RIP Sid Rawle, Land Reformer, Free Festival Pioneer, Stonehenge Stalwart

8.9.10

So farewell, then, Sid Rawle, who passed away, aged 64, at the end of his annual SuperSpirit summer camp, overlooking the River Severn near Rodley, on August 31. The “King of the Hippies,” as the press dubbed him — although it was never a title that he claimed for himself — Sid played a major part in the British counter-culture from the 1960s until his death, although he is, of course, best known for his involvement in the free festival movement, first at Windsor, from 1972 to 1974, and then at Stonehenge, until the violent suppression of the festival in 1985.

The author and activist Jeremy Sandford (who died in 2003) described him as “the squatter to end them all, having squatted flats, houses, commons, forests, a village, boats, an island, an army camp, Windsor Great Park,” and I would only add that, if I was to be asked to identify one topic for which he should be remembered, it was his passion for land reform in the UK, something that the State always regards with the utmost fear and suspicion.

I only met Sid once, when I was invited to attend his SummerSpirit camp in August 2004, following the publication of my book Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion. I arrived to find Sid and the author and historian Ronald Hutton sitting together at a table in the camp’s café, greeting me warmly and congratulating me on writing the social history of Stonehenge and the counter-culture that they had hoped someone would eventually write (which was a great honour), and I spent a thoroughly enjoyable few days hanging out, holding a few workshops, at which I read out excerpts from the book and Sid chipped in, drawing on his vast repertoire of memories of the time, and, one evening, watching political folk-rockers Seize the Day play a storming set.

People tended to either love or loathe Sid, but I was given the most gracious welcome, and have nothing but respect for his revolutionary example. At the time of my visit, he was surrounded by supportive family members, who all made me feel extremely welcome, and his camp — which aimed to have no more than 400 people present — appeared to be a refined example of the kind of gatherings that he was involved in establishing in the 1970s — often chaotic affairs, but ones that were seeking out a new world.

Below I publish excerpts from Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion that deal with Sid’s life, interspersed with some contemporary commentary, and at the end of this article I publish Sid’s manifesto, “The Vision of Albion,” and some comments by Jeremy Sandford regarding his failings, and his attempts to address them in later life.

Sid Rawle and his contributions to the British counter-culture

In the mid-1960s, Sid was already a colourful figure in London’s counter-cultural scene, where he gave the youthful squatting movement some historical ballast by establishing the Hyde Park Diggers, inspired by the example of the original seventeenth century Diggers, founded by Gerrard Winstanley […]

By 1970, John Lennon was so impressed by Sid Rawle’s revolutionary rhetoric that he summoned him to the offices of Apple, the Beatles’ short-lived and ill-conceived Utopian business offshoot, and offered him custodianship of Dorinish Island — a small, uninhabited island off the coast of County Mayo that Lennon had bought in 1967 — for use as a Digger commune, ‘for the common good’. After a brief recruitment drive amongst the hippies of London, twenty-five adults and a baby duly set off for the west coast of Ireland. Rawle described their initial experience as follows: ‘We decided we would hold a six-week summer camp on the island. Then we would see what came out of that and decide if we wanted to extend our stay. It was heaven and it was hell. We lived in tents because there were no stone buildings on the island at all’, although he concluded that, ‘Most of the time it was really good’.

In the end, the Diggers stayed for two years, growing their own vegetables, which they stored in specially dug hollows, and cadging lifts off the local oyster fishermen every fortnight or so for supplementary shopping trips to Westport on the mainland. There was a certain amount of conflict — in March 1971 The Connaught Telegraph declared, ‘After a year of seething anger, Westport has finally declared war on the ‘Republic of Dorinish’ — but the commune finally closed down of its own volition the year after, when a fire destroyed the main tent used to store supplies.

Rawle had made sporadic visits to England throughout the duration of the commune. At the Glastonbury Fayre in June 1971, for example, free food had been provided by two groups — the wittily named Communal Knead, and Sid’s Diggers, now known as the Digger Action Movement. On his return to London in the spring of 1972, he took the Diggers’ message on from Dorinish and Glastonbury to a new and more politically explosive location. Along with members of the Free City of Camden, ‘a loose street-by-street network of squatters, revolutionaries and artists’ and the ubiquitous White Panthers, he was involved in setting up the first People’s Free Festival in Windsor Great Park over the August Bank Holiday weekend, under the leadership of Bill ‘Ubi’ Dwyer, a well-known anarchist activist, ‘on the basis of an acid vision he’d had’.

