Once upon a time there were two little girls, well actually they were about twenty-four at the time, dancing at a party. The party was in Clapham North, London in a squat inhabited by a collection of poor artists and filmmakers. Someone said a member of the Orb lived there, but I think that might have been rubbish .
Anyway it was a jolly big party and the two little girls, all dressed up like members of the B52’s merging with Goths, were dancing to some rather good dub music. As they bopped away a strange local man floated past in a smock sporting a fantastic beard. He was, of course, Henry – renowned local sculptor and party organiser extraordinaire. Rumour had it he was on Blue Peter once, not sure if it was true or not, but the two little girls were dead impressed all the same. They thought Henry was ultra cool. They loved his outfits, his studio and especially his beard. They watched as he slumped on a nearby sofa.
“Wouldn’t it be good to call a night club Henry’s Beard” said one little girl to the other, swaying in the smoky haze. They paused for a second, looking intently at Henry’s wonderfully long beard.
“Yes, yes it would” she replied. The two little girls collapsed on the floor in a heap laughing.
The two little girls were myself Connie Burchell and still my bestest mate Lucy Moles. From what I can remember, we spent our entire twenties at parties in London. Each day merged into the other and very often it became hard to tell which day of the week it was! However, turning thirty can have a rather sobering effect. Could I go on living like this? Could life really be one big eternal party? I began to contemplate the future.
After a trip to Dorset to visit a mate I fell in love with the countryside. Within a month I had left my flat in Clapham and was driving an overloaded wonky van with all my gear in it down the M3 to start a new life in Bridport – a buzzing little village on the Dorset coast filled with charity shops, eccentric drinking establishments, sea gulls and the occasional psychiatric patient.
I moved into a teeny tiny cottage behind a pub, started a new job with a local tea company and bought myself my first pair of wellies. It didn’t take long to settle in. I enjoyed the slower pace of life. Suddenly I had time to think and the fresh air was clearing my head. Above all I loved being a part of a community that really cared about each other. I attended a meeting about fundraising for a new roof for our local Arts Centre. There were four of us at the meeting. Me, Ben Hodges (ex-River Café chef now living in Dorset), Ingrid Hull (Italian goddess and local smallholder) and Peter Dibdin (young photographer and event organiser including the delicious Club-U-Like). We agreed to get up at the crack of dawn every Sunday to cook organic breakfasts at the local Arts Centre and put the money raised towards the new roof. However, our café needed a name. As we pondered possibilities I suggested Henry’s Beard. Ben looked at me, delighted. “I know who you’re talking about! Henry. With the beard.” It transpired we had often been within a stones throw of each other in London but never met. Just goes to show how London is not such a small world.
Ingrid and Peter loved the name too and so it was decided that Henry’s Beard was a very good name for any catering endeavour.
It had marketing potential too. We came up with slogans such as ‘The café that can grow anywhere’ and partly because the name is so silly it’s also very memorable, well most of the time. We’ve had a few daft delivery notes for Mr Henry Bear and Henry’s Beer Department.
Dorset is a magical place and sometimes the most incredible things can happen. About a year after I moved to Bridport, my dear friend Lucy Moles, who I had not seen for some time, came to see me at Symondsbury Manor – a rather eccentric house just outside Bridport that we had rented for a friend’s 30th birthday. I was so excited to see her and she was bringing her new boyfriend. When she arrived she poked her head around the door. “Lucy!” I cried and ran over. She looked at me with the cheekiest of grins. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet,” she said. She opened the door and standing, larger than life, was non-other than the great Henry himself! “My new boyfriend” she said proudly. My hands shot to my face in horror. Where was his beard? He was as clean-shaven as bloody action man! Where was this icon of party zannyness? Where was this symbol of arty farty? I couldn’t speak.
Lucy grabbed me. “Henry has a present for you” she said. Henry opened his large rucksack and pulled out a copper casement. Set inside, in a ball of crystal resin and surrounded by fairy lights, was Henry’s beard. The sculptor had sculpted his very own beard! He passed it to me. I was overwhelmed. Henry’s Beard was now entrusted to our keeping and has forever been our protector.
When you come to Henry’s Beard it will always be displayed somewhere in our midst, watching over us and entertaining us. We are perhaps the only café that has something close to a relic.
So that’s the story of how we got our name. How we developed into a little music café is another tale.
The Sunday breakfast café idea had it’s highs and lows. Well supported as everything often is in the beginning, we cooked delicious organic bacon and eggs and soups and tortillas. Ben and Ingrid lived in the depths of the countryside and were the real foodies, sourcing vegetables and meat (sometimes their own) and Ingrid made the most scrumptious organic cakes on the planet.
With the food taken care of, Pete and I concentrated on things like advertising and organising music and films. We produced a little ‘What’s on’ guide every week for Bridport, which has about 5 venues and a cinema. We enticed Steve Knightly from Show of Hands to come and play at the café and people were queuing up the street to get in! Local girl, Polly Harvey (the P J Harvey) sometimes dropped by and joined in the fun, too. For a while it must have been the cheapest and most delicious organic food for miles as well as the only musical café around.
