|The Traffic Cottage at Aston-Tirrold|
The cottage at Aston-Tirrold played an important role in the
of Traffic. They became the first band to "get it together in the country", abandoning
flats in London for extended stays in the Cottage, for extended jams and rehearsals. Other
bands followed their lead.|
The Mr Fantasy album cover photo was taken inside the Cottage. I here give you some photos of the exterior.
Andrew Easdale, the current caretaker, was kind enough to share with me a photo of the band playing on the concrete car-park that became their impromptu stage, and a few comments. (The Cottage is currently occupied by a couple entirely unconnected with the music business.)
"The first time I went to the Cottage was a few years ago. That time, at the weekend, the couple were in and told me that Jim Capaldi had come by a few months before with his Brazilian wife to 'show her where he used to live'. When the couple arrived the main inside room was painted black, so they redecorated. That was the room on the cover of the first album, with the fireplace. I had discovered how to get there from an old Rolling Stone magazine. [I hesitate] to disturb the people who live there, but I'd be happy to take anyone down there if they are over from the States and really need to see it!" -- Andrew Easdale
Many thanks to Dan and Ramona
sending these photos of their vacation in Berkshire.|
|Click the speaker to hear a few remarks Winwood made about the cottage (in .wav format, 438 KB).|
What turned into a magical mystery trip to the heart of the Traffic
began as something quite different. My wife Ramona and I had planned a tour
of the UK for about a year. We were booked on a trip with Festival tours,
which specializes in seeing the 'non-tourist' sights, centering the trip
around musical events (Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson and traditional
musicians). Great, but as the trip drew near I suddenly realized that I
might be missing a unique opportunity. I wanted to see something or some
place related to my favorite musical group - Traffic. Why ? I'm not sure,
perhaps it was to reassure myself that there really was something behind all
I'd heard and read, a way for me to support the story of a band that now
seems almost mythological. The only problem was that I'd planned nothing in
advance, and it was time to leave. |
At the last minute I wrote a tape trading, Traffic loving friend (known at this point only through correspondence) named Andrew Easdale, who lives in Surrey, England. This was a kind of 'wild stab', I hadn't been in touch with him for about a year - he might have moved for all I knew. Still, I had the nerve to ask him if we could meet him and perhaps he could get us to the Rollright Stones on one of our 'open' days on the trip. Last minute indeed - I left him no time to reply before we left! I did leave a hotel address and number though, and the day after we arrived in London there was a fax from him saying "where do you want to go - I'll take you". It turned out that he meant that literally. That night we talked on the phone, and Andrew stunned me with the news that he could take us to Rollright AND the Traffic Cottage in Berkshire ! When I told Ramona about this she was a bit incredulous - "How do you know this guy ?" Of course both sides were taking a bit of a risk - a sort of overseas 'blind date'! Oddly though, I never felt a jitter - it seemed 'right', and Andrew apparently felt the same. The timing was good, and we arranged to meet Andrew at Oxford in a few days while proceeded on with the 'non-tour'.
It turned out that even before Andrew was in the picture a type of 'Traffic Spirit' was asserting itself on the trip. Before Oxford, the tour went to a pub called the "Falkland Arms" in a small village called "Great Tew" to eat lunch and rub elbows with the members of Fairport Convention prior to a concert in Banbury. At lunch, Simon Nicol (singer/songwriter/guitar player for Fairport) suggested to our tour hostess Nancy Covey that we visit an interesting Neolithic site nearby: the Rollright Stones ! Nancy announced to us, "well, this wasn't planned, but it sounds too good to pass up - lets go!" So, within only a few minutes and with just one wrong turn by the bus driver we headed down a very narrow rural roadway and stopped - essentially in the middle of the road. There were no parking places, and only a very small sign to mark the spot, but there we were - in the neighborhood the whole time!
