On Sunday 7 May 1972, Muriel, aged 26, returned to her home in Wigan with a red rose, which she planted that afternoon in a gap in the crazy paving her husband, Malcolm, had recently laid in the small front garden of their house on the busy A49 that ran to Warrington.
She had bought it as a souvenir of her afternoon, which was out of the ordinary for her to say the least. Planting the rose, she reflected that it would always remind her of the time a little bit of Haight-Ashbury, a dash of Woodstock, a benign invasion of hippy counter-culture, came to the industrial north of England.
For the previous few days, Muriel had watched a parade of the grotesque, absurd and colourful pass her front window. Wigan’s main train station was a little over a mile away. As the outlandishly dressed, long-haired young people flowed past Muriel’s home, they had almost three miles to walk to the site of the Bickershaw Festival.
In 1972, music festivals in the UK were new. The Isle of Wight event had begun just four years earlier. There had been two Glastonburys, but there wouldn’t be another for seven years. Festivals were completely unknown in the north. Until now.
Organised by a flamboyant Wigan market trader known as the Count, a pair of Salford businessmen and Jeremy Beadle – yes, the Jeremy Beadle, who would go on to be the “nation’s favourite TV prankster” – the Bickershaw Festival was big, ambitious, sprawling and a financial disaster.
But what a line-up: the Grateful Dead, Captain Beefheart, New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Kinks, Country Joe and the Fish, Donovan, the Incredible String Band, Dr John, Hawkwind, Wishbone Ash.
“I was fascinated by all these people walking past,” says Muriel. “So on the Sunday afternoon we decided to go up for a look.”
She was joined by her husband’s sister and Muriel’s infant son, just turned two. They drove the short distance to where the festival was being held on several farmers’ fields off the main road, but couldn’t park, so dumped the car and walked a mile to the festival site, which had become such a shambolic, disastrous affair that they could enter without paying. They were just in time to catch the Grateful Dead … which wouldn’t have been
difficult as the Californian rockers were in the middle
of a four-hour set.
“It had been terrible weather,” recalls Muriel. “It was just mud as far as you could see. The pram kept getting stuck and we had to drag it out all the time.”
And that two-year-old in the pushchair? That would be me. I don’t know if my love of music was forged that wet Sunday afternoon, but I certainly became a festival addict in my late teens, and remained so in my twenties and thirties, taking in a dozen Glastonburys, a clutch of Readings, Leeds, V Festival, Global Gathering, Creamfields, Spike Island, Beat-Herder … give me a stage and a yard of grass and I was happy. I’ll always be proud my first gig was the Grateful Dead, and – like many of the festivals that were to follow – I can’t remember a thing about it.
One man who can remember a great deal about Bickershaw, though, is Chris Hewitt. In late 1971, Chris was the social secretary of Rochdale College, where he was studying, aged 17. In a college newsletter he spotted an advertisement looking for people to help distribute publicity material, sell tickets and work on the site of a planned music festival in Wigan. So Hewitt, who now lives in Northwich, Cheshire, applied … and walked into the
astonishing slice of music history.
The impetus for the festival had come from Harry Cohen, who donned a top hat and worked the markets in Lancashire and Manchester under the name Harry “the Count” Bilkus. Hewitt recalls: “He was a bit eccentric. He’d bought a disused pub to live in, the Foresters Arms on Bickershaw Lane, and he’d got this idea in his head about putting on a music festival like Glastonbury or the Isle of Wight in the fields behind the pub.”
The Count had ambition and ideas, but no real idea how
to make them reality. So he went to two brothers in Salford
who saw a way to make money from this burgeoning scene.
“The brothers set about finding finance and Harry got in touch with local farmers and hired the land. Then they started to book the bands. But they’d got as far as they could do, so went to a body called North West Arts Association for help.”
From there they were put in touch with a promising young man who had been sent by Tony Elliott, founder of London listings magazine Time Out, to launch a version of the publication that covered Manchester and Liverpool. The magazine lasted only a few issues, mainly due to the lack of advertising revenue, which had left Elliott’s emissary at a loose end. And thus Jeremy Beadle came on board as director and manager of the Bickershaw Festival.
But then, according to Hewitt, the first of a series of disasters struck. The two businessmen were abruptly taken out of the picture, thanks to the sudden interest of the taxman.
“The Count didn’t have a clue about anything other than waltzing around in a top hat,” says Hewitt. “Which meant that Jeremy Beadle was basically left holding the baby for the whole thing.”
Bickershaw is a village sitting directly on top of the bountiful Lancashire coalfield. The first pit shaft was sunk there in 1830, and coal mining defined Bickershaw until the “super-pit” created in 1976 by the National Coal Board, linking Bickershaw’s mine with neighbouring Parsonage and Golborne collieries, eventually fell silent in 1992 as one of the final pits to be hit by Margaret Thatcher’s programme of closures begun eight years previously.
In 1972, Bickershaw was a mining community through and through. Hewitt wryly recalls the local men – “they were all about four foot five, hunched over after generations working down the pit,” he laughs – looking up in bewilderment at the slim, tall, gamine hippies with their flowing hair and flowery shirts, striding around the village.
