It’s 30 Years Since Margaret Thatcher Trashed the Travellers’ Movement at the Battle of the Beanfield

1.6.15

The front cover of "The Battle of the Beanfield," edited by Andy Worthington.Buy my book, The Battle of the Beanfield, here.

Exactly 30 years ago, on June 1, 1985, a convoy of vehicles trying to get to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual free festival in the fields opposite Britain’s most famous ancient monument, was set upon with violence on a scale that has not otherwise been witnessed in peacetime in modern times in the UK.

Around 1,400 police from six counties and the Ministry of Defence were in Wiltshire to “decommission” the convoy, which consisted of around 500 new age travellers, free festival goers and environmental activists. The police were thwarted in their efforts to arrest the majority of the convoy via a roadblock, and the travellers then occupied a pasture field and an adjacent bean field, establishing a stand-off that was only broken late in the afternoon, when, under instructions from on high, the police invaded the fields en masse, and violently assaulted and arrested the travellers — men, women and children — smashing up their vehicles to try and make sure this new nomadic movement would never be able to function again.

Successive waves of legislation — the Public Order Act of 1986 and the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 — largely destroyed Britain’s traveller community, although there were fascinating eruptions of dissent along the way — in particular via the rave scene of the late 80s and early 90s, and the road protest movement that was a direct descendant of the free festival movement. Unable to travel freely, protestors rooted themselves to a fixed spot, occupying land regarded as sacred and, in many noteworthy cases, living in trees in an effort to prevent road-building projects from taking place.

At Stonehenge, after the Battle of the Beanfield, an exclusion zone was declared every June, to prevent the festival from ever taking place again, but eventually, in a memorable ruling in 1999, this was ruled illegal by the Law Lords, and since then what remains of Britain’s counter-cultural tribes — largely supplemented with the hedonistic youth of Wiltshire and the surrounding counties — have been free to celebrate summer solstice in the stones for a 12-hour period overnight, a bizarre and ironic recreation of the festival, which, for the most part, cheerfully occupied the land across the road from the stone circle with only a few thousand festival-goers deigning to make the journey to the stones for spiritual reasons.

The festival, from small beginnings, had become gigantic by 1984, a town that occupied the fields opposite Stonehenge for the whole of June. That last year was dark, as was so much in Thatcher’s Britain at the time, as she was also engaged in violently “decommissioning” her other, bigger “enemy within”, the miners. This was a key part of her malignant mission to destroy Britain’s manufacturing base, through a deeply-engrained hatred of unions and working people, and, through dangerously irresponsible deregulation, making bankers the drivers of the economy instead — with all the divisiveness, misery and almost unbelievable greed and impunity that sector of society has demonstrated ever since, leading to the global crash of 2008 and the subsequent — and largely unremarked — public bailout of the greatest criminals of our lifetimes, none of whom have been jailed for their actions.

Police violence at the Battle of the Beanfield, June 1, 1985 (Photo copyright Tim Malyon).Back in 1985, the authorities demonised the festival, using it as an excuse to justify their appalling treatment of the men, women and children of the convoy at the Battle of the Beanfield, but, in large part, what they wanted to destroy was: 1) an ever-growing movement of people taking to the road in response to the tsunami of unemployment in Thatcher’s Britain; 2) a free festival movement that ran from May to September and that functioned as an alternative economy; and 3) perhaps, most crucially, the environmental protestors who, along with the women of Greenham Common, were engaged in frontline direct action that was both environmental and anti-military. The Greenham women’s permanent peace camp, in Berkshire, was opposed to US cruise missiles being based on British soil, and travellers also set up a second camp at Molesworth, in Cambridgeshire, which was earmarked as the second cruise missile base.

Most people don’t know, or don’t remember, but that camp was violently broken up by the largest peacetime mobilisation of troops in modern British history, on February 6, 1985. Symbolically led by Michael Heseltine, 1,500 Royal engineers, 1,000 police and 600 MoD police evicted the 150 members of the “Rainbow Village,” and spent the next four months hounding them as they took to the road, culminating, on June 1, with the assault that came to be known as the Battle of the Beanfield.

It doesn’t take too much thought to realise that, although the authorities couldn’t be seen to truncheon, en masse, the women of Greenham Common, they could violently assault the environmental campaigners of the convoy, and get away with it, by portraying them as dangerous, dirty anarchists threatening Britain’s heritage at Stonehenge with their festival.