Windsor was the most direct affront to the land rights of the establishment yet seen. By squatting the Queen’s own backyard, the festival’s organizers were joining the Diggers in taking on unfinished historical business. Windsor’s park had been common land before it was enclosed by King George III to provide himself with an exclusive hunting ground. The hippies were simply taking back land that had been stolen from the people for 200 years.

The People’s Free Festival ran for three years, growing in size and influence, with the result that, in 1974, it was violently suppressed by the authorities. In the meantime, another charismatic individual, Phil Russell (aka Wally Hope) had established the Stonehenge Free Festival at Britain’s most celebrated ancient monument. Phil died in mysterious circumstances the following year, but the Stonehenge Free Festival had already taken root, and Sid Rawle soon became involved:

Imprisoned after the last Windsor festival along with Bill Dwyer, Sid came to Stonehenge as one of the chief organizers of the fourth People’s Free Festival, which took place in August 1975 at Watchfield, a disused airfield in Oxfordshire. Set up as a one-off replacement for the bitterly contested Windsor site, Watchfield was an extraordinary event — the only instance in British history of the government providing a free festival site. Although no inquest had taken place after the brutal suppression of Windsor the year before, Home Secretary Roy Jenkins clearly felt that the hippies were due some kind of compensation. Independent reports suggested that the police’s instructions for people to leave the site had not been clearly heard, that the Drug Squad broke the law in searching suspects for drugs, that excessive force had been used in the eviction of the site, and in particular that the 220 people arrested had been treated with unnecessary harshness. Taken to a nearby army barracks, suspects were made to undress completely, and were subjected to anal and vaginal searches, according to one of the doctors present.

Watchfield duly cemented the success of the second Stonehenge Free Festival, running for nine days, attracting over 5,000 people, and providing the clearest working example to date of the free festival as a self-regulating alternative community, despite a persistent police presence that led to ninety-five arrests, and despite sporadic violence from the Windsor chapter of the Hell’s Angels. Festival regular Convoy Steve ‘especially liked the daily site meetings where everyone sat around and said their piece. Policy was made, site matters were discussed and it felt like real democracy in action’ […]

In the end, however, the most significant aspect of the trade-off between the festival-goers and the government that led to the provision of Watchfield was that it also included the Stonehenge Free Festival in its ambit. According to Sid Rawle, ‘the representatives stated that if they [the festival-goers] kept away from Windsor Great Park, they would be left alone at Stonehenge’.

From 1976 to 1984, Sid was a key figure in the summer solstice celebrations at Stonehenge, where, as I explained in relation to my own visit in 1984, “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.”

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

Summer solstice at Stonehenge, 1984 (Sid Rawle, arms outstretched, greets the sun). Photo copyright Alan Lodge.

During this period, Sid was also involved in establishing the enormously influential Tipi Valley community in south Wales (also see here, here and here), where he lived from 1976 to 1982. He was then involved in setting up the Peace Convoy, which traveled from Stonehenge to Greenham Common in 1981, in solidarity with the Women’s Peace Camp, and in 1984 was involved in establishing the Rainbow Village at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, the proposed site for the second cruise missile base in the UK after Greenham, which was broken up by the largest peacetime mobilization of the military in February 1985.

He was also involved in numerous other free festivals — mainly in the West Country and Wales — that were part of the travelling free festival community’s summer itinerary, and in establishing smaller, more sustainable gatherings than Stonehenge, whose unfettered anarchy — and crowds of 50,000 or more throughout the month of June — prompted the violent clampdown at the Beanfield in June 1985.

In the summer of 1980, for example:

[T]he first Ecology Party Summer Gathering was held at Worthy Farm in Pilton. This small but significant step for the nascent ecological movement was convened by Michael Eavis in the absence of the Glastonbury festival, which he’d been forced to cancel for a year while he juggled the financial loss he’d made in 1979 with his ambitious plans for a larger festival in 1981. Significantly, the Summer Gathering brought the existing green pioneers, including Jonathan Porritt, into contact with the ecological leanings of the free festival scene for the first time. Music was provided by Roy Harper and Nik Turner’s Inner City Unit, and Sid Rawle became so involved that he was duly elected to the Party Council at the Autumn Conference in Cardiff, when ‘a controversial motion for the legalisation of cannabis was passed’.

In July 1982, Sid was involved in establishing the first Green Gathering at Worthy Farm, a development of the Ecology Party meetings that attracted over 5,000 people. As I explained in Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion:

As well as widening the scope of the green movement, the gathering also established a template for sustainable gatherings that were able to maintain the ethos of the free festivals in the face of a growing influx of less focused ‘consumers’. The music was restricted to acoustic music only, everyone was encouraged to participate — financially, physically and spiritually — and it’s significant that the Green Gatherings, as well as other small scale gatherings along the same lines, are still running today [although see this report about the cancellation of the Big Green Gathering in 2009].

