In the Guardian: Remembering the Battle of the Beanfield

1.6.09

For the Guardian’s Comment is free, “Remember the Battle of the Beanfield” is an article I wrote to commemorate the 24th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield, when a convoy of new age travellers, peace activists, anti-nuclear campaigners and free festival goers were ambushed en route to Stonehenge, to set up the 12th annual Stonehenge free festival, and subjected to a brutal display of State aggression.

On that dreadful day for civil liberties in the UK, when Margaret Thatcher, having crushed the miners, turned her attention to a new “enemy within,” the one-sided Battle of the Beanfield was followed up by legislation (the 1986 Public Order Act) that legitimized the government’s attempts to crush the way of life of travellers and Gypsies, curtailed the British public’s traditional right to gather freely without prior permission, and paved the way for a further assault on civil liberties (in the 1994 Criminal Justice Act), which was precipitated by the last large free festival in the UK, at Castlemorton, in May 1992.

To mark the anniversary, I’ve written a brief history of the suppression of civil liberties over the last quarter of a century, which explains how the Battle of the Beanfield led directly to the even more furious onslaught on civil liberties that has taken place in the last 12 years, under a Labour government, and drawing parallels between the Beanfield and the G20 protests in April.

Four years ago, I compiled and edited a book about The Battle of the Beanfield to mark its 20th anniversary, and, while I’m glad that the book is still available (for orders by cheque in the UK), I’m also pleased to report that, for this anniversary, I’ve finally managed to work out how to accept UK payments via PayPal, not only for The Battle of the Beanfield, but also for my other two books, The Guantánamo Files and Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion. For trade orders of the Beanfield book, please contact Alan Dearling of Enabler Publications.

To further commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield, the following is an introduction to the events of that day, taken from Chapter One of The Battle of the Beanfield:

An excerpt from The Battle of the Beanfield

In the summer of 1984, while the majority of the festival regulars pursued their annual cycle of events, the first signs of a new and disturbingly violent intolerance on the part of the authorities took place at Boscombe Down airfield near Stonehenge, and at Nostell Priory in Yorkshire. The first of these incidents came about after a group of militant travellers hijacked a peaceful animal rights protest at Porton Down in early July, pulling down fences before moving on to the US air force base at Boscombe Down, where a peace camp was already in existence and a free festival had been held just a few weeks before. At Boscombe Down, the fences came down once more, “undoing weeks of careful confidence-building between peace activists and the USAF base security”, as one observer, Celia Kibblewhite, described it. The authorities took their revenge shortly after, when the protestors were, according to Celia, “cut up by riot vans, boarded, attacked and trashed by a squad of Special Branch police.”

In some ways, this retaliation by the police could be regarded as the end result of a deliberately confrontational game of cat-and-mouse that had been bubbling away for years. At Nostell Priory, however, the police violence was unprovoked and far more severe. At the end of a licensed weekend festival, riot police, who had only recently been suppressing striking miners at the Orgreave coking plant, raided the site at dawn, ransacking vehicles and arresting the majority of the travellers — 360 people in total — with a savagery that had not been seen since the last Windsor Free Festival in 1974. The travellers were held without charge for up to a fortnight in police and army prisons, finally appearing before a magistrate who found them all guilty on allegedly trumped-up charges, and the events of that time are vividly described in a sometimes harrowing and sometimes hilarious account by Phil Shakesby in the following chapter.

Some of the battered survivors made it to Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, a disused World War II airbase that had been designated as the second Cruise missile base after Greenham Common, where they joined peace protestors, other travellers and members of various Green organisations to become the Rainbow Village Peace Camp. In many ways, Molesworth, which swiftly became a rooted settlement, was the epitome of the free festival-protest fusion, cutting across class and social divides and reflecting many of the developments — in feminism, activism and environmental awareness — that had been transforming alternative society since the largely middle class — and often patriarchal — revolutions of the late sixties and early seventies. One resident, Phil Hudson, recalled the extent of the experiment: “There was a village shop on a double-decker bus, a postman, a chapel, a peace garden, a small plantation of wheat for Ethiopia (planted weeks before Michael Buerk ‘broke’ the famine story in the mainstream media), and the legendary Free Food Kitchen.” The Rainbow Village was finally evicted in February 1985 by the largest peacetime mobilisation of troops in the UK, and the unprecedented scale of the operation, and the effect it had in creating even stronger bonds between the various groups of travellers, are brought to life in the interview with Maureen Stone in Chapter Three, and in the recollections of Sheila Craig in Chapter Six.

A children’s parade at Molesworth peace camp, 1984.