That was indeed what happened, even though myself and the majority of the tens of thousands of people who visited — or were part of — the Stonehenge Free Festival in the late 70s and early 80s were only dangerous because we were exploring different ways of living than what was being dictated to us by an intolerant, authoritarian state that, it transpires with hindsight, wanted us to be nothing more than obedient corporate slaves.

It’s exactly ten years since my book The Battle of the Beanfield was published, which features interviews with a variety of people involved in the events of June 1, 1985 (police and observers, as well as travellers), as well as the police log and essays putting the events of June 1, 1985 in a wider context.

The Battle of the Beanfield is still available to buy, as is my previous book Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, a social history of Stonehenge that also functions as an account of British counter-cultural history.

The Battle of the Beanfield features transcripts of some of the interviews conducted for the 1991 documentary ‘Operation Solstice’, made while a number of those assaulted on June 1, 1985 were suing the police. To mark the anniversary, I’m posting ‘Operation Solstice’ below, via YouTube. The documentary, directed by Gareth Morris and Neil Goodwin, was screened by Channel 4 back in 1991, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. This version was digitised from the last remaining sub-master tape by Gareth Morris to mark the 30th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield.

I’d also like to mention another event taking place this year to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield.

‘The Beanfield’ is “a multimedia show about national heritage, state violence and civic freedom,” by performance makers Breach and Guardian award-winning filmmaker Dorothy Allen-Pickard. Mixing Dorothy’s films with live direction by Billy Barrett, winner of the Sunday Times Harold Hobson Drama Critic Award 2014, it is being performed on the following dates:

– Warwick Arts Centre Studio, University of Warwick, CV4 7AL, Tuesday June 23, 1.45pm (contact the venue here)

– Theatre503, The Latchmere, 503 Battersea Park Road, London SW11 3BW, Saturday July 25, 9pm and Sunday July 26, 7pm (contact the venue here)

– Edinburgh Fringe: theSpace on the Mile (Venue 39), The Radisson, 80 High Street, EH1 1TH, August 7-8, 10-15, 17-22, 10 am (book tickets here)

I hope, if the Beanfield interests you, that you can make it to one of these shows. Dorothy and Billy invited me to Wiltshire on a memorable day back in March, to be a consultant as they filmed recreations of the events of June 1, 1985 for the show. The political engagement of everyone involved — mostly students at Warwick University — was refreshing, and it was great to discover that they had all been studying my book in preparation for the filming, which took place at the Beanfield itself.

It was my first visit to this iconic site, although I had passed it many times on the A303, and as we arrived at what we knew to be the approximate location, it became apparent that the change in the road layout since 1985 — with the replacement of a section of the A303 with a dual carriageway — made it difficult to work out exactly where the Beanfield — and the pasture field — were. After driving into the car park of the hotel by the Parkhouse roundabout, we were accosted by an angry local who wanted us to know that, although 30 years had passed, people were still very sensitive about the events of the day.

However, after he was talked down, he pointed us in the right direction, and, while police sirens passed us by, we spent a few hours filming, and reflecting on the events of the day, with — ironically, given the convoy’s environmental leanings — a small solar farm in the background, where, 30 years ago, there would only have been broken and burning vehicles, and bleeding travellers.

See below for the trailer for ‘The Beanfield’, via Vimeo, prepared for its first performances in Warwick last month:

The Beanfield // Trailer from Dorothy Allen-Pickard on Vimeo.

For more on the Beanfield, see my articles, In the Guardian: Remembering the Battle of the Beanfield, which provides excerpts from The Battle of the Beanfield (and see the Guardian article here), The Battle of the Beanfield 25th Anniversary: An Interview with Phil Shakesby, aka Phil the Beer, a prominent traveller who died five years ago, Remember the Battle of the Beanfield: It’s the 27th Anniversary Today of Thatcher’s Brutal Suppression of Traveller Society, Radio: On Eve of Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, Andy Worthington Discusses the Battle of the Beanfield and Dissent in the UK, It’s 28 Years Since Margaret Thatcher Crushed Travellers at the Battle of the Beanfield, Back in Print: The Battle of the Beanfield, Marking Margaret Thatcher’s Destruction of Britain’s Travellers and It’s 29 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield, and the World Has Changed Immeasurably.

