It’s 25 Years Since The Last Stonehenge Free Festival

20.6.09

John MichellHappy solstice, everyone! As an estimated 30,000 people descend on a field in Wiltshire and its ever-inscrutable ancient stones, I’d like, first of all, to pay tribute to John Michell, English mystic, iconoclast and provocateur, who passed away on April 24, aged 76 (see obituaries in the Fortean Times, the Guardian, the Times, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph and the New York Times).

I last saw John at Megalithomania, a conference in Glastonbury in 2006. He had been asked to talk about The Old Stones of Land’s End, his pioneering work on leylines in West Penwith, and arrived, spliff in hand, with a box of slides which he promptly dropped on the floor. When he came to do his talk, his memories of trawling around Cornish fields were punctuated by a quietly hilarious slideshow, as pictures emerged in random order, and often upside down. “Here’s some lads on a stone, smoking,” he said, as a slide popped up of some Breton boys on a standing stone in the late 19th century. “They look like they’re having fun, don’t they?”

Ever the iconoclast, John had been a stout defender of the right to gather at Stonehenge, and was appalled when the free festival (see below) was terminated with appalling brutality at the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985. He immediately published one of his Radical Traditionalist pamphlets, “Stonehenge, Its History, Meaning, Festival, Unlawful Management, Police Riot ’85 & Future Prospects,” in which he cut to the heart of the conflict between the State and Stonehenge’s many non-establishment admirers, stating:

Those who knew not of Stonehenge, who had never experienced its weird and lasting attraction, were astounded. What is this old pile of rocks which inspires such intensity of popular religious feeling and such vicious expressions of official jealousy?

Stonehenge: Celebration and SubversionExactly five years ago, my first book, Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion was published, which told, for the first time, the full story of “how the celebrations at Stonehenge have brought together different aspects of British counter-culture to make the monument a ‘living temple’ and an icon of alternative Britain,” and in the acknowledgments, I wrote that John’s “multi-faceted mysticism hovers over the whole book like a guardian angel,” an appraisal that still strikes me as true.

This year’s solstice is one of many anniversaries, not just the fifth anniversary of the publication of Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion (which, I’m glad to say, is still in print and available to buy), but also the 35th anniversary of the first Stonehenge Free Festival, and the 25th anniversary of the last Stonehenge Free Festival, before the events of the Battle of the Beanfield, which are chronicled in The Battle of the Beanfield (also still available) — a book I edited and compiled in 2005, and recalled in this recent article for the Guardian (and here) — brought the people’s celebrations at Stonehenge to an end for 16 long and strange years, in which, every solstice, the temple and its environs resembled a war zone.

It is also, I’m glad to note, the tenth anniversary of the reopening of Stonehenge on the summer solstice, following a momentous House of Lords ruling in 1999, which prevented the government from establishing an exclusion zone around the temple, and so, to mark all these anniversaries, I’m reproducing below some excerpts from Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion that deal with that first free festival in 1974 (inspired, elliptically, by John Michell), and its last manifestation, as a riotous outpouring of dissent in the midst of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, in 1984.

We begin in 1973, when the organizer of the first Stonehenge Free Festival, a charismatic young man called Phil Russell, first enters the picture.

1974: Phil Russell and the first Stonehenge Free Festival

Wally Hope (Phil Russell), founder of the Stonehenge Free FestivalAn orphan from a wealthy background, [Phil] was due to inherit land and property in Hertfordshire on his thirtieth birthday, but in the meantime was funded by a private allowance that left him free to pursue his own interests. In many ways, Phil was typical of the free festival agitators of the time — part acid prankster and part well-heeled dandy. In London, he fell in with a group called the Dwarves, “a kind of Notting Hill version of the Yippies in America: a joke-prankster group,” and adopted the name by which he became better known: Wally Hope. He took the name Wally from a popular festival cry (a kind of “Everyman” joke that arose when the crowd began echoing the name of a lost dog being summoned by his owner at the last Isle of Wight festival) and he had the word “Hope” embroidered on a shirt that “became his trademark: a riot of spectacular colour with the eye of Horus in the middle banked by a rainbow.”

