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Fred was a man of the country as much as the city

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: November 26, 2013

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Researching Fred Wedlock's life for my new biography of him took me down many a long and winding track, but none more rustic or remote than the one that led to the home in which he lived for his last 30-plus years, near Timsbury in the Somerset countryside west of Bath.

It was here where he and his wife Sue brought up their daughters Hannah and Lucy, gave a succession of cats and dogs an enviable rural lifestyle and grew vegetables and fruit trees in true Good Life tradition.

It was all in stark contrast with their childhood homes in Bristol – Fred's at the York House pub in war-ravaged Redcliffe and Sue's in Hotwells.

It was also several steps away from the city folk clubs that gave him the springboard for his long career – among them the Ballads and Blues and Poetry and Folk that were based in the Bathurst Hotel, now the Louisiana; the Stonehouse, where the blue glass (as distinct from bluegrass) Spectrum building now stands; and best-remembered of all, the Troubadour in Waterloo Street, the birthplace of the "Clifton Village" phenomenon.

Many of their friends were shocked when Fred and Sue – he called her Flo, and so did everyone else around them – announced they were moving out to the country. In the Sixties they had been on the scene almost nightly, even if he was not performing, and they regarded the "Troub" as their second home. By the early Seventies, however, they were parents who took their responsibilities seriously, and with one little girl and another on the way, they were looking for a home with a little more living space.

In fact they were reviewing their lifestyle generally, with Fred at last turning his back on teaching in 1974, by which time his nightly earnings had comfortably surpassed his day job's.

But Timsbury – or rather, a hamlet some distance from even that quiet little place? People like Chris Newman, the multi-instrumentalist and arranger behind the 1981 top six hit Oldest Swinger In Town, found it hard to get their heads around the move, and all Fred would ever tell them was that it was "for tax reasons".

Some believed they would be hightailing it back to town in no time – but gradually Chris began to note the pride with which Fred talked about "my acre", and his bafflingly enthusiastic accounts of his successes in nurturing fruit and veg. In due course the acre was doubled to two, and one of Fred's great delights as the years went by was to spend all day in the garden before going off to a gig not too far from home.

The land is on the site of an 18th-century coal mine, and when the Wedlocks moved in, there was a spoil heap towering over the house. Since then the building has grown considerably bigger and the heap has been reduced and grassed over until today it could be some picturesque ancient burial mound.

Despite all this I continued to regard Fred as a dyed-in-the-wool Bristolian – ex-St Mary Redcliffe head chorister, grandson of "Fatty" Wedlock, the City and England captain of Edwardian days – and it was not until a few years ago, when I asked him to answer a lifestyle questionnaire for this newspaper, that I realised just how much his focus had switched.

One of the questions was about favourite restaurants, and many of those surveyed tended to rave about the latest trendy little spot in Clifton or other up-market or up-coming suburbs.

"Bet Fred doesn't do that," I told colleagues. "Bet he goes for some matey, down-to-earth place in Bedminster or somewhere."

Instead he proved everybody wrong by opting for a backstreet Indian takeaway in Trowbridge. Trowbridge – home of the Village Pump Festival and of his great friends Peewee Hunt and the late Alan Briars of the rustic band Mechanical Horsetrough – had become one of his happy hunting grounds; so was Frome, where in return for having his gutters looked after, he would happily don troubadour garb and sing outside the Gutter King's shop at the annual Catherine's Hill street fair; it was all a long way away from cavorting with Legs and Co on Top of the Pops.

They were at a panto in Midsomer Norton when he and his family first realised the impact of Oldest Swinger. They had gone along for a relaxed evening with neighbours, but when the lights went up in the interval there was suddenly a shout of: "Oh my God! It's Fred Wedlock!"

Mayhem ensued, and the break had to be extended while a queue formed all around the auditorium for the unlikely pop star's autograph.

"The girls were so embarrassed," Sue told me, but Hannah had a different story: "Well, we had to pretend to be, didn't we? But really we were like 'Hey, that's our dad! Yay!'"

In his later years Fred's focus was on private parties, Rotary and Masonic gatherings, golf days, women's groups – anywhere where people would pay attention to his funny songs and stories, well away from the clamour of the chicken-in-a-basket circuit.

Charities such as the Variety Club, St John Ambulance, the children's cancer charity CLIC and West Somerset Railway were always high on his agenda, but he also built up a close rapport with leading local companies, including the Weston-super-Mare-based coach operators Bakers Dolphin, who laid on a glitzy party and show for their clients over several nights every autumn.

Folk hero, one-hit wonder, grassroots local TV star, an entertainer who would tailor his show to the tastes and demands of any audience. That was the Fred Wedlock thousands of us remember with affection today. But most of all, up to his all-too-early death at the age of 67 in 2010, he was a loving family man who transferred his roots with joy from the grey dockland bombsites of his childhood to the rolling fields of Somerset.

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