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The West Park Hotel

Like the British folk scene in general, Harrogate's folk club grew out of the skiffle craze. In the mid 1950s Ernie Green and his band The Moonrakers began playing on Saturday nights in the West Park Hotel. Just around the corner at the Belford (now the Tap and Spile) Harrogate Writers' Circle and CND members would meet, and with the growth of the folk scene the groups began to congregate.

Harrogate Folk Club

The formation of the Harrogate Folk Club happened gradually, but by 1958 it was well underway. This marked the beginning of half a century of folk singing in the Harrogate and Knaresborough district. Early guest performers included The Young Tradition and Martin Carthy. The club's popularity meant that a larger venue was soon needed. During a relocation further up the road at the Clarendon Hotel (now the site of the Comet store) Cyril Tawney was a guest singer, but it was across town at The Empress in the early 60s that the club really got into its stride. Using the room above the pub, the attendees had the inconvenience of a billiard table in their midst, but such was the popularity of the folk nights that the landlord had the table removed. At this point the Empress had another upper storey, and sometimes the landlady would hang her washing in one of the rooms. The earliest chap to arrive for the folk evening would sometimes refer to "nipping upstairs to pull the landlady's knickers down." Below is a PDF document containing some photos of Ernie Green and other regulars from those days.

Landlords and landladies come and go, of course, and in a situation familiar to most folk club organisers Ernie and his friend Stuart Kind had to find new premises at very short notice. After many unsuccesful enquiries they wound up drowning their sorrows in the West Park. The barman noticed their hangdog expressions, and having heard their tale of woe he immediately offered the club a 'new' home. Thus the Harrogate Folk Club returned to its original location and remained there until its closure. It was the venue for performances from renowned singers Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, and for local stars Robin and Barry Dransfield. "Harrogate Folk Club was a big influence on us," Robin has since commented. "The residents were an amazing bunch of people." Eventually, though, the club's success began to wane, and at the end of the decade this chapter of folk singing in Harrogate came to a close.

Membership card from 1968

Mike Garner writes:
In 1963 or thereabouts my friend Pete Morris and I were walking into town from the St Andrews area on Knaresborough Road and we sensed something was going on in the Empress Hotel as we passed. So we went in for a pint and to find out what was going on. It was the folk club, and the atmosphere was absolutely great. The tables had candles in wine bottles on them, the lights were low, and there were people playing guitars in ways that I had never heard before live. Absolutely fantastic... we were hooked and started going every week.

I think the change to the West Park happened quite soon after this, and we bacame regulars there. Barry Dransfield used to amaze us with his guitar playing and the Crimple Valley Mountain Boys likewise amazed us with their apparent total grasp of bluegrass technique. I remember Robin Dransfield playing the banjo really well and Roger Knowles flatpicking on his Levin. Who played bass? We loved listening to Owen Staley and Zeke Deighton etc.
Ernie Green was MC and he conducted everything in his dour but effective way. I was at the Martin Carthy gig and we were all simply thrilled by him. Tetleys was 2 bob a pint and Double Diamond was 2/6 a pint (which was strange as it was horrible and more expensive; a double whammy).

The pervading feeling at the time was that we were all within the 'inner circle' of people who had 'thought it through' and who were committed to nuclear disarmament and good old fashioned socialist ideals. Barry had introduced us to Woody Guthrie and his songs struck a chord with us all. I used to play my guitar there (badly) and sing 'Old Tom Moore' and 'Old Blue,' the latter to the tune of cocaine blues which annoyed the purists a lot. Pete used to sing 'Rattling Bog' either at the club or on the way home pissed. We thought our harmonies together were without equal, but it was the boose, clouding our insight on the matter.

Pete and I often walked home with Barry across the stray, and he went off towards St Clements Road as we continued to our respective council estates down Knaresborough Road. My dad had a violin which had been up in our loft for who knows how long. One night I mentioned this to Barry, who had recently got into fiddle playing big style. "Do you want to sell it? " he said. "OK" I said. So he came round the next day with Robin, and looked at the old violin. We agreed on 10 shillings for it and Barry said "I will give you the money when I see you." Robin said "No, pay him now!" So he did. I think maybe it was a really good fiddle and Robin had noticed this and wanted the deal closing properly.

