelling Band, Martin Taylor, Brooks Williams, Moulettes, Churchfitters and countless others. My musical horizons have been permanently extended as a direct result of my attendance at Cropredy and I confidently expect this to continue.
Finally, a feature of Cropredy Festival that I haven’t come across anywhere else. There is no backstage artistes’ bar at Cropredy. If a performer wants a drink, he/she uses the bar facilities in the field. If he/she wants an ice cream, he/she queues at the ice cream van in the field. It’s all very egalitarian and Fairport are clearly proud that this is the case.
It’s not uncommon to discover that the person in front of or behind you in the bar queue is a member of Fairport or even someone immeasurably more famous, and the crowd respect them for it. All performers are given the opportunity to chat with and sign albums (etc) for anyone who is interested and that’s an opportunity that seems to be enjoyed equally by audience and performer. Long may it continue.
So – there are ten of the reasons why I love Cropredy Festival. If you’re already one of the converted, perhaps you have ten more reasons of your own – if so, we’d love to hear them!