There had been no real opposition before the festival, because nobody knew what to expect. Toilet facilities being rudimentary on the site, there were complaints of festival-goers relieving themselves in locals’ gardens or up against back gates. But for many in Bickershaw, the festival was something of a golden opportunity. Local legend has it that the fish and chip shop man made enough money in that single weekend to finance the building of a nice new bungalow on the outskirts of the village. And the village grocer appeared on local TV, telling the reporter that he was making a killing from “something new we’ve got in here, never heard of it before but it’s apparently what they eat, these hippies. It’s some new-fangled thing from London called yoghurt.”
It being May, the weather was appalling. Rain fell steadily throughout Friday and into Saturday, only letting up to allow, poetically, a break in the clouds for the Sunshine Superman himself, Donovan, who sat cross-legged on the stage and played his acoustic guitar.
The relentless rain is one thing – one of the only things, in fact – that Dave Davies, founder member and guitarist for the Kinks, remembers about the festival. “That was the year I was going out of my mind,” he tells me. “I don’t even remember getting in the car to go there. We played so many gigs that year and that was the year I was going through an emotional crisis and a nervous breakdown. The only thing I do remember is the rain. Oh, and Captain Beefheart and Country Joe and the Fish were good.”
According to those who were there, when the Kinks played on Saturday evening they were raucously drunk, especially frontman Ray Davies (Dave’s brother), and reportedly threw their piano off the stage. Was that true? “Yes, I’m sure it was,” shrugs Dave. “But I was pretty out of it as well, so …”
Also enamoured by the Captain Beefheart performance on the Saturday night was the young, pre-Clash Joe Strummer, who said it was the best gig he’d ever seen. And in that mud-caked audience was one Declan Patrick McManus, not yet 18, who would be inspired by the magic he witnessed to pursue his own career in the industry, under the name Elvis Costello.
It wasn’t just rock bands that performed. American stoner comedians Cheech and Chong were there, as was the Haydock Brass Band. There were clowns and entertainers and a man who dived off a high tower into a tank of water with flaming oil on the surface.
Quite the spectacle, and a major contributor to the conditions on the field. Hewitt recalls: “It was a big tank and pretty deep, given he was diving from such a height. When he’d done his turn he just took the sides off the tank and all the water flooded out into the audience, right in front of the stage.”
Also there was the Monty Python troupe – or at least half of them. John Cleese tells me on the phone from Los Angeles that he, Terry Jones and Michael Palin appeared. “As I recall, we didn’t get paid very much, so that might be why only half of us went – split the money three ways, rather than six. I thought for some reason the festival was being held somewhere in East Anglia. I had no idea we were going near Wigan. It was extremely wet and muddy, and we had never performed at a festival before.”
The three Pythons performed on stage as a group and Cleese also remembers doing a solo set. “It was quite incredible to perform in front of a crowd that stretched on to the horizon,” he says. “I’d never had the experience before where the laughter went in waves through the crowd back from the stage as they heard the joke.”
And, ignoring what would be Basil Fawlty’s advice to not mention the war, he adds: “Then I understood why Hitler enjoyed the Nuremberg Rallies so much, having so many people laugh at you.”
Around 40,000 people attended the weekend. At £2.25 a ticket for the three days, it should have been a decent return, even with the artists to pay. But one thing Jeremy Beadle had inherited when he took over the running of the festival was the security team, drawn from, says Hewitt, “the fairground and the criminal fraternities”, organised by the Salford brothers.
Supposed to be patrolling the wooden fence and taking tickets, the security guards spotted an opportunity to line their own pockets, reselling tickets and charging people to go through holes in the fence at a pound a time. Which, says Hewitt, contributed to Beadle ending up with a loss to the tune of £100,000, and the more-or-less immediate liquidation of the company. Bickershaw had been memorable, and historic, but it was not to be repeated.
Hewitt stayed in the music business, helping to stage festivals and events, including another badly organised gig in 1979, just a mile away from Bickershaw, on fields near the pit. Joy Division, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Echo and the Bunnymen played to around a hundred people. He also did the staging for the Verve’s homecoming gig at Wigan’s Haigh Hall in 1998, which I also attended, giving me a hit rate of two out of three of Hewitt’s Wigan events.
As well as his staging business – he specialises in recreating historic stage sets, having done so for movies such as the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody and the forthcoming Danny Boyle Sex Pistols series – Hewitt has amassed a huge archive of photographs, footage, memorabilia and press cuttings about the Bickershaw Festival. That resulted in him releasing a box set with a hardback book, six music CDs and a two-volume DVD to document a quite incredible weekend.
“It was an amazing event, despite the problems,” he recalls fondly. “And it kindled my interest in live music that never went away. It’s interesting that at the time music festivals were run by businessmen who thought they could make a killing out of youth culture. After that there was a backlash and the free festival movement, such as those at Stonehenge, started to appear. And now, of course, it’s come full circle and festivals are massive corporate events.”
The day after the festival, the 40,000 music fans who had made the trek to Bickershaw woke up to the fact that the party was over. The locals of Bickershaw woke up to the detritus and fields that looked like the Somme. Jeremy Beadle awoke to a huge financial headache.
And Muriel Barnett woke up to find that her rose bush, planted in her front garden as a reminder of that crazy, shambolic, unique event she’d attended with her sister-in-law and two-year-old son, had been stolen.
Photographs by Chris Hewitt, John Smart/Daily Mail/Shutterstock/ Michael Putland/Getty Images
This article was originally published on Friday 6 May 2022, 50 years after Muriel planted her rose bush, and the Bickershaw chippie made a killing. It will also appear in Festival, the next issue of the Tortoise Quarterly, available to buy in our shop from June.