The convoy shifted uneasily around the country for the next few months, persistently harassed by the police and regularly monitored by planes and helicopters. In April they were presented with an injunction, naming 83 individuals who supposedly made up the leadership of the convoy, which was designed to prevent them from going to Stonehenge. As Sheila Craig put it, however, “it was difficult to take it seriously, it seemed meaningless, almost comical, just a bit of paper … So the festival was banned, but we were the festival. It didn’t seem to make a lot of difference, especially as we seemed to be banned anyway, wherever we were.”

Such was the awareness that a noose was tightening around the travellers — through the well-publicised banning of the festival, as well as the constant persecution and the injunction — that even those like the Green Collective, who continued to assert the right of people to attend the 1985 festival, knew that they were effectively drawing up “battle plans.” In the face of the National Trust threatening further injunctions against organisations like Festival Welfare Services and the St John Ambulance Brigade if they showed up at Stonehenge, Bruce Garrard wrote in a Green Collective mailing newsletter, “After years of talking about it, this year it seems the authorities will be making a concerted effort to stop the next midsummer festival … but they won’t succeed; what they’ll probably do is to politicise the 50,000+ free festival goers who will arrive there anyway … Thousands of people will be on the move this summer. We’ll all look back and remember the Spirit of ’85.”

As it transpired, people would remember the Spirit of ’85 for far different reasons. On June 1st, after groups of travellers from around the country had stopped overnight in Savernake Forest near Marlborough, 140 vehicles set off for Stonehenge in the hope of setting up the 12th free festival. The atmosphere, as described by many eye-witnesses in the accounts that follow, was buoyant and optimistic. It remains apparent, however — especially in light of the persecution of the previous nine months — that behind this façade lurked generally unvoiced fears. Mo Poole, for example, recalled, in a conversation with Roisin McAuley for an edition of ‘In Living Memory’ that was broadcast on Radio 4 in 2002, that “When the convoy had left Savernake that day, there was a police helicopter that had followed us all the way. There was police everywhere, really. It was obvious to us that we were being followed by the police and that they were monitoring our journey, and therefore I knew that something was going to happen, because they’d never done that before.”

[Veteran festival organiser] Sid Rawle was so convinced that the state was planning a disproportionate response to the threat posed by the convoy that he stayed behind in Savernake, arguing that if all the travellers stayed put and waited for thousands more people to join them, the authorities would be powerless to break up the ever-growing movement that he had worked for so long to encourage. While it’s also apparent that some of those who set off for Stonehenge that day were prepared for some kind of confrontation, few could have suspected quite how well-armed and hostile their opponents would be. The violent ambush that followed has become known as the Battle of the Beanfield, but it might be better described as a one-sided rout of heart-breaking brutality, and a black day for British justice and civil liberties whose repercussions are still felt to this day.

The Rastabus, one of the last vehicles to be attacked at the Battle of the Beanfield.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

For another illustrated article on Stonehenge, see Stonehenge and the summer solstice: past and present (June 2008).

25 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    After this article was published in the Guardian, I sent the link out to a few old friends, and received the following replies:

    Jo from Glastonbury wrote:

    Fab that you’re STILL on the case — of oppression everywhere. More power to your pen.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Andy, an artist who I worked with when I was doing my Stonehenge book, wrote:

    Congratulations on your piece in the Guardian, impressively written I have to say. I can’t believe it’s now 25 years since that last Stonehenge Festi … that makes us really old! I happened across an old mate a few weeks back and he had a few photos of us at Castle Donington in ’83. It seems like another lifetime ago.

    The one thing that heartens me, as the years roll by, is that Thatcher gets closer to her grave. I don’t know what the fuss regarding the state funeral is about — we all want to see her laid to rest don’t we? It would be a good day in front of the telly with a few beers, a bit of singing and dancing too! They should strike a deal with her. She can be assured of a state funeral, as long as it takes place in the next seven days.

    Andy also wrote:

    I can imagine that making any headway at all with a subject like Guantanamo is pretty hard work — there’s the full force of a superpower that doesn’t want you to find anything out. Good luck to you. The world needs more people trying to find things out.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    And John in Brighton, who I know from working (occasionally) with the great alternative newspaper SchNEWS, wrote:

    Glad to see that article got into the Guardian. The whole story of the travellers, the peace convoy, Beanfield, civil liberties is refreshing to see in mainstream print, well done for getting it in. Talking of the Caravans Act — have you been following the progress of Dale Farm, Essex, the gypsy site of 1000 people which is currently under threat — they are stalling eviction proceedings with drawn out court processes, but if it gets to an eviction it will be a biggie. Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that.