Phil’s allowance also left him free to travel. He regularly visited America, where he sympathized with the plight of the Native Americans, Cyprus, his birthplace, and Ibiza, where he became entranced by the mythology of the sun. According to his friend Jeremy Ratter, who took the name Penny Rimbaud and who later co-founded the anarcho-punk collective Crass, it was at a well-known hippie café on the White Island that Phil first came up with the idea of a free festival at Stonehenge. He “wanted to claim back Stonehenge (a place that he regarded as sacred to the people and stolen by the government) and make it a site for free festivals, free music, free space, free mind.”

The two had met in the early 70s. Phil’s guardians lived near Jeremy’s commune in Essex, and one day Phil just turned up. Here the festival developed from its Mediterranean origins, filtered through his exposure to other cultures, his interest in the legends of King Arthur, and his central fascination with sun worship. It was at the commune, moreover, that he revealed aspects of himself that were significantly different from the other privileged individuals who had set up the festivals in Hyde Park and Glastonbury.

According to Jeremy, it was during the preparations for the first Stonehenge Free Festival that Phil performed miracles: “One day in our garden, it was early summer, he conjured up a snowstorm, huge white flakes falling amongst the daisies on the lawn. Another time he created a multi-rainbowed sky — it was as if he had cut up a rainbow and thrown the pieces into the air where they hung in strange random patterns. Looking back on it now it seems unbelievable but, all the same, I can remember both occasions vividly.” On another occasion, beating out rhythms with sticks on the dying embers of a fire, Jeremy was convinced that he and Phil were “speaking to each other ritually by ESP in an acid-religious ceremony without drugs.” It was after this experience that he allowed Phil to use the facilities of the commune to organize the first festival at Stonehenge.

The first Stonehenge Free Festival duly took place at the summer solstice in 1974, alongside a by-way just a few hundred yards to the west of the stones. Despite a leafleting campaign and promotion by Radio Caroline, it was a small gathering, numbering about 500 people at the most. The only music was provided by early synth pioneers Zorch, who set up stage facing the stones, and who had to compete with a wonky PA system.

It was obviously a slightly surreal affair. Tim Abbott, a friend of Russell’s and later a councillor in Wilton, recalled that “Rhonan O’Rahilly of Radio Caroline sat in his limousine suffering badly from hayfever and muttering about private television coverage of the proceedings being broadcast to Europe from an aircraft above the North Sea.” Nik Turner of Hawkwind, who stopped by for a few hours on the way back from Wales to London, seems to have been at a different event: “There were no bands, no PA, no stage. It was just a gathering of people to celebrate the solstice.”

Roger Hutchinson's poster for the second Stonehenge Free Festival, 1975

Roger Hutchinson’s poster for the second Stonehenge Free Festival in 1975. © Roger Hutchinson.

Phil Russell’s fence-hopping antics may have had little impact if the festival had stopped soon after the solstice was over, but by this time he’d persuaded thirty people to stay on in the field beside the stone circle. They styled themselves “The Wallies of Wessex” and lived a makeshift, communal lifestyle in tents, a rickety polythene-covered geodesic dome and a small fluorescent tipi. Nigel Ayers, who visited at the time, said, “It was an open camp, inspired by a diversity of wild ideas, but with the common purpose of discovering the relevance of this ancient mysterious place by the physical experience of spending a lot of time there.”

The Wallies went to court in August, in the newspapers’ silly season, and the story was widely reported. They included in their number Sir Wally Raleigh and Wally Woof the Dog, they gave their address as “Fort Wally, c/o God, Jesus and Buddha, Garden of Allah, Stonehenge Monument, Salisbury, Wiltshire,” and they had a snappy motto: “Every Body is Wally, Every Day is Sun Day.” The fancy dress went down well too, with Phil appearing in the uniform of an officer of the Cypriot National Guard. When they lost the case, Phil told the press: “These legal arguments are like a cannon ball bouncing backwards and forwards in blancmange. We won, because we hold Stonehenge in our hearts. We are not squatters, we are men of God. We want to plant a Garden of Eden with apricots and cherries, where there will be guitars instead of guns and the sun will be our nuclear bomb.”

