Dave Brooks: Bagpiper who went to court for right to play on Hampstead Heath dies at 72

‘Kind raconteur’ went to court to defend right to play

Thursday, 14th May 2020 — By Dan Carrier

CNJ Image 2020-05-14 at 11.12.50 (4)

Dave Brooks played on the bandstand three times a week

DAVE Brooks, who has died after suffering a heart attack aged 72, was known as the “bagpiper of Hampstead Heath”.

He made headlines in 1996 after arguing in court that Heath managers the City of London could not prevent him playing by using a bylaw prohibiting musical instruments on the open space as his pipes were actually “an instrument of war”.

He told magistrates how in the 18th century a Scottish piper called James Reid was convicted of treason, though he did not carry anything but his pipes during the 1745 rebellion – hence legal precedent ruled they were not a musical instrument.

In response, the court told Mr Brooks that if this were correct, he could be charged with carrying an offensive weapon – and the penalty would be a prison sentence rather than just a fine. A compromise was struck and he was told he could play at the Parliament Hill bandstand three times a week instead.

Mr Brooks, born in 1947, was raised by his mother Jean who worked for de Havilland aircraft company during the war, and her boyfriend Charlie Brooks, a Soho-based Jazz musician and well-known man-about-town.

Dave ran away to join the Merchant Navy aged 14 but was sent home: two years later, he signed up and saw the world. He was known as a terrific storyteller and drew on his time in the navy to regale friends at the Men’s Pond.

Among his yarns, he recalled that when his ship docked in Tasmania, he decided to see the island’s sights. He stole a car and was shocked when a huge number of police gave chase.

In what Mr Brooks considered an overreaction, the officers aggressively pursued him, before it transpired that he had stolen a policeman’s ride – which had the contents of the station’s weekly barbecue in its boot.

While at sea he learned the saxophone and on his return he played in jazz combos and worked as a session musician. He also recorded with Elkie Brooks and toured with Manfred Mann.

In the late 1960s, while living in West Kensington, Mr Brooks fell in love with intrigued neighbour Kate Harvey after she heard the strains of his saxophone.

The couple had a son, Charlie. After they separated, Dave joined the Tolmers Square squatting community in Euston with his girlfriend Rachel Syers. And from here he moved to Hampstead where he would settle.

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Dave took up the pipes in the 1970s and featured on film, TV and even in West End shows. In the 1980s his love of a laugh drew him to alternative comedy and he was part of a troupe called The Greatest Show On Legs – a hit on the festival circuit through their famous “balloon” dance which featured a naked Dave with balloons placed at strategic spots.

He also ran a stall selling bric-a-brac at Camden market for many years.

A regular on the Heath, he liked to use its less visited spots to practise his pipes rather than at the bandstand. He said he was rehearsing, not performing, and his anarchic streak did not like being told what to do.

Jazz guitarist John Etheridge said: “Dave was a master raconteur with brilliant comic timing, and could double you up even if you’d heard the same joke before. He was a kind and sympathetic man, the sort of person who would argue but never reject another person.”

“Critical but accepting, he had a deep salt-of-the-earth wisdom, enabling him to get to the heart of an issue without pretension or intellectual contortion.”

Mr Brooks is survived by sons Charlie and Lester, daughter Eponae and partner Hilary.

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