Happy 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?
Exactly 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
An 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 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. © 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. © 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.
Andy your communication skill compels my interested willing fascination… mahalo nui loa! E
Well thank you, Erica. I’m honoured.
I was born here on the 25-06-1984 , My mother was attending the festival when she gave birth to me, I was born in the center of the stones …
That’s very cool! Happy birthday for yesterday!
my mother Trish the fish also known as trish the fudge lady! was one of the original Wally’s she met my dad ronald at stonhenge 1975 they hooked up and also were there together during the equinox later in the year as my dad was a druid, i was concieved amongst the stones as they found away to keep warm! and i was born 26 june 1976, i would have been born at stonhenge but doctors wanted me born in hospital as mum was hooked on a lot of drugs and drink. it’s just as well i was born in hospital as i had the dt’s when born and had to be weaned of drugs! so we missed the festival of 76 due to my fight for life, but we went every year after that including 1985! i remember that lad david being born at stonhenge in 1984 as my mum assisted in his delivery! i even got a chance to hold him then he pissed all down me …. boys will be boys
Wow! Thanks for the story, and happy birthday to you too! I had no idea that this article would end up marking the 25th anniversary of the last festival by turning up Stonehenge Birth Stories, but somehow it seems very appropriate …
It reminds me of when my book about the Battle of the Beanfield came out, and the next day a young woman turned up on my doorstep with some friends. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said, “but I saw you were nearby and had to come round and get a book. That baby in the photo on the cover is me.”
was at the last three festivals ,indeed a wonderful alternative to the hellish realities of tory run britain .travelled down from glasgow in my early twenties then missed the battle of the beanfield ,our bus broke down at lancaster………still got some photos somewhere love thomas
Thanks for the comment, Tam. Would love to see the photos if you can ever dig them up.
hi andy ive found the photos have about 4 photos taken at stonehenge and one of me and my late grandmother who in the eighties saved me from being homeless ,apparently she had been a revolutionary type in about 1919-1926 in glasgow attending huge workers rallies in george square listening to john maclean the great socialist thinker of the day .she was there when the tanks were sent into the square against the people .almost fell over with shock when she told me this ,in 1967 my older original hippy brother used to rehearse in her front room with his band .when she was 85 she went one of my gigs in a rocker pub in glasgow ,the look on those bikers faces was priceless .she died aged 92 in 1988 .wonder where i get it from………….
What a life-affirming story, Tam. Thanks for sharing that.
Would still love to see the photos, if you get to scan them, but the story of your grandmother has just trumped everything else …
Wally Hope was not an orphan, although he may as well have been as his Danish(or German he was a nice kind person ) mother only visited from time to time, and was out of the country for very long periods. We used to visit his house in stoke Podges, where he put us up when I first met my husband who was starting off the Roundhouse. His birth certifcated stated he was born in 1947 Windsor. He was a ncie kind person
Thanks for the message, and for clarifying Wally Hope’s status. I actually found out more about Wally’s story after I wrote “Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion” (from which that excerpt was taken), which I included in “The Battle of the Beanfield.” Always interested to hear more, however!
Ally Ally Ally! Hail & well met my fellow heads! (Now elderly heads!) A month at the henge in ’84 shaped my life, my thoughts.. I still hanker for the Chai stall… burial mounds at dawn, wheat fields on the site bike and… and… EVERYTHING!
Love, peace, good times… Les
I went to the free festival at Stonehenge for the first time in 1984. It was an astonishing affair which regrettably I can never experience again. I am so glad I went as alas it was to be the last. Something compelled me to go as I had never done anything like that before or since. I am so proud to have been there! Keep up the good work.
As it will be the 25th anniversary of Wally Hope’s death it might be nice to do something on the 3rd of September (the date of his death) this year.
I was there in ’84, it was my third Stonehenge. The festival made a real impression on me.
Speed supper, chemical breakfast. Half a mix! We smoked a chillum in the stones after watching Hawkwind. There was nakedness and celebration and madness! I remember a girl shaking her boobs at a policeman and a guy stood on top of one of the stones and then something in the chillum, I think opium, did my head in and me and my friend just ran! What a day we had. Such fun!
I think it was a shame it ended , but also good in a way, becuse it wold have changed and become commercialised and lost it’s true heart.
[...] galvanized dissenters in large numbers from the early 1990s, and which, in turn, were influenced by the travellers’ movement in the 1970s and the 1980s, and the anti-nuclear protests focused on Greenham Common and [...]
[...] galvanized dissenters in large numbers from the early 1990s, and which, in turn, were influenced by the travellers’ movement in the 1970s and the 1980s, and the anti-nuclear protests focused on Greenham Common and [...]