1984: the biggest free festival in British history

My first visit to the Stonehenge festival took place in 1983, and in Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion I described how “this seasonal settlement of impossibly weathered and wildly decorated tents, tipis, vans, buses and old army vehicles was little short of a revelation, an alternative state within Thatcher’s Britain that seemed to have rooted itself to the ancient sacred landscape with nonchalant ease.”

In The Battle of the Beanfield, I added, “I returned the following year, to discover, like so many others in their late teens and early twenties, that this edgy, exuberant, anarchic jamboree still provided a thrilling antidote to the grim reality of everyday life under the Tories.”

And this was how I described the 1984 festival in Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion:

Against [a] backdrop of concerted political activity, widespread social agitation and a deeper, darker undercurrent of anger and frustration that was to see riots breaking out across the inner cities once more, the Stonehenge Free Festival grew even larger in 1984. Despite the continuing problems of managing the unmanageable without any official leadership, conspicuous problems were tackled head-on. Heroin dealers were dealt with even more sharply than the year before, and a burnt-out car, dumped at the entrance, carried an explicit warning: “This was a smack dealer’s car.”

The main drag at the Stonehenge Free Festival, 1984

The main drag at the Stonehenge Free Festival, 1984. © Ian Oakley.

Overall, there were reasons for those involved in the organization of the festival to feel, as the Festival Zone website put it, that “the fun far outweighed the fear.” The unprecedented mingling of the tribes continued unabated, breaking down social barriers that were all too noticeable in the “real” world, and [festival veteran] John Pendragon tried to counter the drift towards chaos by establishing a mini-festival within the larger festival, a dealer-free zone with its own stage that sought to recreate the spirit of the early gatherings. He was also one of the founder members — along with the pagan George Firsoff — of “Robin’s Greenwood Gang,” another internal organization that was set up to counter the damage caused to the nearby woods through a process of guidance and education.

Musically, there was a more diverse line-up than ever before, and even the traditional headliners, Hawkwind, tried to top their performance of the year before (when they’d played a two-hour set at sunrise on solstice morning) with a conceptual performance — Earth Ritual — that was spread over two days.

Most spectacularly of all, on solstice morning the fences came down, the sun shone out in all its summer glory, and the Druids and the festival-goers were once more at the stones together. There were pagan weddings, children were blessed, there was nakedness, and all manner of other rituals were performed, from the profound to the impenetrable. For myself, the occupation of Stonehenge was an opportunity to appreciate for the first time the sheer scale of the monument and the skill of its construction, giving me a visceral rush of astonishment and admiration that has not left me to this day, despite the fact that, behind the scenes, the authorities responsible for the temple and its immediate environment — the government, English Heritage (a quango that took over management of the monument on 1 April 1984), the National Trust, local landowners and the police — were already working on plans that would deny access to the stones at the summer solstice for the overwhelming majority of people for another sixteen years.

Summer solstice in the stones, 1984. Photo by Alan Lodge.

Summer solstice in the stones, 1984. © Alan Lodge.

I wish everyone a peaceful and happy solstice. Have fun for John Michell, who knew more than most that it was not worth taking life too seriously. In an interview with the Observer, he said, “My pursuits are a joke in that the universe is a joke. One has to reflect the universe faithfully.”

Also see: Stonehenge and the summer solstice: past and present (June 2008), which has more photos.

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.

66 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Chris. Welcome to the internet!

  2. Barry Hancock says...

    Stonehenge 1984

    I was there in 84 and the couple of years previous to that, although its more likely to be 82 & 83 but there’s a possibly of 81 as well.

    Ok so to Stonehenge 1984.
    The enduring memory that has remained with me is what a fantastic scene it was down there. I never would have imagined anything like that could be brought together.

