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No break from Convention - the Little Hadham years of folk rock legends Fairport Convention

PUBLISHED: 09:19 14 February 2014 | UPDATED: 11:05 14 February 2014

Fairport Convention

Fairport Convention

Archant

As folk-rock legends Fairport Convention return to play in the county this month, Gillian Thornton speaks to band members about their memories of living together in a former pub in Little Hadham where they conceived three iconic albums

When folk-rockers Fairport Convention play Alban Arena on February 23, it will be a welcome return to one of the band’s favourite venues. But Hertfordshire also played a significant role in the band’s early career.

In 1970, a former village pub in Little Hadham near Ware became home to the then band members, their wives, two small children, and road manager. And it was here at The Angel that they conceived three of what were to become their most iconic albums.

The band was started in 1967 by Simon Nicol and Richard Thompson, taking its name from their rehearsal space at Fairport, Simon’s parents’ house in north London. By the time they moved into The Angel, they had been joined by folk fiddler Dave Swarbrick, drummer Dave Mattacks and bass guitarist Dave Pegg.

‘Getting your heads together in the country was a tradition for young bands then,’ says Simon, who was 19 at the time. ‘It was a chance to bond, share ideas and play whenever you wanted.

‘We wanted to be near London so I went out to view properties with Robin Gee, our road manager.

‘It was the week after Christmas when everyone’s feeling really flat and we saw The Angel on a cold, foggy afternoon. It was empty, run down and depressingly cold and damp, so we wrote it off as a dead loss.

‘Next day we got a message from Swarb to say he had packed his wife and small daughter into the van and they were on their way from Milford Haven to move in. He’d contacted the landlord and told him we’d have it! So on New Year’s Day 1970, we all joined him.’

Everyone had their own room, with Swarb and Dave Pegg getting extra space for their children, but there was just one bathroom between them – ‘And an awful lot of long hair to wash!’ laughs ‘Peggy the Bass’, who has rather less of it nowadays.

But everybody gelled from the outset and the functionality of The Angel led to some serious music making. One of the big attractions was the chance to have a permanent rehearsal room in the pub’s old skittle alley.

‘You had to wear two jumpers to work in there,’ recalls Simon. ‘But we never needed to put the kit away. We just sat down and played whenever we wanted to.’

Full House and Angel Delight were inspired by their new location, while concept album Babbacombe Lee was conceived in an antiques shop in Ware.

Keen antique collector Dave Swarbrick was browsing through volumes of old newspapers when he came across the story of John Lee, a murderer from Babbacombe in Devon who seemed impossible to hang when the trap door repeatedly failed to open.

Local newspapers had a field day over the Fairports at first. ‘There was a marvellous headline in a Bishop’s Stortford paper along the lines of Hippies Invade Little Hadham,’ laughs Peggy.

‘But things took a turn for the better when we were asked to play at a Police Benevolent Fund concert in a field outside The Nag’s Head at Much Hadham.

‘It was a great success and as there was no fee, they asked what we would like. We must have been one of the few bands to do a gig for a washing machine, and to be able to leave our van ever after on yellow lines without getting a parking ticket!’

Simon and Peggy remember huge camaraderie and creativity at The Angel, but near-tragedy too, when a lorry drove into the building, narrowly missing Swarb’s bed.

After 18 months, however, they all agreed it was time to move on to their own space.

Today, Simon and Peggy are the only Angel residents still with the Fairports. The current line-up has been together 15 years, the two old hands joined by fiddle player Chris Leslie, violinist Ric Sanders and drummer Gerry Conway.

Their longevity is ensured by an annual UK winter tour and the three-day music festival, Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, staged each summer at Cropredy in Oxfordshire, near most of the musicians’ homes.

As for The Angel, it’s now an elegant private home, Grade II listed and with all mod cons – a far cry from the days when 16 people shared one bathroom and produced some of the most famous tunes on the folk-rock scene.

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