    I’ve really admired your work with Guantanamo, and you’re actually one of a handful of people — activists — I know that’s truly had an impact on something let alone a big international issue. You’ve made a difference — fair play to you.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    And Cas wrote:

    Beggers belief really, without a bill of rights we have no foundations from which to fight, other than the fact that some of this infringes basic human rights to protest! … Still as long as we get our regular doses of “reality” spoon fed with voice over from Davina McCall and history reprocessed and sanitised by Tony Robinson we the GB public won’t notice …

    Thanks for yelling! some of us do notice and some of us do remember …

  5. David Rose says...

    I remain in loose contact with a couple of people who were associated with the “Peace” Convoy, Nostell Priory and the Battle of the Beanfield. The outrage of the Police behaviour, let us not forget, followed the still inadequately documented work of the West and South Yorkshire Police against the striking miners. But within the mythologies which colour history, let us also not forget the tactical incompetence of the Peace Convoy people and those who joined in to exploit the potential of the “Convoy” for their own profit and criminality rather than for celebration, dialogue and a green peace ethic (of sorts).

    From: http://www.ukrockfestivals.com/Cumbria-Silver-Moon-1984.html

    “What I think is less well known (and I have had confirmed by others who were there) was that towards the end of the occupation of the site (Nenthead – 1984) , there had been a debate among the travellers as to whether the next move should be to go to Molesworth in support of the developing Peace Village, or to Nostell Priory for the Festival where the commercial opportunities for the sale of drugs could be exploited. Given that Nostell Priory was virtually en-route to Molesworth, those in favour of Nostell Priory won the argument and the greater number accompanied them for the sake of solidarity. The rest is history, but for those who need a refresher, the coal-miner’s strike trained Yorkshire Police trashed the Travellers in what can now be seen as a dry run for the Battle of the Beanfield at Stonehenge 1985. You might check out the story with Rainbow Paul (if he’s still around) and it has since been confirmed by Guy (Tattersall) and Sandra.
    Politically inept.
    The incapacity of the softer edge of the “Peace” Convoy to keep the more seriously criminal elements at bay played into the hands of Thatcher’s authorities…..”

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi David,
    Thanks for the comments. You’re right, of course, to point out the difficulties within the wider travellers’ movement, but I still think that, within the wider context of waging a “war” on everyone involved in what was essentially a land reform movement (which was always going to appal the establishment), the “hardcore” — and the hysteria whipped up over Stonehenge — helped disguise a concerted effort to eliminate the kind of frontline, and very active political protest epitomized by Molesworth; hence the military campaign to crush the Rainbow Village, and to hunt down and “decommission” all those involved.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    I also heard from Ronald Hutton, whose latest book is available here:
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Blood-Mistletoe-History-Druids-Britain/dp/0300144857/

    Dear Andy,

    That’s good, hard-hitting stuff, and the juxtaposition of the warning about battered children — a very effective use of the electronic media — was grimly appropriate.

    It’s good to hear from you again, and at any time, and I am delighted that you are keeping up the work so well.

    With every good wish,

    Ronald

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Kate Evans, the cartoonist whose book Copse, about the road protest movement, is required reading for every aspiring activist, also dropped by:

    Nice one Andy — this is great for keeping this in the public eye.

    Btw, I have a new website, well a redesigned one, so check out
    http://www.cartoonkate.co.uk.
    You might like it.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Kate. Excellent site!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Ronald,
    A delight to hear from you too.
    And thanks also to Jo, Andy, John and Cas. Really good to hear from you all.

  11. Nell says...

    Andy, is there a way for US readers to buy your books with dollars via PayPal?

    I had only dimly heard of the Beanfield assault, and was faintly familiar with Molesworth peace camp, but your writing really makes the light go on, putting them in the context of the larger movements of the time.

    Remembering that Reagan was our Thatcher, and likewise began his term with a brutal assault on labor and the poor at home and an aggressive series of “rollback” dirty wars abroad, this from Obama today makes me almost literally crazy:

    “President Reagan helped as much as any president to restore a sense of optimism in our country, a spirit that transcended politics — that transcended even the most heated arguments of the day. It was this optimism that the American people sorely needed during a difficult period — a period of economic and global challenges that tested us in unprecedented ways.”

    That’s so many Big Lies in one short paragraph that it’s hard to know where to start.

    Thanks for helping to keep people’s history alive, as Official History gets ever more Orwellian.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Nell,
    Great to hear from you — even if you did have to provide me with a sickening quote from Obama. Just like hearing New Labour politicians extol the virtues of Margaret Thatcher, funnily enough (We know that Tony loved her!)

    As for your question about books, the short answer is that I don’t know, but I’ll look into it and email you.

  13. Offshores says...

    Thanks Andy for your gift and resilience.