I moved away from Harrogate in 1966 and returned in 1976. All things had changed.

Mike Garner, banjo player with 'Powder Keg', Leeds-based bluegrass ensemble founded by Richard Raftery

Harrogate Folk Club [2]

The town was not without a folk club for long, however. Within a couple of years another club was on the go. Although sharing the name of its predecessor, the new club was run by a slightly younger generation of musicians. The initial venue was in folk enthusiast Mary Wilson's front room, but by 1971 the club was meeting at town centre locations like The Irish Club and the Cock and Castle (now demolished). In 1972 the club finally settled upstairs in the West Yorkshire Road Car Social Club (the pub now known as The Regency).

Harrogate Advertiser, 18th Oct. 1972

Pictured above (left to right): Mary Wilson, Ray Black, Colin Vale, Pat Black. Click on the 'play' icon below to hear one of the Radio Leeds recordings mentioned in the article. This is Martin Carter singing Lish Young Buy-a-Broom.

Martin was part of the Mountain Ash Band, whose album The Hermit was based on the life of Job Senior, a hermit on the Ilkley Moors. This LP became a highly-sought collectors' item, as did The Wind that Shakes the Barley by Gallery, who also appeared at the Harrogate club. Click here to listen to them and other artists.

Roy Hardacre and Stuart Crampton tried to launch a folk club in Harrogate in 1983. They ran trial nights in the Prospect Hotel (now the Yorkshire Hotel), Harrogate Rugby Club, and the Prince of Wales in Starbeck. The project was then abandoned due to lack of support. Roy and Stuart performed together as 'Herrings Belly' (see pictures) until Stuart's death in October 1988.

Friday 13th Folk Club

Harrogate's Friday 13th Folk Club originated in the 'Folk and Acoustic Nights' which began in 1995 at the The Victoria Bar in the North Eastern Hotel. Early guest nights featured Kate Rusby and a rare reunion of the formidable duo Bob Fox and Stu Luckley. The landlord was very supportive, even volunteering to pay the fee of Jez Lowe, a generous act that really helped establish the club financially. However, when the pub closed for refurbishment the club had to find a new home, and The Knox Arms in Bilton became the base for the renamed Friday 13th Folk Club from its opening in December 1996.

Ray Black claims to have an appalling memory, but his detailed recollections below suggest otherwise...

SEPTEMBER 1995. My then wife Jane and I were having lunch in the new restaurant bar of the North Eastern when she casually observed that with such good acoustics the room might have made a good folk club. Boy did she regret that! She didn’t expect a chance observation to spark off so much enthusiasm. I had stopped running Harrogate Folk Club in the mid 70s but the urge must have lived on somewhere within me. The restaurant only operated during the day and the manager was only too happy for us to use it in the evening. Roy Hardacre agreed to help and he remained our dependable sidekick throughout the ensuing history of the club.
We chose Monday nights for the new venture so as not to clash with already established folk clubs within striking distance. This continued to be the case until we became Friday 13th Folk Club, more of which later.

Once begun the manager was so pleased with us that he occasionally contributed some of his entertainment budget towards our guests’ fees and in no time we were booking people like Vin Garbutt and Kate Rusby. On non-guest evenings we had some really good singarounds with a lovely intimate atmosphere. It seemed too good to last and indeed it was; in 1996 the pub was turned into an open plan walk-round fun pub and we were out on our ear.

The owner of the Blues Bar took pity on us and allowed us to use his upstairs bar. Here we held singarounds for a few months but it was not big enough to accommodate booked guests. When we were offered the chance to book Cordelia’s Dad and then Bob Fox and Stu Luckley we didn’t want to miss the opportunity and in a sense this took us on a little trip back in time. When I ran Harrogate Folk Club in the 1970s we had used the upstairs room of the West Yorkshire Social Club which later became a pub called The Regency. For these two bookings the manager of The Regency kindly allowed us to use the same room where we used to have our club. The next phase of this ‘wilderness’ period saw us trying to hold singarounds in the downstairs bar of Harrogate Theatre. This didn’t really work and it might all have ended there but for a chance discovery.
What we found was the upper floor of a converted granary in the grounds of The Knox Arms in the Bilton area of Harrogate. Our first meeting was in December, on Friday 13th.1996. On that night it was observed that the staircase leading to the room consisted of 13 steps and at the time there were 13 people in the room - and so a name was born. Friday 13th Folk Club had begun in earnest.

