Bardney Festival: The UK’s answer to Woodstock that almost never was
Fifty years ago this week, 50,000 people and some of the biggest names in entertainment descended on a rural village in Lincolnshire. The Great Western Express remains an unforgettable one-off for those who were there and left an indelible mark on its hosts. But it almost never happened at all.
The year is 1972. You’re planning a music festival with a stellar line-up of household names and up-and-coming talent. Rod Stewart, the Beach Boys, Joe Cocker, Slade, Genesis, Status Quo and a young comedy troupe called Monty Python. The Great Western Express is sure to be the hottest ticket in town.
But the question is: which town?
At the time, such large-scale music events in the UK were still in their infancy. The Isle of Wight Festival was the place to be seen, having grown and grown since its launch in 1968. Glastonbury, launched a year later, was a long way from becoming the behemoth it is today.
For many Brits, the phrase music festival would have conjured still-fresh memories of the Summer of ’69 and riotous scenes when 400,000 people flocked to a dairy farm in upstate New York to attend Woodstock.
The Great Western Express’ promoters could see there was demand, but to find a venue they had to overcome fears of litter and drug use.
Peter Whitehead, one of the chief organisers, says those behind the festival had their eye on locations in Kent, Essex, and a sleepy Lincolnshire village called Bardney. The denizens of each took a dim view of the plans.
“In Kent, the locals actually threatened to dismantle the landowner’s house brick by brick if he said yes to us,” remembers Mr Whitehead.
In Essex, protesters threw effigies of chief organisers Stanley Baker and Lord Harlech on to a bonfire. So Bardney it was.
But the event was not welcomed with open arms. Although protests were more genteel in Lincolnshire, Mr Whitehead guffaws as he recalls agreeing to pay a £10,000 “security bond” to Bardney’s vicar “in the event of angry hoards trying to do the village damage.”
Nevertheless, the four-day event kicked off, as planned, on 26 May 1972 at Tupholme Manor Park.
“One cannot really underestimate the opposition to this event,” says Sir Michael Palin, who travelled with his Monty Python colleagues John Cleese and Terry Jones to perform.
“I believe the police drove us on to the site,” says Sir Michael. “There were people everywhere. No-one really knew how many people were going to turn up.”
But turn up they did. In spite of the protests, an estimated 50,000 fans headed to the site.
“It was a big thing for us,” says Sir Michael. “Python hadn’t been going very long. We hadn’t attended a pop festival before. We were brought up on small-scale sketches so to suddenly be in front of 50,000 people was quite extraordinary. It was a bit frightening. It really was an out of this world, sci-fi-like experience.”
Mr Whitehead’s memory is slightly less rosy. It was, he says, “a complete washout”.
Torrential downpours accompanied by strong gusts meant large numbers “turned round and went home again” after getting off the train at Lincoln, costing the organisers “a lot of money”, he says.
“Even my Land Rover got bogged down in the mud and needed towing out,” he says. “It was the wrong time of the year to hold a festival.”
Those who braved the weather turned to ingenious means to keep out the rain, recalls Mr Whitehead.
“In the middle of this field was this giant haystack,” he says. “Well, some clever so-and-so thought they’d build themselves a little shelter, using the hay, to keep dry. Someone else saw it and thought they’d have a go too. Over about four hours, these little hay huts started popping up all over the site.”
Outside, would-be concertgoers were trying similarly inventive methods to gain entry.
Avril Jenson, from Lincoln, had answered an advert in the local paper for security staff and found herself tasked with patrolling the perimeter.
“I was patrolling at the outer perimeter,” she says. “We had to run after people who’d climbed over the fence and rugby tackle them.”
Now 75, she remembers holding the line until the Hells Angels “made an all-out attempt to break down” the corrugated fence.
She recalls one biker swinging from a tree on a rope in an attempt to get inside.
But once the festival got going, it was a success. Mr Whitehead remembers Slade frontman Noddy Holder – greeted by boos from purists who refused to see the glam rockers as a festival band – winning the doubters over, “screaming and whipping them up into a frenzy”.
Despite the fierce opposition, the organisers had done it. They had brought some of the country’s most popular acts to an unlikely, unwilling location in the Lincolnshire countryside.
“It was the most momentous thing for youth at that time,” remembers security guard Avril Jenson. “It was mind-boggling to see so many pop stars in the flesh, in the open air, and under the stars. The music drifting in the air. You could hear all the lyrics. Such an assortment.”
“It was great to have done it,” says Palin, whose recollections are similarly star-studded. “Backstage was very jolly. We had a glass of champagne in Stanley Baker’s caravan with the Beach Boys.”
Fears that festivalgoers would leave a rubbish-strewn hellscape were not realised, according to BBC reports from the time. And some of Bardney’s businesses did well out of the event.
“All seven pubs, as we had back then, ran dry,” says Barry Newlove, owner of Bardney Heritage Centre, which still displays memorabilia, including posters and photographs from the festival.
“The shops were bare. One young lad bought a colour TV, and they were pretty special back then, using proceeds from selling lemonade to festival-goers.”
Reflecting on the event’s success, festival boss Mr Baker told the BBC at the time: “One of the most pleasing things, in spite of the weather, is to watch these kids really be together and enjoy the music, and this is going to happen for a long, long time to come. I am in the business of entertaining and I want to give the kids what they want. And they want it, believe me.”
He did, however, concede that Bardney would not be “in any way” ideal for a permanent festival site, and that future events would need to be “entirely away from possible nuisance to local people.”
It would be the first and only time the village witnessed an event like the Great Western Express. But its legacy remains.
Heritage Centre boss Mr Newlove says he still encounters people with fond memories.
“Without fail, every weekend, we get someone coming into the centre who was there,” he says. “And they come from everywhere. There was one lady in the village who met a lad from Canada who had come over for the festival. They settled here.
“The festival was the biggest thing that has ever happened here.”