    As we original Convoy types move into our autumn years, our children and children’s children will carry our hopes and dreams into the future, securely locked within their DNA. They are more possible than we can powerfully imagine.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, thanks for the supportive words, and the message about the promise of our children. Spot-on.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    I also received the following:

    Hello Andy,
    Thanks for a very good posting on the Beanfield and relevant to-day.
    The motivation for enhanced police powers and repressive government legislation seems to be part of a pattern — the determination to keep the lid on an educated and informed population beginning to realise that in a democracy it is the people themselves, and not elected ‘representatives’ and certainly not a monarchy who are sovereign. At present the sovereign has no voice in a ‘democracy’ but is conned into voting away their right to self government.
    The Beanfield lesson would be pretty bleak if there was not a way to reverse it.
    The way I suggest, is an amendment to the ‘constitution’ (which exists on the ground but not on paper.) The amendment is to put the people in power in an Assembly chosen by lottery of the adult population.
    This Assembly of the people is the appropriate new body to keep MP’s in check and initiate debate on any subject.

    I am interested in the words you use to describe the pressure on the media not to report events. The policy seems to be to totally suppress any articulation of the people — except on the terms of representative institutions who have already captured the system.
    Using the term ‘mob’, reporting only the violent fringe and ignoring legitimate gatherings (the latest Gaza protest in Trafalgar Square of some thousands did not make the BBC radio or TV news!) and consistently and grossly underestimating demo numbers are part of the pattern. Now is an opportune time to promote the Assembly.

    Can you explain how this pressure works?
    James, Dorchester

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    My reply:

    Thanks for getting in touch. I’ve thought for a long time that politics should be like jury service, as it’s apparent that it doesn’t work allowing people with no relevant qualifications — and often only a thirst for power — to run the show. I also don’t understand why the media collectively refuses to cover protests adequately. I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but in this case it seems to be generally understood that protests will be
    underreported, or not reported at all.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    And James’ reply:

    Seen to-day’s Telegraph headline?
    “Enormous crowds in Hong Kong commemorating Tiananmen Square”
    Bigger crowds in Trafalgar Square, a little nearer home, protesting Iraq went unreported.
    Conspiracy Theory?

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    And my reply:

    Yes, but just now, with elections and expenses scandal and Gordon will-he-won’t he and Cabinet resignations, there’s virtually no room for anything else in home news. They obsess. Usually not for long. Then they move on. The expenses scandal is a rarity in that it’s lasting so long.

    I think generally nothing in the media lasts more than two weeks. If we woke up tomorrow and it was World War II but we had the modern media, we’d have switched off before the end of September 1939.

  19. freepartyperson says...

    Hi Andy,

    I already sent a mail to what I thought was your email address at the Guardian, but it bounced back. I also sent it to the general ‘userhelp’ address at the Guardian but I don’t know if it’s been received as I’ve had no response, anyway, here’s the text of the mail I sent:

    I was very excited to see that you’ve linked to my website. However, the link is wrong. The link points to the festival that took place in Lechlade, Gloucestershire, on May Day bank holiday weekend 1992. Castlemorton, which is a lot more (in)famous, took place on the bank holiday at the end of May in the same year. The correct link is:
    http://freepartypeople.wordpress.com/2008/10/24/may-12th-1992-castlemorton-common-free-festival/
    Also, Castlemorton is in Worcestershire, not Gloucestershire as stated in the article.

    Thanks!

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Free Party People,
    Well, you live and learn. I first put Castlemorton in Gloucestershire in my book Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, published five years ago, and no one has corrected me until now — and it’s not as though I wasn’t there (although no doubt many of those who were there had no idea where they actually were!)

    And sorry the link wasn’t correct — although I guess any link is better than nothing. It wasn’t a link that I provided.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s SchNEWS’ excellent take on the anniversary:
    http://www.schnews.org.uk/archive/news6781.php

  22. MUTIOD BOB says...

    I WAS ONE OF THE PEOPLE IN THE BEANFIELD AND MY ONE OUT STANDING MEMORYS IS THT OF A SEMI NAKESD WOMAN BEING CHASE BY TWO OF BRITIANS FINEST HA HA WITH HER YOUNG BABY (6 MONTH OLD),STILL AT HER BREAST.BUT THA T ALL THEY COULD DO WAGE WAR ON WOMAN AND KIDS AS FOR MYSELF LOST BOTH MY HOME AND DOG THE SPRITS STILL LIVES

  23. sprout says...

    mutoid bob……………hello,,,remember odstock after green lane,ott 49,,blimey,hope your well,,,my last memory was fredrick william cox of the bristol constablary twatting my head in whilst two of our finest booted me ribbs out,,loverly eh,,,im still looking for a bristol albion for myself

  24. Sue norman says...

    Andy thankyou so much for your tireless work reminding and making aware. I wasnt @ the beanfield didnt get on the road until 1987 and 1988 my first summer solstice at stonehenge. My eyes were well and truely opened that year. Especially as a very young and naive 15yr old. Thanks to people like you these sickenin attrocities of Thatchers regime of terrorr will never be forgotton. Thankyou

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Sue. Thatcher ruined the lives of so many people, and I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to chronicle some of her crimes.

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