The Rollright Stones are actually in several nearby locations - with the "King Stone" (surrounded by a fence) and the "Whispering Knights" on one side of the road, and the Stone Circle on the other side - hidden in a small grove of trees and brush. A woman from the "Rollright Appeal" was collecting donations to see the circle - the "King Stone" was thrown in for free I guess. She seemed thrilled to see an actual busload (two in fact) of people, had made it out this way. At 20 pence (the cheapest entrance fee in England as far as I know) - it was a great deal - since, after letting us roam around awhile, she gave us an interesting lecture on the history (stretching back 4,000 years, BTW) and the various psychic, paranormal and generally strange effects and events associated with the Stones, including; whorling energy vortexes that pass under the stones and the ability of the stones to affect human fertility (her friend visited, then had fraternal triplets). Alright, it sounds funny - some folks would call it downright ludicrous - yet, I have learned to have a measure of respect for ancient spiritual sites because, especially in quiet moments, you can sense or feel a power of some kind. Still, with a busload of mostly uncomprehending Americans stomping around, I'm not sure there was much room for the spirits at the Stone Circle on this rather un-English sunny day. Well, that was before we met the "killer cows" - as Ramona and I came to call them...
OK, they weren't "killer cows" (unless they secretly carried the 'mad cow' disease), but it was an odd and funny encounter. It looked like it was getting to be 'time to go', and knowing that we probably would not get another shot, I grabbed Ramona and we ran across the road to see the 'King Stone'. No one else from the group had discovered this, and the only other people there were a local couple picnicking on the grass near the large 'standing stone'. It is an interesting, enigmatic looking thing - although the protective fence around it detracts from the effect somewhat. Still, it seemed worth a 'walk around'. With the lack of a crowd, the wind picking up and the clouds suddenly blowing over us, the stone and the undulating landscape took on a distinctive 'vibe' that I hadn't noticed at the circle across the road. The thing that seeped in was a disorienting sense of time, or better - timelessness. Looking around, it could have been 1997 or 977 - there was no easy way to differentiate. This was a feeling that I was to notice at other rural locations in the English countryside, and in retrospect I can see why Capaldi and Winwood might have been moved enough to write "Rollright Stones" - when your sense of time dissolves, the past (and your ancestors) don't seem too far away.
"Black crow I know you've been here, you've seen the sights of yesteryear... but the only thing that remains are the Rollright Stones".
I was walking around the 'King' when I heard the couple on the ground laugh, I looked at them as they jumped up (still laughing )grabbing their blanket and basket. I then saw that a herd of black and white cows had come up a rise - seemingly out of nowhere, heading quite rapidly toward the four of us. They didn't appear to be particularly angry (or 'mad'), but they did seem to be reclaiming the ground, and laughing or not we all 'got the hint', and headed back to the road. Ramona was the last to get the gist of the situation - she kept taking pictures of the 'cute cows' until she was essentially surrounded - when we got home and developed the pictures, the last one here showed a 'giant' cow head filling the frame. Time to get back on the bus.
A few days journey finds us in Oxford, at our temporary (and Spartan) residence St. Hilda's college dorm - a knock on the door - and there is Andrew, right on time. After getting acquainted we quickly hatched plans to hit two 'Traffic spots' - the legendary cottage near Aston Tirrold, and the 'Chalk Horse' of Uffington - the site where the group shot the photos for the "Traffic" album. First, Andrew drives us (or better - flies us) on a five minute tour of Oxford - he's a grad - and we experience what I can only guess is similar to "reduced Shakespeare", where they do ALL of Hamlet in a few minutes - we saw and heard it all, but at fast forward speed. Hey, it worked for me ! Then we are off to the country.
Andrew actually trusted me to read the map while he drove into Berkshire - how could he have known of my utter lack of skill in this area ? Regardless, we seemed to be finding our way, and looking up I notice that the countryside is beautiful, but not 'wild' in the sense of parts of the American West; patches of trees and hedgerows divide the land into squares of various sizes, and sheep and cows (those cows !) seem to be everywhere.