For reflections on Stonehenge and the summer solstice, see Stonehenge and the summer solstice: past and present, It’s 25 Years Since The Last Stonehenge Free Festival, Stonehenge Summer Solstice 2010: Remembering the Battle of the Beanfield, RIP Sid Rawle, Land Reformer, Free Festival Pioneer, Stonehenge Stalwart, Happy Summer Solstice to the Revellers at Stonehenge — Is it Really 27 Years Since the Last Free Festival?, Stonehenge and the Summer Solstice: On the 28th Anniversary of the Last Free Festival, Check Out “Festivals Britannia”Memories of Youth and the Need for Dissent on the 29th Anniversary of the last Stonehenge Free Festival and 30 Years On from the Last Stonehenge Free Festival, Where is the Spirit of Dissent?

Also see my article on Margaret Thatcher’s death, “Kindness is Better than Greed”: Photos, and a Response to Margaret Thatcher on the Day of Her Funeral.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers). He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the co-director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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74 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Urgh, horrible thought. Imagine being close enough to have to find out … Yuk!

  2. Black Cap Occupied, Camden Is Rising, Thank Fuck For The Fuck Parade | the void says...

    […] Every time the rich see us weep they crack open another bottle of champagne.  They want us starving if we don’t have a job, and miserable and worked half to death if we do.  It is not just that they want to take away the health service and the welfare state.  They want to turn our streets and cities, pubs, clubs, football grounds, anything they can find into their playgrounds and price us out.   This enclosure of human pleasure means that joy can no longer be free, it is just for the rich now, or at least only those who can pay.   Glastonbury Festival can only survive with a fence, security guards, coppers and eye-watering ticket prices because there isn’t a better festival down the road without all those things.  Margaret Thatcher made sure of that 30 years ago this week. […]

  3. damo says...

    God wot a sight ,lair of the …white worm,lol

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m not getting your reference, Damo. Something to do with the Bran Stoker novel?

  5. damo says...

    …dune….theres a scene with a little white worm..jeremy clarkson….ahem…lol

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Ha! Very good, Damo. Although now you have left me thinking a little too closely about Top Gear presenters in the trouser department, which is not something I ever wanted to do!

  7. damo says...

    I’ve been watching john Lennon on YouTube he talks about the world being run by insane people he’s right

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    I wonder what he would have made of the modern world, Damo. It’s 35 years since he was murdered, and the world really has changed to an enormous extent.
    Generally, though, it’s Bill Hicks that I wonder about. His routine about telling those in PR and advertising to kill themselves regularly crops up in conversation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qd8E6m7S4g

  9. damo says...

    I think john Lennon would have marveled at the internet and new technology but unfortunately …..I think he, as a lot of us, would be absolitly horrified at the mess we’re in, he like the hippies and all the other lovers of love down through the ages have shown a way to a better world……and they have been ignored he would have thought the world as it is right now….insane….and sorry to be a downer….he’s right.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    You reminded me, Damo, of what I think about the passage of time, that people don’t realise the changes that are happening, but that they probably would if a time machine, for example, took them from 1980 to 2015 in the blink of an eye. Here in the UK, for example, ten years ago far too many of my fellow citizens were insufferable, bragging endlessly about how much their damn houses were worth. But they were positive. Since then, we had the global crash of 2008, the”credit crunch”, when all their credit cards were cancelled, and the drip-feed of poison from the government and the media encouraging people to be as racist as they like about immigrants and Muslims and to regard the unemployed and the disabled as sub-human scum, and people are now bitter little twisted miserable bigots, just a step away from supporting the kind of oppression that took place in Nazi germany, and completely unable to recognise how much they have changed. The super-rich, meanwhile, are laughing their heads off at how easy they are to manipulate.

  11. damo says...

    Lennon would be horrified as would ourselves from 20 years ago those selves that were going to reclaim the streets ,critical mass going to raves droppin an e and dancing the night away with a bunch of strangers from all walks of life ..and havein a blast becouse no one was bitter or vile we were all on the same wavelength ….Andy the 90s seem like nirvana compared to today…..what the fuck has gone wrong …like you said people are so bitter and angry ,vengfull and twisted…..it horrifies me…unfortunatley we are I feel entering a new dark age technology run amok …but people resorting to primatives, trogladites……I’m gonna damm them and hope we all change ..we all wake up and become better…..we have to change ….get back to the garden its now or never.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I agree, Damo. It was like a nirvana compared to now. After the horrors of Thatcher and the Poll Tax, the Major years were a breathing space, and something like an ideological civil war was being waged, with the rave scene, Reclaim the Streets, the road protest movement, Castlemorton – we were onto something! Now I tend to think that people caned it rather too much, and legalising raves and clamping down on dissent via the Criminal Justice Act massively suppressed our right to gather freely and allowed the coke-fuelled superstar DJ sh*t to replace the vibe that had been there before, but even under Blair the dissent was still there for a while. Remember J18 in the City, in June 1999, when the anti-globalization movement was really taking off? That was wild!
    It was Genoa (the murder by police of a protestor, Carlo Giuliani) and the introduction of kettling and the “war on terror” that really saw the clampdown take place, and now — well, people are, in vast numbers, docile and absurdly materialistic, or, as we’ve been discussing, twisted little bigots.
    A few links to J18: http://bak.spc.org/j18/site/
    http://bak.spc.org/j18/site/uk.html
    http://www.eco-action.org/dod/no8/j18.html
    http://artactivism.gn.apc.org/allpdfs/188-Dancing%20at%20the%20Edge.pdf
    Carlo Giuliani’s murder by police: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/jul/21/globalisation.johnvidal