I was there in 83 and 84,living under tarp opposite the big cider tent(skull n crossbones flag)
Many other free fests too,great days,acid,veg burgers and hereૐnow band ahhh magick…
first time saw stonehenge was in 1972 (8 years old) when my old man took me on holiday and there were lots of people with no clothes on, then and there decided i like this idea, so in 1982 got to go to my first festival, spent a week there and best holiday ever, just easy, free, relaxed and many new friends. it now became mission to go to every one after that, 1983 was good year realy enjoyed my self but had to much of something and ended up in hells angels tent, didn’t know anyone or how got there, but one best laughs i had all week. 1984 was the best ever or the ones after 1981 for me, spent nearly 3 weeks there it was hot every day and was lovely sitting under water taps cooling down, managed to drive over some ones cocconut bong that 10 years old, oops, drove into camper van at 3 in morning and woke the occupants, to comments like, what the fu k happening, oops, took to much off something and fell on someones tent and it broke, oops, and on way home drove through a hedge then ditch and into corn field, oops, but can say best time ever, the only thing that did get to me was the sexy belgium woman who was next to us walking around naked all the time, well as blokes do u look at the sky or the beaver when u chatting, well as bloke managed to do both lol, when got home my old man said where did u go on holiday to which i said cornwall, then he delivered the punchline, “so that wasn’t u walking accross tele screen on southern news” any way managed to bull sh t my way out of it, hope some one likes this comment and has bit of a giggle over it and remembers, true festival days
Thanks, Phil, for the recollections!
Thank you so much Andy. Your writings on Stonehenge have really helped, not just on my free festival essays but in making me much more aware of the history that proceeds me!
You’re welcome, Adam. Thank you for the comments. Shining a light on what has happened in the past, to understand what is happening now, was a major intention.
[...] during Winter and Summer solstices and performed their rituals. The site was also the stage of a free festival which was a celebration of different alternative cultures. Nowadays Stonehenge is under a lot of [...]
This is amazing. Thank you.
Was talking with my colleagues today about my 1974 experiences at Stonehenge. So long ago, such a great time. Kevin, Arthur, Alan, Chris…are you still out there experiencing the wonderful world in which we lived, and learned and grew? Windsor Free Festival and all its chaos? Walking inside Stonehenge before it was totally roped off? Good times. Good memories. I wish you all sun and light.
Great to hear from you, Heidi. Very interesting that you were at Stonehenge in ’74. I don’t think the world as it is now compares very favourably to the 1970s.
We were more innocent then, and more enlightened in many ways. But I have a 21 year old who is rather similar to the way i once was…so it continues.
Nicely put, Heidi. Sometimes I get so distracted by the bigger political picture that I am in danger of forgetting that individuals can be unaffected by it all, and can make their own wonderful lives despite the many obstacles. It does indeed continue!
My friend and I did O’levels in the morning and in the afternoon we were hitching down to Stonehenge. The year was 1974. How did we find out about it with no Internet? I can’t remember, maybe from Radio Caroline or the old NME.
It was all very hippyish and cool. I can’t remember there being any police, and in those days you could get right up to the stones. The day dawned hot and sunny and we both walked into Amesbury at silly o’clock, like 6am or something, with this guy who had obviously had a bit too much acid. We spent the rest of the day laying around get very sunburnt. Late afternoon we decided to hitch up to London and that’s just what we did.
I look back at my 1974 Stonehenge visit with great fondness and whenever I see it as I have done when passing it on my drive to Cornwall numerous times over the years I feel very wistful and part of me yearns for that time again.
Thanks, Gillian. Mainly, while reading your memories, I thought how much simpler things were back then. Even when I was there, in ’83 and ’84, there were times of great licence, wandering – a little the worse for wear, shall we say – into Salisbury, for example, but feeling generally unsupervised. Now there’s too much surveillance, and too many people far too uptight about order. Back then it was just Mary Whitehouse!
Yes Andy I think what you say is very true. Sadly those times can never be repeated, only remembered. I am impressed that you made it in to Salisbury…..it’s just come back to me through the mists of time that we got our final lift from Salisbury to Stonehenge with a load of other hippies who were also on their way there and from what I can recall it wasn’t just round the corner!! Another memory I have is the friend who I was with lost one of her contact lenses and wanted me to help her look for it. Erm you have just lost a contact lens on Salisbury Plain – hands up those who think we will find it!
Brilliant. Thanks, Gillian – “Erm you have just lost a contact lens on Salisbury Plain – hands up those who think we will find it!”
I was there in 83 and 84. My most vivid memories are of the Hell’s Angels tea van, the “acid!” man (he used to walk around shouting “Acid, Acid!”, The Tibetans, the Teepee people, ready rolled joints for sale when you were too messed up to do them yourself, they were 50p if I remember correctly and Hawkwind.
We were in our ‘camper’, which was a 1970′s Luton transit with a camping stove and a mattress, hand painted brown and cream I remember being completely wasted and watching Rodin statues materialise in the skies and the fibreglass on the inside of the van roof forming itself into the word “laugh” all over the roof. I also remember tourists taking pictures of us.
It was remarkably peaceful for such a mixture of people and the only cross words I ever heard there were from a Druid who took exception to a woman breastfeeding during his ceremony. She was arguing the right to feed her baby (who was totally uninterested in feeding at the time) and thrusting her breast at the poor child.
Another memory is trying to find somewhere secluded to pee (queues for the toilet were long) and being a bit out of it I dropped my jeans where I thought it was ok, only to find my ass illuminated in some headlights
The smell of woodsmoke takes me right back there too. I live 10 minutes drive from Stonehenge now but I really doubt that the stones will see anything quite like those festivals again. It makes me sad that today’s young people don’t seem to have any freedom, it’s all organised and sterile.
Thanks for the memories, Jackie. Yes, when you think back ad compare then to now, it’s all extremely controlled now. I’m not advocating a return to being messed up, but it’s horribly, achingly apparent that the dull people took over.
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
Email Andy Worthington
Please support Andy Worthington, independent journalist: