Every August, I take off with t’other Dr. G to spend three days and nights in farmers’ fields in Cropredy, Oxfordshire, and it is one of the highlights of my year. Why? Because we’re regulars at the Fairport Convention Cropredy Festival.
I can’t claim to be as longstanding a Fairporter as t’other Dr. G, but we have been almost every year since Fairport Convention’s Broughton Castle weekend back in 1981 – with a few misses due to friends inconsiderately getting married on the same weekend, once-in-a-lifetime visit to the USA and on one memorable occasion having to returnhome before it all got started due to an accident with boiling water, pasta bows and my feet which is the only time I’ve been in an ambulance with blues and twos!
Daughter Maddy has equally been a regular since she was a bump right up until the last few years when she’s been working abroad and is gutted that she hasn’t been able to get back. Along with so many other Fairporters, she has grown up with the Festival. You see the same folk in the audience, year after year, many of us having started on motorbikes with one or two man tents, graduating over the years through first cars and bigger tents, to newer cars and even bigger tents or caravans and RVs.
So what’s so special about “Croppers” as it is affectionately known? It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I’ll have a go.
Firstly, the friendliness, the humour and the complete lack of “celebrity”. It’s a bit of a cliché, but there is a sense of us all being part of a huge Fairport family, there is no VIP area or backstage bar, and the musicians all wander around the Festival field like the rest of us. So it’s normal to look up and catch Chris Leslie, Dave Pegg or Simon Nicol walking past just a few feet away or chatting to festival goers at the bar. As for the humour – it wouldn’t be Croppers without the silly signs around the place.
The facilities! Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival has set the bar very high in terms of providing for the audience’s comfort. Yes, they are all chemical toilets, but there are plenty of them, regularly serviced, and you rarely have to queue for more than 2-3 minutes or remember your own loo paper. The ones in our camping field even had running water in the wash hand basins and posh soap! For the past few years, there have been showers on several of the camping fields for those prepared to queue for anything up to 2 hours. And for the real smartphone junkies, Friends of the Earth will hire a portable phone charger for £10 or will charge your phone for you if you can bear to leave it with them for an hour or two. Yes, I know it is really all about the music, but the hygiene stuff matters.
As my family will tell you, I never completely switch off the tourist officer/festival organiser/economic development bit of me. One of the biggest lessons I take away every year is how rooted the Festival is in the local community and how much the community get back from allowing 20,000 folkies, their cars & motorbikes, caravans & tents, and their music to invade this small Oxfordshire village every August for three nights celebrating the best of folk rock and, of course, Fairport Convention themselves. The local Scout groups provide much of the camping field marshalling and tidy up the festival field every morning before we are let back on. Their blanket collection on the Saturday evening raises thousands of pounds. The local and other charities run raffles which also raise thousands, and the village primary school does a mean line in cooked breakfasts, run with incredible efficiency and friendliness, which also raises huge sums for the school’s IT equipment, outings for the kids, and to support their school garden and practical work in sustainability. The pubs are heaving, the village shop does exceptional business and the B&Bs are booked up months in advance.
But the real reasons I go are the music and to have time where I don’t have to be anywhere or do anything else. Fairport Convention are, of course, the climax of the weekend, and we all have our different favourite tracks from their fifty years as a band. Each year it’s a different journey through the three days – from the winners of the Radio 2 Young Folk Awards to the Aussie Pink Floyd (fabulous), Al Stewart to Marillion, Ralph McTell to Status Quo, and all via blue grass, rock and roll, reggae or punk. The only criterion as far as the programming goes is quality.
So you can usually guarantee there are going to be one or two acts that don’t really float your boat, but as long as it’s not actually raining, so what? Just stretch out on the field and enjoy the sunshine, or take a wander around the traders’ stalls around the edge of the field. There’s bound to be a new band to like later in the day. Over the years my discoveries have included the Alison Brown band (blue grass) and Bellowhead (sadly no more), Flook and Dan Ar Braz.
My highlights from this year’s acts included The Divine Comedy, Petula Clark (yes, really, and she was amazing), Richard Thompson, the guitar heroes’ guitar hero, The Trevor Horn band (again, yes, really, and they went down a storm) and Dougie MacLean. I enjoyed the Fairports’ own set even more than usual because along with perennials like “The Hiring Fair” and “Sir Patrick Spens”, they took a wander through their back catalogue to give us favourites from earlier albums such as “Sloth”, and “Walk A While”. All too soon, we reached ”Matty Groves “, traditionally the penultimate number, and then the song with which the Fairports end every Festival and every gig.
“Meet on the Ledge” is the greatest community sing, a special moment where everyone on the field or in the audience joins in. It’s a remembrance of anyone we’ve ever lost or who may be far away and, at the same time, a celebration and affirmation of friendship and fellowship. 20,000 people standing and dancing in a field in Oxfordshire, singing full throatedly along with Fairport Convention and friends is, ultimately, why we trek down from Aberdeenshire and others come from all around the world to spend a weekend in the country every August.