T he Summer of Love in Richard Thompson's song happened, of course, in 1967. There were the hippies, the Vietnam war - and the Stars and Stripes was burning in London's Grosvenor Square.

Richard Thompson wasn't yet 18 in 1967, and it was while living in the middle-class suburbs of North London that he met another teenage talent on guitar, Simon Nicol.

The two of them would meet regularly with fellow musician Ashley Hutchings - at 22 somewhat of a father figure - at Simon's family home in Muswell Hill. The house was called Fairport.

The trio were soon joined by singer Judy Dyble, guitarist Ian Matthews and drummer Martin Lamble to form Fairport Convention.

The first performance of that line-up was on June 1, 1967 - the same day as The Beatles' Sgt Pepper album was released. An early gig at that hippiest of London venues, UFO, landed them a contract with producer Joe Boyd and an album soon followed, released on the Island label.

Simon Nicol, still only 16, threw in his first job as a projectionist, Ashley Hutchings gave up being a journalist, and Richard Thompson left his job as an apprentice with a design company. Within two years the band were making musical history with their groundbreaking fusion of folk and rock, showcased on their album, Liege and Lief.

Forty years on, with so many legendary changes in personnel behind it, the band is marking this chapter in its own history in suitably celebratory fashion - in August at Cropredy, that annual Mecca for all fans of Fairport.

This year's event will be an emotional occasion for the band and for their fans, but the poignancy will be felt most by the only remaining original member. Apart from a brief sojourn in the 1970s as a producer as well as a musician, collaborating with Dave Swarbrick and the Albion Country Band, Simon has remained loyal to what has become a musical institution.

It is a loyalty borne partly out of the band's musical legacy and the devotion of their fans, but also out of tragedy.

It was while returning from a gig in Birmingham early one morning in May, 1969, that the band's van crashed on the M1. Simon escaped with concussion - he remembers "waking up while the van was actually somersaulting".

Unfortunately, Martin Lamble and Richard Thompson's girlfriend, Jeannie Franklin, a cousin of American folk singer Phil Ochs, were killed in the accident.

Fans travelled hundreds of miles to the hospital where the injured were taken. A huge bouquet of flowers was sent by the Rolling Stones and the likes of Pink Floyd and King Crimson played at benefit concerts in the wake of the tragedy.

It was while recuperating from the accident that Liege and Lief emerged. The band, who had been on the point of disbanding, took the brave decision to carry on.

With singer Sandy Denny having joined the previous year, Dave Mattacks replacing Martin Lamble on drums, and fiddle-player Dave Swarbrick drafted in, the band took themselves off to a cottage in Hampshire to record.

But almost as soon as the accolades starting pouring in for this seminal work, Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings left to pursue other musical ventures. A year or so later Richard Thompson went solo.

It left Simon, never one to push himself to the fore, to take a more prominent role on stage. The albums continued to flow, including Full House and Angel Delight, and so did the tours.

He became more involved too in studio work and production, working with those in the folk-rock world, as well as touring with, among others, Beverley Craven and Art Garfunkel. Nicol says he is not a songwriter, although he has released two solo albums - Before Your Time and Consonant Please Carol. "I got it out of my system and I still sell a few here and there."

After punk swept all before it in the late seventies, Fairport decided to call it a day. Or so they thought. But their fans clamoured for a reformation and through the annual reunion at Cropredy the fan's wish was granted.

With all the turmoil of those early years, Simon can take great satisfaction that he remains at the heart of a band that, in fact, has only seen two changes over the last 20 years.

The present line-up of Nicol, Dave Pegg, Ric Sanders, Chris Leslie and Gerry Conway has passed a decade together. The last to join, Gerry, was a familiar name in folk-rock circles, playing with the likes of Eclection and Pentangle.

Nicol said: "I knew Gerry before I knew any other members of the band!"

Living in the same house in Chipping Norton for the last 26 years reinforces that feeling of stability. Simon and his wife, Sylvia, have two sons at home and a daughter living in London.

Along with Dave Pegg, and an experienced team behind the scenes, they work on the Cropredy festival at offices which are just a few minutes from his home.

"I love it. It's the right size for me and I can walk to work. It's ten months' effort - with us bumbling amateurs running behind. We have no management or agents, so being in Fairport is a full-time occupation.

"It's given me a lot satisfaction. I'm a big believer in fewer chiefs and more Indians."

The central location of the town has also proved very convenient during the band's travels - Simon only used one hotel in three weeks of their last UK tour to promote their well- received latest album, Sense of Occasion, which is, incidentally, the band's 40th album.

As for this year's special Cropredy, the preparations are well in hand.

"We're looking foward to it. If it has a five or ten in the anniversary then it has to be special."

Simon will be joined on stage by members of the original 1967 line-up - Richard Thompson, Judy Dyble (who lives at Launton, near Bicester), Ashley Hutchings and Ian Matthews, for a live performance of the Liege and Lief album. The place of the late, great Sandy Denny will be taken by Chris While.

For Simon, the band is completing a musical full circle.

"In the very early days, we were like magpies. We'd pick material from more or less anywhere. I think what we're doing now is becoming more like what was started with Liege and Lief. Whether they were written by us or are genuinely traditional songs, they have a cinematic quality - they are story songs."

Thompson, who is also headlining the same night with his own band, regularly returns to the festival. "It is great when Richard comes back to Cropredy. He is just like a brother to me really," Nicol said. "You don't see your brother every day and you don't always remember to send him a birthday card. But I feel a very strong kinship. We were together a lot during periods of our lives which, by their nature, were formative."

Forty years on, the hawks and doves are still in conflict around the world, American flags are still being burnt by protestors, and Vietnam has become Iraq - but the good news is that we still have Fairport Convention.