In 1985, after the Battle of the Beanfield, when over 1,300 police from six counties cornered a convoy travelling to Stonehenge to establish the 12th free festival and subjected men, women and children to brutal treatment, abruptly ending the festival and signaling an end to the state’s tolerance of the burgeoning new age traveller movement — and its interest in land reform and political campaigning against militarism and nuclear power — Sid retired from the road, settling in the Forest of Dean with his family, where he lived until his death.

On the day of the Beanfield, as I explained in my book The Battle of the Beanfield, Sid “was so convinced that the state was planning a disproportionate response to the threat posed by the convoy that he stayed behind in Savernake [Forest, the location from which the convoy for Stonehenge had set off], 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.”

He may have been right, but we will never know. Personally, I think that, even if disaster had been avoided at the Beanfield, the State was committed to destroying the travellers’ movement. The Beanfield took place just four months after the eviction of Molesworth, and the two events were not unconnected. Both the Greenham women and the Rainbow Village had attracted the wrath of Margaret Thatcher’s government by opposing cruise missile bases on UK soil, and I have always maintained that the only reason that the authorities could not truncheon the Greenham protestors into submission — as they did with the travellers at the Battle of the Beanfield — was because they were women. With the Rainbow Village, however, the Stonehenge connection meant that “decommissioning” the travellers en route to Stonehenge could be sold to the media and the public as ridding the country of a violent anarchic scourge.

Sid subsequently became involved with the Green Party (as it developed from its original incarnation as the Ecology Party), and, after also playing a part in the Oak Dragon and Rainbow Circle camps — developments of the smaller scale gatherings pioneered in the early 1980s — set up Rainbow 2000, which held a number of camps each summer, including the SuperSpirit camp at which he passed away, while packing up on its final day.

Sunset at the SuperSpirit camp, August 2004 (photo by Andy Worthington)

Sunset at the SuperSpirit summer camp, August 2004.

The Vision of Albion
By Sid Rawle

In the end it all gets back to land. Looking back, I see that a link that runs through my life concerns the right to land and property on it.

Shared out equally, there would be a couple of acres for every adult living in Britain. That would mean each family or group could have a reasonably sized small holding of ten or twenty acres and learn once again to become self sufficient.

The present day reality is the reverse, with some folk owning hundreds of thousands of acres and others owning none. That can’t be fair!

There’s talk of community in wartime. We can be ordered to go and fight and die for Queen and country. In peacetime is it too much to ask for just a few square yards of our green and pleasant land to rear our children on?

That’s all we want, myself and the squatters and travellers and hippy movements I’ve been involved with. Just a few square yards of this land that we can quite easily be asked to go out and die for.

And if we ever achieve that, what else? What else is what I call the Vision of Albion.

Albion, the most ancient name of this fair country. It was in Albion that the industrial revolution occurred. And I and many others now have a sneaking suspicion that in Albion will be forged the first post industrial society, a Green Community in this green land, living in equity and peace.

The Vision of Albion is a vision of one world united in love, a vision of unity in diversity. Not the same chant every day. Not everyone finding the same cure for the same ills. But a vision of all people uniting in love and respect for one another.

We have to find out how all us individuals in the world can have enough space to live in love and harmony, enough to be self-sufficient and be ourselves, and how to give everyone else this space. That is the vision of Albion, that is the vision of the Rainbow people.

It is the Rainbow vision because the rainbow is the symbol of God’s promise. And it is the vision of Albion because there is a sneaking feeling amongst some of us that it is from these islands, the islands that make up Albion, that change will come. So many of the white man’s dreadful fuck-ups in the world originated here. It is from these islands that peace and harmony must come.

Because although we’ve given the world so many of its institutions and a common language to communicate to each other in, we’ve lost our own real ancient roots. We don’t know who built our stone circles, how they did it, how they loved, what their economic system was, what their religion was, all this we’re ignorant of.

All over the world there are other peoples who do remember what their roots are, people who are still in touch with their tribal history. What lies deep in their systems must also lie deep within our system. We have to learn to find it again.

We have to reclaim or rediscover some of their ancient wisdom, the wisdom of ancient Albion.

There’s no magic in this, no mystery, however. The mystery is that we keep ourselves in hell when we could be in heaven. That’s the mystery.