Along the way Andrew related how he had found the cottage originally through deciphering the clues in the 1969 'Rolling Stone' article and interview with Traffic. I have the article too, and while it wouldn't have helped me find the place, it did convey a sense of how Traffic was inspired by the atmosphere, as well as describing the physical details of the surroundings; the poacher Steve saw sneaking over the twilight hills with his bow and arrow, the beehives and their crusty keeper - "Git in thar ya bastards", the ghost that Chris thought resided upstairs, as well as the rutted road into the cottage that forced all to abandon their cars before actually reaching the house. The article imparted a tremendous sense of the richness and vitality that existed there; partly due to the young dynamic artists themselves, but also what they absorbed from the place - the power of the landscape, and its people - past and present.
Well, Traffic was long gone, and what I expected was mixed up with what I'd read, and what my logic told me might be a total letdown. Then Andrew slowed, scanned the sides of the highway and said "well I've been here before, but I didn't come from this direction". Did this mean we were lost? He abruptly turned down a two rut lane, came around a curve - driving us up to the bumpers in mud - and said, "no, this is it". Of course it was - just as David Dalton had described it in Rolling Stone so many years ago! It did seem hopeless to continue, but Andrew reassured us by explaining that his BMW was a "company car", and that he'd been through worse regardless. So, we got out and checked for irreparable damage, then continued on.
Around the next bend the road actually leveled out and a cottage came into view, with a small sign that said "The Keep"- meaning the keepers cottage, a small house (from the former large estate) that Andrew told us used to house Island Record's owner Chris Blackwell - apparently to "keep" tabs on his investment. Another quarter mile down the pleasant lane, and the road comes to an abrupt end - to the left, freshly plowed farm fields that form wavy slopes for as far as the eye can see, straight ahead are three wooden beehives (the beehives!), and to the right is the house; well maintained and looking just as it did in the old photos - nestled in a small grove of trees like some kind of 19th century oasis. So again, the strange feeling is there; is it 1967?, 1997?, or when?
Reality finally sets in since you inevitably realize that someone lives here, right now - not the Traffic 'commune', but obviously a family with kids - there's a toy football on the lawn. No, this isn't like Blenheim Palace, where the tourists are encouraged to tromp around (for a nice fee), the people here may not be thrilled to have us intrude. So, now it feels a bit odd, but we decide to go knock, and if they want us to leave we'll split right away.
Walking up to the front of the house we note that the place is well maintained, with a small greenhouse in front and a nice lawn. We knock and ring - to find no one home, then take a minute to look at the house. My idea of a 'cottage' is a very small rustic dwelling, which this isn't. I would call it a medium to large home by American standards, which helps to explain why Traffic could stand to cohabitate there for as long as they did. Andrew points out the ornate, but clearly protective metal bars inside the downstairs windows. He relates that these were put in after Traffic came home from a tour to find the cottage looted - clearly the isolation of the English countryside had some drawbacks. Looking down , I suddenly notice that we are standing on a 12x40 foot cement slab - originally poured as a car park (to avoid that mud), but used by Traffic as a stage, facing the ancient plowed hills. This is a wonderful and vivid moment - we cast our eyes slowly and take it all in... This is the place where the band played freely, on countless nights, jamming, musing and creating magic. Look out... this is the direction that the music poured forth - a burning point of eternity embraced by the timeless countryside - or as recited by Francine Heiman, the six year old who was featured on "Hole In My Shoe" : "A place where happiness reigned, and music played ever so loudly" - at least for a while, now many years ago. So yes, one does get a feeling for how something evolved here; a place where isolation, fantasy, and pure musical intent blended with the environment to form a unique entity that was called "Traffic". To keep it in perspective though - if you didn't know anything about the former 'pop group' inhabitants, the cottage might be any of a great number of charming English country homes.
We walked slowly back down to the car. Andrew chatted with Ramona while I ambled out into the dirt of the field and wandered just a little, looking back at the house and the landscape, taking a few pictures, and trying to feel the place. Mixed in the topsoil are fragments of flint or chert, the kind of rock used by early peoples around the world to construct their arrowheads and knives, I grabbed a couple of small pieces and stuck 'em in my pocket - an ancient reminder our modern day visit. Now they seem like the most sensible souvenirs of our whole trip.