    There was a massive array of tents, benders, teepees, caravans and vehicles with all the range of stalls from the free food tent to yoga and meditation to the ‘nice things’ to the cakes and tea. Them there was the music which used to spring up from anywhere and everywhere. But more than this was a real sense of togetherness – you could even say community.

    I can remember leaving the festival half way through (the festival ran for the whole of June) to ‘sign on’ this meant catching a coach to Victoria then down on the train to Surrey. Encountering the rush hour on Victoria station was quite a shock to the system – it was so good to get ‘home’ to Stonehenge.

    Its truly great to have been there and while you’re there because of the length of the festival you think its not actually going to end. . . .

    So much to say bubbling up in me even now . . .

    Just been watching ‘visions of stonehenge pt 1’ and although it was a long time ago, it dawned on me that even though I spent the best part of a month there I can’t remember sleeping or being in my tent once – that’s so weird and amazing at the same time. Credit to such a great (if not the greatest) festival.

    Ok just to mention a few of the people who were down there with me in 81 – 84. There was Pete Moss, Stuart Gosling (possibly his brother Tim as well), Carl Barker and a guy called Mick who I think joined up with the Tibetans he was a bit younger than the rest of us – we would have been early 20’s – I’d have been 22 in 84 – so so young! And there was my sister Brenna and her fella Billy Russell who only had one arm – they had a moggy minor van. We were all from the Dorking in Surrey area and used to drink in the White Hart.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Great memories, Barry. Thanks very much for sharing them.
    I just looked up ‘Visions of Stonehenge Pt 1’ and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s Super-8 footage of the Stonehenge festival by Chris Waite, who I had the pleasure to meet after my Stonehenge book was published – in 2004, if I recall correctly, at the Big Green Gathering. And the soundtrack is excellent too – Hawkwind, of course, starting off with ‘The Psychedelic Warlords (Disappear in Smoke)’.
    The film’s here: http://vimeo.com/89808330

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    And here’s Part 2: http://vimeo.com/89811296
    And ‘Not the seen’: http://vimeo.com/72905500
    This 46-minute film is described by Chris as follows: “The film ‘Not The Seen’ was shot in 1976 and covers our journey from a winter camp on Andrew Stafford-Cripps’s land near Lampeter, to Stonehenge for the scattering of Wally Hope’s ashes; to the Elan valley, Pontrhydygroes and Meigan Fayre held on a farm near the Preseli hills and organised for free by the local hippies and small holders. We then crossed the island for The Peoples Free Festival which ended up by the coast at Seasalter. Then returning to a homeland we had found on the western side of ‘This precious stone set in the silver sea’.”
    And Chris’s archive on Vimeo, with other films, is here: http://vimeo.com/chriswaite/videos

  5. Barry Hancock says...

    Hello Andy, below is a copy and paste version from my facebook post. The only problem is your page here doesn’t allow photos so you’ll have to imagine the picture of the altar stone or hold a photo in your hand as you read this but I’m sure you’ll manage. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    Stonehenge summer solstice 1988

    Ok just to set the scene, this picture is of the altar stone at stonehenge its where I woke up on summer solstice morning 88 with a wound on the side of my head and my long hair streaked with blood. Here the story unfolds . . . ..

    Well going down stonehenge in 88 and expecting there to be a festival was a bit adventurous to say the least. The few years before had seen a massive police presence all over Wiltshire so much so that some called it a policed state for the whole of june (not to mention Beanfield 85). But anyway we were determined to have a festival come what may.

    I can’t remember where the festival site was or how I got there but I do remember it was in the woods a mile or so from the stones. I recall being camped in the same area as a couple I knew from Surrey who wanted to have a druid wedding that year Salmon and Corrine. Also camped near us were two guys and a girl from the Chertsey (Surrey) area who had a land rover pick up.

    The atmosphere was great there, it was really feeling like how it should with good vibes, music, campfires and fun. Don’t recall how long I was there before the solstice but it seemed like a good few days.

