Britain’s friendliest music festival
I’ve always loved live music. Even been to the occasional outdoor concert. But festivals? Me? No way. I don’t camp, don’t like huge crowds, and I definitely don’t do standing up all day. And yet here I was, a Silver Traveller, heading off for my first festival experience in the English countryside.
Fairport’s Cropredy Convention is exactly what it says on the tin. A musical event in the pretty Oxfordshire village of Cropredy run by folk-rock band Fairport Convention. What began in 1980 with a couple of thousand spectators has morphed into a three-day festival that attracts up to 20,000 music fans of all kinds from all over the country.
Not that I did all three days on that first visit. My motives, initially, were purely professional. Bass guitarist of the Fairports, Dave Pegg, is a committed Francophile who divides his time between his home near Cropredy and his house in Brittany, and I was off to interview him for Voyage, onboard magazine for Brittany Ferries.
The festival takes place in mid-August (11-13th in 2016), starting on Thursday afternoon and carrying on till midnight on Saturday. For Cropredy virgins like me, there’s lots of practical advice on the website, whether you choose to camp (like Silver Travel Advisor contributor Glynis Sullivan) or, like me, prefer to book into a local hostelry.
What the website cannot convey however, is the good-natured, family atmosphere of the event. Forget multiple stages, massive crowds and – maybe I’ve been lucky – acres of mud. At Cropredy, there is just one stage at the bottom of a sloping field with acts changing every hour or so, which immediately removes any decisions about who to watch and who to miss.
When I set off for my first Cropredy Convention four years ago, I little imagined it was going to become an addiction. I haven’t missed a festival since, so be warned. The Fairports may have their roots firmly in folk-rock, but the other acts come from all genres from upcoming young folk acts to French rock bands, Celtic harmonies to prog rock and soul.
The audience includes families with young children – tents at the back of the field offer child-friendly activities under expert supervision – as well as grandparents wearing Cropredy T-shirts from way-back-when. Best of all, the audience sits down – on rugs or folding chairs, picnics and bottles of wine to hand. And if you don’t want to pack your own food, there are food stalls to cater for all tastes around the perimeter, not to mention an enormous outdoor bar where you are quite likely to spot members of Fairport Convention mingling with fans and friends.
And when you fancy a little stroll and change of scene, you can simply head out of the top of the field and walk down the lane between the campsites into Cropredy itself. In 1644, the river here was the scene of an important battle in the English Civil War, an event commemorated by a roadside plaque and by one of Fairport Convention’s most popular songs, Red and Green, written by Ralph McTell.
This pretty village with cottages of russet Oxfordshire stone and a central church, is brimming with life during the festival. Customers spill out of the two friendly hostelries, The Red Lion and The Brasenose Arms which also host their own musical performances as part of the Cropredy ‘Fringe’. Walkers stroll the canal towpath, families browse the craft stalls, and everyone enjoys the food stands (don’t miss the ice cream made from local buffalo milk!).
But back to the music. Every year I’ve been the lucky recipient of a coveted Access All Areas badge, my passport to interviewing other performers for Voyage magazine, such as Anglo-French band The Churchfitters with their incredible home-made instruments and legendary Breton guitarist Dan Ar Braz. This year, I’ll be chatting to The Bootleg Beatles for The People’s Friend.
After decades of doing personality interviews for magazines, I’m pretty relaxed about chatting with ‘celebrities’ – just people, after all – but I’ve had a few surreal encounters with some of my musical heroes at Cropredy. It’s an odd moment parking your car next to the space reserved for Nik Kershaw, saying good morning to Paul Carrack in a field, and standing in the coffee queue beside ex-Genesis legend Steve Hackett.
Weirdest of all was sitting with Peggy beneath the Breton flag that flies above his camper van and chatting about my favourite Fairport song, The Hiring Fair. ‘Well, the man who wrote it is standing behind you,’ Peggy grinned and I turned to find the amiable Ralph McTell standing at my shoulder. He rarely misses a festival and was camping out with his grandchildren. This year, Ralph is making a welcome return to the stage on Saturday night before the closing set from the Fairports.
Tickets for this year’s festival are on sale now via www.fairportconvention.com – 3-day (£120), 2-day (Fri and Sat, £110) and 1-day (Sat, £75). Camping stickers are £45 for 3 nights, £40 for Fri and Sat only. Children under 12 free. But if you want a hotel or B&B base in the area, book up soon. Hotel rooms are hard to come by as the event gets nearer. Just make sure to check in and get keys before heading to the festival or at least ensure there will be someone on duty to let you in after midnight.
Last year, my friend and I presented ourselves at our chosen hotel just as guests were having breakfast. But our keys were available, the manager explained which door to use after midnight, and we set off for Cropredy feeling smug. Until, that is, he obligingly tried to ring me in the middle of the music with news about a sudden parking restriction. So if anyone reading this was sitting next to me last year during that phone call, I do apologise for shouting into the phone. Even the best laid plans don’t always quite work out!