Note: Sid attracted criticism as well as praise during his life, and it would not be fair and balanced to present this article without acknowledging his failings. The best comments I have seen came from Jeremy Sandford, who explained how his “enthusiastic breaking down of what were then perceived as the shackles of sexual taboos, including boundaries of age, sex, or style, which were such a feature of the sixties, were in Sid’s case characterised by a fervour which, though not unusual then, became inappropriate when carried on into the time of vastly different sexual mores of the 80s and 90s.” He added that Sid, “although still admired by many, was not sufficiently able to change, or change enough, in these areas.”

After working with Sid on his unpublished memoirs, Jeremy Sandford noted, “Speaking very frankly of all of this and while defending his actions in many cases and roundly condemning his critics, there are areas in which the present day mature Sid feels he has erred and strayed into actions which he now regrets.” He also wrote that, in his memoirs, his “confession of mistakes, and what amounts to his first public confession and apology, gives to his book an added poignancy and resonance.” As I mentioned above, excerpts of the book are available here (scroll down for links that begin with “sid”), and I hope that someone will one day be able to make the whole manuscript available.

For further information about Sid Rawle, see the videos here, and the obituaries here, here and here. For 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, 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 July 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.

24 Responses

  1. rainbow jo says...

    I really appreciate your clarity Andy, always good to read your articles. Haven’t seen Sid for many years, but I moved in the same circles for a while – Peace camps, festivals, Rainbow Village on the road… I also stayed behind at Savernake and can reliably report that at the moment we heard (over the police radio we were listening to) the order to go in and arrest everyone, Sid staggered out of his truck, beard aflame… Sid was always interesting to listen to, very involved with his children, and I counted Jules as a good friend. But like many young women, I found his sexual advances repulsive. We young feminists did have a problem with the patriarchal culture of much of the convoy!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jo. Great to hear from you, and thanks for the insights. Hope all is well.

  3. dicegeorge says...

    Sid was a character I recognised at many Stonehenge Free Festivals, and I talked with him a few times when we were camping at Greenlands Farm Glastonbury summer of 1985 after Stonehenge… last time I saw him was here at Jeremy Sandford’s funeral – he was sitting in the snug when Viv shouted at him that he was dirty old man and he retreated to the garden – shame that his past goatism led to him hiding out in the forest for his last decades …

    My links to Jeremy’s unfinished biography of Sid are:

    http://www.jeremysandford.org.uk/jsarchive/sid-intro.html Contents and Introduction

    http://www.jeremysandford.org.uk/jsarchive/sid-kinghipp.html
    Contents

    http://www.jeremysandford.org.uk/jsarchive/sid-exmoor.html
    Exmoor

    http://www.jeremysandford.org.uk/jsarchive/sid-dropout.html
    Dropping Out in the Sixties

    http://www.jeremysandford.org.uk/jsarchive/sid-johnlen1.html
    Life on John Lennon’s Island

    http://www.jeremysandford.org.uk/jsarchive/sid-johnlen2.html
    Life on John Lennon’s Island (2)
    A storm deprives the little community of most of their homes

    http://www.jeremysandford.org.uk/jsarchive/sid-tipi1.html
    Sid sees his first Tipi and resolves to own one

    http://www.jeremysandford.org.uk/jsarchive/sid-tipi2.html
    Advantages of Living in a Tipi

    http://www.jeremysandford.org.uk/jsarchive/sid-convoy1.html
    Sid invents the Peace Convoy

    http://www.jeremysandford.org.uk/jsarchive/sid-convoy2.html
    At Nostell Priory; Arrival of the Riot Police

    http://www.jeremysandford.org.uk/jsarchive/sid-convoy3.html
    The Vision of Albion

    http://www.jeremysandford.org.uk/jsarchive/sid-omit.html
    Bits omitted from Sid Rawle

    [george]

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Here are some comments from Facebook:

    Dave Digger wrote:

    Thats a lovely piece Andy.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Gareth Newnham wrote:

    Great article.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Spencer Spratley wrote:

    Lovely. Shared.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Neil Goodwin wrote:

    i remember seeing a huge picture of sid at stonehenge 84 on a billboard in north london — i think it was selling life insurance or some such nonsense. the video history trust has a lengthy interview with Sid that gareth and i did for ‘Operation Solstice’. he used to ‘doss down’ in underpasses for the night and wear a little bell round his neck. He was a fascinating, forthright, colourful, creative mover and shaker, and will never be forgotten while I’m alive.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Stephen Summers wrote:

    Thanks, well written article Andy. Some of the hippies tried to break the mores of family and communal living. That breaking of taboos rebounded on them as in Sids case as the times they were a changing.
    The heroes of the counter culture revolution were not it seems without their flaws. RIP Sid

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Dave Digger wrote:

    Indeed, but I must remind everyone that Sid’s flaws (and indeed my own) were used and exaggerated by the forces of darkness in order to besmirch in an organised fashion, using spies and fellow travellers. One of them confessed this to me many years later. It worked (and still does).