The club became a popular venue playing host to many excellent performers, both amateur and professional. In September 2002 a larger room became available in The Empress in Church Square and we moved into Harrogate folk history. It was here in the early 1960's that Harrogate's first Folk Club had been held. Their floor singers are today’s top names, the best know of these being Robin and Barry Dransfield, who were then just two local lads getting their first taste of this music".

Memorable evenings? Why there were so many I can hardly choose but here are a few: Martin Carthy sold out so quickly we managed to get him to visit the day before and had him for two consecutive nights. He was on great form and only repeated one song on the second evening. This was by choice rather than out of necessity, he still had loads more in that vast repertoire of his. Best of all he stayed with me between the gigs and we conversed long into the night over a bottle of wine. Martin Simpson was a risk. We had never booked anyone that expensive before and we still made a profit. Dick Gaughan was a chain-smoker and when I booked him I asked his manager to make sure he understood we were a no smoking club – we adopted this policy many years before the official ban was even mooted. At the end of his set he charged out of the room with a look of desperation on his face and swallowed a cigarette’s worth of smoke in less than a minute before re-entered the room looking much calmer. Banoffi and The Witches of Elswick were among my many favourites but I’ll leave it here as I could go on for a long time with this.

What I would like to claim was one of our better ideas wasn’t. It was one we blatantly pinched from Roland Walls who runs The Black Swan Folk Club in York. This was an occasional young person’s evening for which we would book four acts, quite often students on the Newcastle degree course, with the evening being divided up equally between them. I don’t know how Roland financed his but we paid our youngsters by donating a basic fee out of our funds, plus giving them the entire take of the evening to be shared amongst them. Some of these youngsters are now the folk equivalent of household names, playing in the likes of Bellowhead, Lady Maisery, Demon Barbers and many more.

Another idea we had was to start the club an hour early to hold an instrumental session before the club began. This didn’t last but it did help to lay the foundations for the weekly instrumental session we still have in The Tap and Spile: http://www.crimple.demon.co.uk/sessions.htm

The Tap and Spile sessions gave rise to yet another idea: Busking. Several people were interested in both the club and the sessions which meant when club funds were low we could take our session tunes en-masse to the streets. In winter this would take place in the Victoria Shopping Centre. Ah! Life was so simple back then. We would need Public Liability Insurance cover for a million pounds before being allowed to do that nowadays.

I decided to close the club in December 2005 for reasons that can be read on the still-extant Friday 13th Folk club website: http://www.crimple.demon.co.uk/Friday13/hist.htm and the Mudcat Cafe thread that appeared when people heard the news.
After a gap of a year or two I toyed with the idea of putting on an occasional concert under the name of Friday 13th Concerts but by this time I found I had become too used to not making the unceasing effort that goes into organising these things. After a couple of successful events, including putting on the full-scale Demon Barber Roadshow, I decided it was time someone else should be doing this and went back to my life.

Leaflet from 1997

Once again the club was run by Ray Black, with support from Roy Hardacre. Guests included John Kirkpatrick, Martytn Wyndham Read and Pete Coe. Hear Ray talk about the club on Harmony Radio by clicking below.

In September 2002 the club moved to The Empress, approximately 40 years after the original Harrogate Folk Club's residency at the same pub. During this spell there were visits from guests such as Chris Foster, Damien Barber and Sandra Kerr (whose voice was known to millions of children from the BBC TV show Bagpuss). Despite the healthy attendances on big-name guest nights, Ray Black was growing disenchanted. Lesser known artists weren't getting the support he felt they richly deserved, and although the club was doing well on the whole, Ray decided that if a folk club wasn't helping develop the next generation of talent then it wasn't worth pursuing.

This didn't mark the end of folk activity in the Harrogate area, though. The weekly instrumental sessions at the Tap & Spile carry on each Tuesday evening, and there is a monthly club at the Traveller's Rest in the Crimple Valley which meets on the first Monday of each month.

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