So, what to do for an encore? The jaunt to the White (or Chalk) Horse of Uffington seemed fitting. Besides being a place where Traffic liked to hang out and ponder the cosmic mysteries, I'd seen pictures of the Horse many times since my youth. Photos taken from the air show a stunningly elegant and abstract rendering of some creature - a dragon being as likely as a horse - one hundred and twenty five feet long, carved into the pure white chalk that underlies the turf of the Oxfordshire Downs. In fact, the place is chock full of historical facts mixed with prime Celtic (and pre-Celtic) myths and legends. Sitting atop the highest point in the region is an nine acre site surrounded by an earthen berm - an Iron Age fort (dates to at least 500 BC) that overlooks the Horse, which in turn looks down to the smaller flat topped Dragon Hill, credited as the place where Sir George killed his dragon. What remains there today is only a strange white crescent; either a last desperate "claw mark", or the burned ground where the dragon's blood poured out. Far out.
The parking space for the Horse is a good one half mile from the site, which is good, since you are 'forced' to traverse the open hillside - giving you time to soak in the place, look around and think your thoughts -oh yes, and dodge the sheep, and their droppings. Actually, the sheep are right in tune with the atmosphere of the place - herders have been tramping behind them right here since the Stone Age. As at Rollright; this is low-key tourism at it's best - no admission fee, and by the time we get to the top, only one family to share the whole place with. At the summit the view is a stunner - a huge valley spreads out before you, with farm fields dotted with huge bales of hay as far as the eye can see. The wind blows ceaselessly here, and although it was a clear day today, I sort of pitied the ancient folk who had to scratch out an existence up here - trying to endure the elements and watching always for the possible invaders that could be turning the corner at any minute. Those conditions might explain the Dragon mythology; you could always remind yourself or your neighbor that as bad as things are, "at least we don't have to fight no Dragon !" - and perhaps take solace in the fact that your ancestors did have that kind of courage.
Ah, but only us tourists here today, and we simply enjoyed our windy walk around the Chalk Horse. I found out later that the ancient folk made use of the constant wind to turn this hill into a kind of giant musical instrument. In a nearby location, appropriately called "Blowingstone Hill" lies a huge carved "sarsen stone" that prior to 1750 had been located near the White Horse. Even today, in its less than ideal location, it is said produce a sound on windy days that can be heard two miles away. Did the siren of the "Blowingstone" draw Traffic out here? In my mind I can imagine Chris Wood on the hillside, playing his flute in a duet with the stone.
The carved creature itself is surprisingly delicate, and an even more amazing artistic accomplishment when you realize that the folks that made it could only fully see the figure from far away. In fact, today some claim that the complete figure can only be seen from the air. Well that seems a bit farfetched, and of course, leads to the silly "ancient astronauts" theory - but it does make you wonder. We walk around and view it the best we can, and watch as one of the little girls from the family jumps into the officially off limits zone of the Horses 'eye' to grab her own 'souvenir'- a piece of the white chalk, and scurry away. Then we are off as well.
Well, that's the story - we finished the rest of the 'planned tour', and saw Andrew again at the Fairport Cropredy Festival. It was all great, but still I wonder if that "Traffic Spirit" didn't hang around to wink at us on that last day on the Downs. Earlier that day, while we were driving around, I had asked Andrew if he had ever seen a 'crop circle' - you know, one of those designs of bent hay that began showing up in the 1980's in the English countryside. Some folks see them as having a paranormal origin, which seems as goofy as the claims made for the Chalk Horse. Still, some of them were quite beautiful, and I wanted to see one. Andrew gave me a funny look and said a quick "no", and I felt a little silly for bringing it up. Later as we were walking up to the Uffington Horse - tramping across the sheep munched land, Ramona pointed across the way to a hay field and said "there's your crop circle", and sure enough there it was - a large circle with a "Smiley Face" design in it - yes, exactly like the buttons from the 70's. We cracked up, laughing at the thought of aliens - or whatever - having a sense of humor, and kept walking. Then I remembered that a modified 'smiley face' was the design on the tee-shirts for our Digest, "Smiling Phases" - and the joke seemed to be there just for me.
Page created September 8, 1997.
Last updated September 8, 1998.
Copyright © 1997, 1998, 1999 by Dan Ropek.