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    This was my reply:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Much appreciated. Anyone have any good anecdotes? I love this one from Simon Fairlie, which I received via a Yahoo group I’m part of:

    Sid’s best stunt at the 71 [Glastonbury] festival was when a hot dog salesman set up his van right in front of the pyramid stage. Sid sent his minions out to hassle for donations, drove off to Bristol and bought hundreds of rolls and sausages, and then set up a “free hot dog” stand right next to the salesman — who packed up and drove off.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    And here, finally, is a mainstream obituary — in the Daily Telegraph, no less:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/7992526/Sid-Rawle.html

  12. Jason says...

    Hi, great piece on Sid, never knew him but saw him around a lot in the late 70′s early 80′s. You don’t by any chance have a bigger picture of Stonehenge ’84? I’d love a look at those faces. Far left beardy with hat (green) George Firshoff, worked for ‘self help’ Housing in Bristol, but I think he may now have passed too.
    Best Jason

  13. Minkie says...

    I knew Sid closely from before 144 Piccadilly until after Watchfield.

    I will miss his Cornish burr, his determined hippydom and his taste in greasy spoon fry-ups..

    Yes he was friendly, yes he liked to think himself a ladies’ man which, to some degree he was, but in my day relationships were negotiated – he must have gone ‘weird’ in later days.

    Farewell my Bear of Little Brain

  14. Tibetan tony says...

    mmmmmm sad to hear about sid. Had quite a long love & hate relationship tro many years and many struggles. No doubt he inspired a lot of people and put them on a good path

  15. Ploughshares Jeanne says...

    the world is a drabber place without Sid. He certainly had a view of women that was at odds with feminist thinking but I never found him pushy. He looked after those he considered disadvantaged and as far as I could see he faithfully followed his own moral code. I remember him and Jules with great affection. Although it must be twenty years since I’ve seen them, I miss them still. I hope his spirit lives on.

  16. Jim..........from the Warped Ones! says...

    I remember Sid well. I don’t think he liked us lot, but i always had respect for him as one of the founders of the Free festival movement. God bless him, at least he made a mark on this world. I will always remember those days as the best in my life.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comment, Jim. Good to hear from you.

  18. Anastacia Stonechild says...

    Thanks for the detailed write up on my Dad. . . I miss him so much. . . . . Thanks again.

    Staci.

  19. bev richardson says...

    ha what to say well i knew sid closely for many years and visited him and jules was going to visit him last autumn but time caught up with us sadly .. love him or leave him he was a power of our generation and in his way a great man . my own thoughts of him are full of love and respect for all he did by the by he was an exmoor farm lad not a cornish man as some say…

    it was sid who gave del and me our first tipi who drove his old rubber duck to the far north shore of scotland to bring us home to the valley a beloved brother warts an all … many who professed to loath him did so for the same reasons as so many loved him ..cant win them all …

    for myself he is missed his quick wit and humor his insight and honest outspoken words the so called alternative society could do with people of his commitment and talent now….
    so to my brother sid fair well good man.. love luck and laughter bev.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Bev. Very glad that you’re obviously still happy and well.

  21. Bloggulator says...

    I recall Sid at so many of those wonderful events of the 1970s and 1980s in which the people explored self-expression, liberty, sustainability and self-policing. This was a movement with which the UK (and US) authorities were, as expected, most uncomfortable; I was one of many thousands who were on the sharp end of their institutionalized paranoia.

    When real history looks back at those times unfettered by the mandates of current politics, it will show that the ‘hippies’ were absolutely correct: we have but one planet, and we need to be responsible stewards. If not, Mother Nature will inevitably react to our collective irresponsibility and consign humanity to the swing-top filing-cabinet of evolutionary failure. We are already witnessing the acceleration of the decline of the habitability of Earth for humankind.

    Sid Rawle knew. RIP.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Bloggulator. Very good to hear from you, and thanks for the analysis of where we are now, and what the “hippies” knew.

  23. Jim Fitzsimmons says...

    Sid was a great guy. He often visited me in my teepee in tipi valley. He was humble enough to listen to my wife’s bedtime bible stories to our children. Then we would talk on serious nonsense for hours as the fire flickered fondly. He would then depart like an ancient king to his tipi. We were homeless and it was Sid that sorted out a tipi for us. We have never ever forgotten his kindness that winters day in Cwmdu. Lots of love to all the kids, Jim Fitzsimmons, Annette and our three kids.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Lovely memories. Thanks, Jim.

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