Cropredy’s Simon Nicol tells Tim Hughes it’s their ‘don’t mess with the magic’ approach and exciting new music that makes the festival so well loved

For a man who is ready to welcome 20,000 people to his own festival, Simon Nicol seems oddly relaxed. The founder member of Fairport Convention has spent the past few months booking bands and getting involved in the minutiae of running the three-day event around which the band’s year rotates — Cropredy Festival.

It’s no mean feat, even with the help of his bandmates Dave ‘Peggy’ Pegg, Ric Sanders, Chris Leslie and Gerry Conway and festival director Gareth Williams. Yet Simon retains the unflappable air of a man who takes it all in his stride — despite having been forced to find a new home for the festival office; its former base in Chipping Norton is facing redevelopment.

“Everything is on track. And, as if we weren’t busy enough, we have just moved office,” he says calmly, while at work at the new Fairport HQ in Over Norton.

“We jumped before we were pushed. It’s a lovely place, though we are still unpacking boxes we last saw in a different post code.”

Most of those revellers will be arriving on site today, ensuring that they don’t miss a second of the 35th instalment of a festival which has become, for many, an annual pilgrimage.

Over the course of the next three days they will be treated to sets by more than 20 bands and solo artists, book-ended, as usual, by the hosts, with a Fairport acoustic set this afternoon and a three-hour closing set with special guests on Saturday.

Like every year there will be just one stage with everything — from record shop and food stalls to real ale bar — all in the same place. Many of those coming will even camp in their regular spots and watch the music from deckchairs and picnic blankets at the same spots on the hillside. It is that sense of continuity which, Simon, says, keeps people returning.

“People coming to the festival, more than most, feel a ‘proprietory-ness’ about it, as some have been coming for 25 years and the last thing they want is to see it change.

“It would be like moving the Radio 4 schedule; it would be the end of the world!”

Where there is change, organisers try to ensure it isn’t obvious. “Little changes do happen every year, but they are small things below the surface,” he says. “We have to keep things on track, keep the villagers happy and make sure health and safety regulations are all adhered to. But we have to make it look and feel exactly the same.”

And that includes sticking to one stage. “At other festivals, people are constantly on the move from one end of the site to the other as they want to see different things,” he says, grimacing at the thought. “But here, there’s none of that rushing about. People can just amble around together. And if they don’t like the band coming up next, they can just wander back to base and chill out, watch the boats on the canal, or wander into the village and watch the bands at The Brasenose or Red Lion. And we don’t want to change that — we just want people to enjoy themselves — and come back next year.”

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One thing that has changed, however, is the line-up, which has moved way beyond its traditional emphasis on folk and folk-rock to incorporate prog-rock (The Australian Pink Floyd, Marillion and Steve Hackett of Genesis), country-rock (Treetop Flyers), indie-pop (The Wonder Stuff) and even ‘Rockney’ sing-along duo Chas & Dave.

There is still plenty of folk though, with Capercaillie, singer-songwriter Edwina Hayes, Cara Dillon, Blackbeard's Tea Party, and Celtic-folk-rockers The Waterboys headlining tonight (occupying a slot previously held by Alice Cooper and Status Quo).

“We have to combat the business of natural wastage as people say ‘Let’s give it a miss this year’, and we do that by attracting newbies, which is why the bill is always a compromise between established and fresh acts.

“And having leftfield musical ideas, like giving Alice Cooper his only UK show last year, brings people to Cropredy for the first time. And I’m sure they’ll be coming back.

“A lot of people will also be coming for The Waterboys and Steve Hackett, which is important. They are like mousetraps; people come for those and stay for the rest.”

And he must be doing something right. For just the second time in its history all tickets have sold out in advance. The site’s 20,000 capacity reached, the festival’s box office closed a week ago with organisers warning fans without tickets not to turn up on the off-chance of getting in.

The only other year it sold-out early was 2007 when the band celebrated their 40th anniversary with a one-off special performance by Fairport Convention’s 1969 line-up.

Simon described the festival, correctly titled Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, but known to most as simply ‘Cropredy’ (unless you live in or around Banbury, in which case it is always ‘Fairport’) as the centre of the band’s year.

“We are busy touring but the festival is a slingshot,” he says. “It’s an orbital pivot point,” he adds eloquently.

This year they are particularly busy, being halfway through a new album, due out early next year. He laughs off my attempt to ascertain how many had already been released over the decades, insisting no one really knew. “There are so many things reappearing it’s a fairly pointless question,” he says. “There is very little under our control from the early days.

“It’s about time we had a new studio album though. It’s a shot in the arm to have a dozen new songs to draw on, so on Saturday we will be interweaving new stuff with favourites — and there’s always the possibility of an unannounced guest too.”

Such as?

“Even if I knew, I couldn’t tell you,” he laughs. “Otherwise I’d have to kill you!”

Fairport’s Cropredy Convention
Today until Sunday 
Cropredy, north of Banbury 
Tickets have sold out