Sadly the early Sunday mornings began to take their toll. Life in Bridport wasn’t as mental as London, but Saturday nights were still pretty crazy. We all started to get a bit flaky. I remember desperately calling Ben to get out of bed and cook something! Not that I was any better. But as the Sunday morning café came to the end, the idea for a festival café was taking form.
One of our team, Louisa, had been part of a performance group and café called Sybil Twirls. She was a seasoned festival chick and was instrumental in our first introduction to putting our café in a field. We were invited to attend the Big Green Gathering as part of the whole food shop which was in a tent.
We began plotting our first festival café with a lot of lists. My list included stuff like a standard lamp and a piano – my dad was a real Jazz musician, so I wanted to install some notion of my idea of cool.
I had by this time got myself a new job, closer to town, typing for a Social Services department. I took a sick day and went to Moreys Auction House (since burnt down accidentally by an old next door neighbour of mine, shame). We searched for an understrung or overstrung piano and got something impossibly heavy and very out of tune, but it would do the trick. Ingrid also found a standard lamp in her loft, which she gladly donated.
Other people’s lists included jugs and beakers, gas burner rings, fancy dress costumes, saucepans and other very useful stuff. We didn’t have a marquee, which was just as well because by the time we’d put the piano in there wasn’t much room left in the van!
Now I’ve always been a little bit of a Glastonbury chick since my University days. Even when working in television in London I’d choose Glastonbury over Tenerife or Ibiza any day. But I’d never been to any other festivals. The Big Green Gathering sounded fun…and it was.
When we arrived we were bowled over by the big tent we had been given to use by the Pertwood Organic people, which made sense since we were next to their shop and would be buying and cooking their vegetables. We had loads of space for our kitchen, a little stage and a seating area. Our friend, Rob Troughton made us lots of furniture, which became really handy as it did rain quite a lot and people would come in for shelter.
The festival got going on Wednesday, finished on Monday morning and I think we closed for about one hour in total. We were exhausted. It was full-on fun and we loved it. Our friend, Jig brilliantly compared the stage and everyone came to play. In those days the place was teaming with musicians and they all wanted to have a go on the piano. I’m delighted to say I sold Nigel Kennedy a Pineapple!
Henry’s Beard had arrived. People loved the food and the piano and we were really chuffed. People came along with giant harps and hurdy girdys and at one point, rumour has it, Hawkwind reformed their band near our tea urn. Hundreds of people came for the last night and played till dawn. We all knew this was more than just a one-off event. We all knew in our hearts that we were going to do this again and again. Next stop Glastonbury.
The only problem for me was that I did have a job and a mortgage. As much as I loved Henry’s Beard and the lifestyle it offered, it needed to be financially viable. I set myself a task: if we got 10 festivals booked for the following year I would give up my job. Of course, we did. So I said goodbye to my lovely team and friends in the Social Services department, one of which was Matt, soon to become my life partner and father of my little boy, Sam, whose support and wonderful energy and ideas continue to amaze me .
Although my typing job had absolutely no prospects it was still a daunting step to take. No more monthly pay checks! I was terrified and maybe a little mad.
But it was full steam ahead with not a moment to think about the long-term implications of my actions. Ben bought a trusty transit van, I ditched my current boyfriend, who was doing my head in, and Ben and I became completely tribal about Henry’s Beard. Suddenly we were surrounded by, and practically living with, a team of environmentally aware, skilled, artistic and intelligent young people. I was in my element.
We commissioned a guy in Exeter to make a new marquee at great expense for us. We were convinced he was the right man for the job. He used hand spun Irish yarn, good natural canvas and was very enthusiastic about the project. However, as often as is the case in the beginning of a new business, not everything went according to plan.
It was to ten days before Glastonbury and still no marquee. We went to see how he was getting on. We found him ensconced on the roof of a council flat working with a singer sewing machine surrounded by other people’s laundry blowing in the wind. But the marquee was fabulous – beautifully sewn creamy canvasses – and perfect for Henry’s Beard Glastonbury debut. But it wasn’t finished! Despite the fact he looked like he hadn’t eaten for a week, we politely put the pressure on and he promised to have it delivered in time. Poor chap must have had a nervous breakdown getting it finished, because it arrived the day we arrived at Glastonbury.
But the trouble was far from over. As we carefully erected our lovely new (and quite expensive) marquee in the Green Futures Fields at Glastonbury, one of the sides completely ripped off! I felt totally sick. Witnesses say I went white as a sheet. We looked up through the hole at the stars and thought SHIT!
I rang my man in Exeter in a terrible panic. He promised to come the next day and fix it. Thankfully, Café Tango, in the field below, took pity on us, fed us and cheered us up that long horrible night. The next day our man arrived with his hand turned singer and some yarn and repaired the marquee.
Glastonbury was the start of an exhausting tour of England and Wales and we loved every minute of it. We went to Bracknell, Guildford, St Donats, The Lizard, The Larmer Tree, Steam Fair and more. Most were financial ruin but by that stage we didn’t care. I suppose it’s true what people say – you can’t worry about money if you don’t have any!
We hardly saw Bridport that summer. When we did get back it was straight to our local, The George, for a few pints and endless roll-ups. It was only then that it hit me. I was the happiest I’d ever been in my life and it was all thanks to Henry’s Beard.