On a fine morning at Stonehenge, an estimated 20,000 people turned up to watch the midsummer sun shine into the heart of Britain’s most celebrated ancient monument. Numbers were down on last year, when the solstice took place on a weekend, presumably because so many revellers had to be at work this morning, but those who made the journey were rewarded with the kind of sunrise that the temple’s builders obviously had in mind when they first shaped and raised its giant sarsen stones over 4,000 years ago.
I haven’t attended the summer solstice at Stonehenge for five years, as my work on Guantánamo and related issues has taken over my life, but the summer solstice at the temple still fascinates me, as it did 26 years ago, in 1984, when I first witnessed it during the last Stonehenge Free Festival. As I explained in my book Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, a counter-cultural history of Stonehenge:
[O]n 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.
The anarchic annual gathering in the fields opposite Stonehenge, which began in 1974, was brutally crushed the year after my visit — 25 years ago — at the Battle of the Beanfield, when over 1,300 police from six counties and the Ministry of Defence, with the approval of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, used unprecedented violence, in a civil context, savagely attacking 450 new age travellers, green activists and festival-goers as they attempted to make their way to Stonehenge to establish the 12th festival.
Police violence at the Battle of the Beanfield, June 1, 1985 (Photo copyright Tim Malyon).
As I explained on June 1, on the 25th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield, this “notoriously violent, one-sided confrontation … crippled the New traveller movement in the UK, brought to an end the annual Stonehenge Free Festival, and marked the start of a concerted effort to curtail civil liberties in the UK, particular as they related to protests and gatherings without prior consent.”
To mark the occasion, I’m reproducing below a short excerpt from Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, dealing with the distressing aftermath of the Beanfield. I hope that those celebrating at Stonehenge last night and this morning know that the open celebrations at Stonehenge, which began in 2000, only came about after 15 years of exile, which began with the Beanfield, and was followed, for over a decade, by the imposition of an exclusion zone around Stonehenge that was brutally enforced until the Law Lords finally ruled in 1999 that it was illegal.
Stonehenge summer solstice 1985: the aftermath of the Beanfield
From Chapter 8 (“Suppression”) of Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion by Andy Worthington
After the Beanfield, the travellers and hard-core festival-goers tried to regroup themselves. Some of the battered survivors fled to Glastonbury, where they received a welcome in the orchard of Greenlands Farm in the nearby village of Wick. Bruce Garrard, part of the Rainbow Village Peace Camp at Molesworth, commented that “Glastonbury was the only place that seemed to offer any kind of sanctuary at all.” Others limped back to Savernake Forest [from where the convoy ambushed in the Beanfield had originally set off], where more travellers, oblivious to the carnage occurring down the road, had continued to gather. The police approached the Earl of Cardigan [the owner of Savernake Forest, who subsequently spoke out in defence of the travellers, having witnessed the police’s brutality] for permission to evict the site. “They said they wanted to go into the campsite ‘suitably equipped’ and ‘finish unfinished business,’” the Earl told Squall magazine. “Make of that phrase what you will. I said to them that if it was my permission they were after, they did not have it. I did not want a repeat of the grotesque events that I’d seen the day before.” With the police rebuffed, the travellers had a few days to recuperate before a legal eviction order was raised, but it was clear that the area around Stonehenge was to remain off-limits to them throughout the solstice period.
On the morning of the solstice, the great sarsens of Stonehenge were guarded, imprisoned and alone. Even the Druids were banned. The Ancient Druid Order [who had been celebrating at Stonehenge, on and off, for nearly 80 years] performed a midnight ceremony at the familiar “double circle” on Normanton Down, before heading down to Maiden Castle in Dorset for the solstice dawn. Pagans for Peace, a group of fifty people who had walked to Stonehenge from London, were the only observers of the solstice dawn at the monument, strung out along the perimeter fence like refugees catching a glimpse of forbidden freedom. The Times ran a report: “Shivering beneath their protective blankets they held hands and chanted ‘I am at one with the infinite sun,’” although “The object of their worship remained hidden behind the cloud which dispensed unremitting rain.”
In the end, 2,000 people held a reconvened Stonehenge Solstice Celebration at Bratton Castle, an Iron Age hill-fort and, appropriately enough, a former Neolithic ritual site, complete with a long barrow, above the Westbury White Horse just twelve miles north west of Stonehenge. Hawkwind turned up to play, and the police stayed off-site. To this extent it was a triumph, although the fall-out from recent events was still readily apparent. Margaret Greenfields, a festival regular and welfare volunteer, recalled, “It was like a refugee camp — mud, rain, wind, people shocked and dazed, a man with a broken leg in plaster hauling water in the mud, people with dysentery.”
The alternative Stonehenge festival at Bratton Castle hill-fort, June 1985 (Photo copyright Alan Lodge)
Throughout the summer, the travellers attempted to hold their lives together. In late July, some of the Convoy made it to Cleeve Common in Gloucestershire, where an impromptu free festival took place, comprising a few hundred people at most. Others held a festival at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, and in August the survivors moved onto the Cantlin Stone festival, which must have seemed like a rare and dependable oasis. In September, a brave collective of agitators on the south coast organized the first Torpedo Town free festival, at which Hawkwind made another appearance, and as the season came to an end, many of the travellers returned to rest in the welcoming orchard of Greenlands Farm. The worst year of their lives was over, but the violence and intimidation was not yet complete.
For what happened next, see Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion or The Battle of the Beanfield, a second book that I compiled and edited in 2005, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Beanfield.
For now, however, I’d simply like to wish everyone a happy solstice, and to leave you with a handful of photos from summer solstice at Stonehenge over the last 100 years!
Summer solstice at Stonehenge, 1910.
Summer solstice at Stonehenge, 1963 (Photo copyright the estate of Austin Underwood).
Summer solstice at Stonehenge, 1976.
Summer solstice at Stonehenge, 1984 (Photo copyright Alan Lodge).
Summer solstice at Stonehenge, 1985 (Photo copyright Alan Lodge).
Summer solstice at Stonehenge, 2001 (Photo copyright Stuart Henderson).
Summer solstice at Stonehenge, 2003 (Photo by Andy Worthington).
Note: For further information about the Beanfield and its impact on civil liberties, see this article I wrote for the Guardian last year, and this accompanying article, and also see the articles here and here, written to mark the 25th anniversary. Also see these articles about Stonehenge here and here (and also see here for information about a book of photos from the 1994 Solsbury Hill road protest). Also see the website of Alan Lodge, and the Festival Zone website.
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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
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sorry too hear the battle of the beanfeild ever happend ,i attended the wonderfull evening of sunday the 20th june 2010 , at stonehenge,the police presents was a little over the top,but it did not spoil the magical experience that i had there,im not pagain christian jew or muslim, i just have a feeling for everything good that is in our lives and stonehenge is good and i will be back in 2011
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