    So on solstice eve you’ve got the festival going full swing and the evenings drawing in and I guess a lot of people are thinking about the march up to the stones personally I hadn’t given it much thought – I was just enjoying the warm vibes of the festie.

    Sometime towards early evening I’m chilling out round where I’m camped probably having food then someone offers me a cup of mushy tea which I savour slowly (whether this was the best thing to do considering how things panned out later who knows, but that’s hindsight for you) then as the night gets later and later people start to talk about going up to the stones – I can’t say I was entirely enthusiastic about the idea of walking a great distance due to the increasing effect the mushy tea was having on me, but anyway I warmed to the idea little by little.

    Ok so we set off or should I say I dragged myself along while the crowd overtook me. It seemed like a long and tiring tramp but we got there in the end or as far as we were going to get for the time being . . . . .

    Lets put it this way, arrayed along a considerable length of the road that runs adjacent to the stones was first us the hippies, then a line of grey waist-high metal barriers, then a line of normal police, then a line of riot police. So there was a stand off which lasted I don’t know how long but there came a time when the line broke and all I can remember is loads of chaos, barriers breaking up and truncheons flying, basically everything just erupted.

    I don’t remember anything else until daybreak.

    We’re back to where I started this post – I’ve just woken up and its broad daylight, I’ve just been made aware (whether intuitively or someone telling me) that I’m laying on the altar stone and the wound on the side of my head tells me I’m injured, so because I’m laying on the altar stone injured my first thought is; ‘oh no I’ve been sacrificed’ – thankfully this thought did not last for long – I got off the stone to realise that there were about 4 or 5 people standing close by, one of them said something along the lines of; ‘you had a good time last night’ to which I thought; ‘that could mean anything under the sun, whether good bad or just plain weird’ but I get the feeling they meant good.

    Its a shame there wasn’t more time to have a chinwag but before I knew it we were being chased off the field by the boys in blue – but while this was happening I had the perception that because the cows in the field were running away from the cops, I actually thought the cops were chasing the cows – poor cows – nasty policemen! I started shouting at the cops to stop chasing the cows – such compassion – hilarious – (all thanks to Mr Mushy! ).when I did get out onto the road I got to what I recall to be an acute angled crossroads and I couldn’t make up my mind which way I should go to get back to the festie – I’d go down one road then change my mind and try another road – it was so confusing – what a headbanger!

    Got back to site to find the cops evicting everyone – what an atmosphere change from the night before. Basically the cops were saying get your stuff in your motor and drive. Salmon and Corrine had left already – I got a lift with the people from the Chertsey area because I lived in Dorking which was close enough anyway it was kind of them to help me out even if it did mean four in the front of a land rover. So I packed up my tent and stuff and headed off to . . . .

    Well I think we stopped off in Addlestone (near Chertsey) at a chemist to get some paracetamol for me to take due to my injury. Next stop was a very quiet travellers site where I could stay. There were only about three benders max in the field. I stashed my tent and stuff in a guys bender hoping to get it later after I’d been to the local hospital to get my head checked out (I never did make it back). The local hospital was a long walk away and when I got there I was told that I might not be seen for a couple of hours – the thought of waiting somewhere for a couple of hours was not something I thought I could cope with – I was too restless – so I went for what I intended to be a walk around the block maybe find a shop and then saunter back to the hospital in a bit more of a collected state of mind (never made it back there either).

    The last thing I remember that night was talking to a tramp somewhere in Addlestone sitting by what seemed to be the river, and I think that’s where I slept.

    Well that’s it. Sorry its a a bit long, but its a bit difficult trying to keep something like that short. I guess part of the reason for writing this is to try to piece together and make sense of such a chaotic yet beautiful time of my life.

    My closing sentiment is quite ironic;
    THAT WAS MY LONGEST DAY!!!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Barry, for the vivid memories. The positive parts of your experience sound wonderful – the festival in the woods before the solstice, for example. The attack by the stones sounds terrible, of course, and I recall it not from personal experience but from researching and writing about it for my book “Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion.”
    Whenever I spend any time thinking about those long-lost days, it strikes me quite how much life has changed – and not, I think generally, for the better. So much control and so much materialism these days …

  7. Roger Edwards says...

    If anyone can find a clear picture of Phil Russell and tell me where he went to school I would be very grateful indeed, my email is rogeredward5@hotmail.com

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Roger. Try Alan Dearling, who may be able to help: ADearling@aol.com
    Alan published my Beanfield book and provided info about Phil that was included in it, and Phil was also featured in Alan’s excellent book ‘Travelling Daze’:
    http://www.enablerpublications.co.uk/pages/travelling_daze.htm

  9. Claire says...

    We went in 1982 I think for the first time, stopped at Stonehenge on the way to see friends who were with them. I remember the first sight of the vehicles of the Peace Convoy on the move there, so exciting to me to see this I wanted to be with them, a sight of freedom and community together. Spent one night there seeing convoy friends. Off to Glasto for the first time ever, saw the queue and realised it wasn’t free!! Straight back to Stonehenge and straight no longer…fantastic days there honest open drug market place with harm reduction even before it has been thought of. Convoy friend knew I was drug worker and wanted me to do welfare tent but I wanted to play……
    Came back again in 84, wonderful time again, Sid the stones, Hawkwind, and the Damned camping behind us in a hearse (thought it was the acid) till the morning. Laughing till nose bleeds and that sweat lodge circle before the trek to the stones…..these memories are unrivaled.
    Each year my heart feels for those days, oh yes and in the midst of Sid’s railings in the stones the shout “What about the miners!” we all hated Thatcher and what she did to us……..I was too frightened to go the next year and spent time crying watching the brutality of the Bean Field…..then came travellers being excluded from festivals….I remember the Elephant Fayre of 85 I think with the convoy coming to the gates and eventually being let in (could be wrong)

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Claire,
    Great, great memories. Thanks for sharing them. Such freedom of movement in those days, which the Beanfield of course curtailed but didn’t kill, as the rave scene and road protest movement sprang up to continue to challenge the establishment. The decisive change, I think, was in ’94 when the Criminal Justice Act was passed.
    I was in Camden the other day, thinking about Reclaim the Streets, and how great that was, not just as a hedonistic day out, but also more fundamentally as a reclamation of public space, although nowadays, of course, the organisers would be arrested as terrorists. The thoughts of Stonehenge’s festival avenues – ‘Hot knives! Speed! Acid!’ – and the little elfin couple who had a barrel of magic mushrooms on my first visit in ’83 is even more removed from our current reality, and almost unimaginable. How sad that the dull people won to such a disturbing extent, and our freedom has so massively been replaced by corporate consumerism.

  11. heidi says...

    Hi . I was in a nasty accident in the 1983 festival . As a 6 month baby . Do you have any articles etc from then as apparently it was on the BBC news etc … The tent I was in caught light while everyone was watching the sun rise etc. I had very bad injuries .

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Heidi,
    I remember hearing about a fire in 1983, but I don’t know of any articles mentioning it. Sorry not to be able to help.

  13. Alice says...

    Hi Andy- I wonder if I could possibly contact you directly regarding an exhibition I am producing on the Free festivals and events in the UK over the past 50 years.

    Stonehenge being a major part of this history, I would love to ask you if you have any images/ content you could contribute. It is in 3 weeks however.

    I look forward to hearing from you- Alice

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Just sent you a reply, Alice. Do tell me more.

  15. Maxine sharp says...

    I’ll never forget Stonehenge 1984 my son was born 6 weeks early right opposite the stones we called him David after the St. John’s ambulance man who delivered him or who was there anyway when he popped out met some amazing people that year who looked after me and also my husband and daughter as my baby and I had to go to hospital and were kept in for a few days the people there showed us wonderful love and I won’t forget that either as for David he has grown up to be a lovely man

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Great memories, Maxine. Thanks for sharing them.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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