  13. damo says...

    We know what the answer is ,we have been shown over and over and over again ….how this world could and should be ..a heaven on earth if you will ,free from war,poverty,hunger,hate,….why are people so unwilling to embrace this new world….death and destruction cosy a shit load of money…peace is actualy very cheep and sustaineable……

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I like that, Damo: “Peace is actually very cheap and sustainable.” Great message!

  15. damo says...

    I’ve been takeing my dog for a walk, there’s a little park near me its becomeing of a night full of homeless people, young homeless people, this is in west London one of the richest areas full of ….repulsive yuppies and yummy mummys …what a sad reflection of this sad country and its sad population

  16. damo says...

    It’s becomeing very 1930s Germany, maybe soon they will start putting the poor, the disabled, Muslims, the unemployed and other minorities ….in to ghettos after all most of the Tories grandparents were Nazi sympathisers.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s terrible, Damo – a real sign of the divided nation we’ve become, where the rich don’t care about anyone but themselves, and far too many of those who are not rich have learned not to notice the suffering of their fellow citizens – or, in some cases, have decided to pour scorn and vitriol on those in need of help: the unemployed, the disabled, the many hardworking people who aren’t even paid enough to live on. Often these are the people whose anger is misdirected. Today they’re despising their neighbours, tomorrow it could be them, and all the while the Etonians, the fat cats, the bankers and corporate tax avoiders are laughing their heads off from behind the doors of their gated mansions.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Ha, yes, Damo. The Edward VIII stories are a reminder of how the Royal Family wasn’t originally called Windsor, eh?
    I think the ghettoisation is in full swing – only it involves the unwanted being forced out of London by the government. There really should be an organised rebellion by everywhere that’s supposed to quietly accept all London’s unwanted, as though the towns and cities in question don’t already have greater social problems and unemployment than London, which will only be exacerbated by taking those pushed out by the benefit cap. The whole of the London establishment is behaving like spoiled Nimby scum – which is exactly what they are, of course. The only possible silver lining in all this – but not for London – is if talented young people move to other places from the capital in significant numbers, impoverishing London culturally as its greedy leaders deserve.

  19. damo says...

    A friend sent me a picture of the tories, Osbourne and co …feasting,gorging,slobbering,belching,farting,….as they greedely gobbled down this meal of no dout the finest food…..like a pack of dogs.a meal to celerbrate there supposedly austerity victory…..thease sub humans,Osbourne and co …they are just utterly repulsive ….repulsive and revolting …feasting while people starve….its like a banana republic this country if this were easternn Europe or south America thered be a coup and the Tories and windsors …would be shot or strung up yeah let the rich have London ring fence it no one comes in goes out .no power or utilitys ect,lol see how long they would last lol

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    The picture sounds horrible, Damo!
    I do wonder what they think they’re going to do with everyone who’s surplus to requirements. Obviously, they think the rich will continue to bring back servants – or slaves – who can be cheap foreigners, but they don’t seem to know what to do with all the Brits who are surplus to requirements, beyond lying to them to get them to either vote for them or to shut up and distract themselves with their hatred of others, or the mindless diversions provided by the corporate entertainers.
    I’m sure they haven’t fully thought it through, though, because they’re not actually every clever, you see. It’s part of their problem. Not as clever as they think they are …

  21. damo says...

    Bingo….you hit it right on the head …posh people are never very bright you only have to glance at buck house to see that ..the thing is its wakeing people up from there corperate induced comas ..we could start by banning the bloody iPhone …that realy is the great distractor

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    For my sins, Damo, as a bright northern boy whose parents had made the transition to the middle class (both university educated in the 1950s, despite being from working class backgrounds – mum at Manchester, dad at Cambridge), I spent three years in the vicinity of the elite at Oxford University from 1982-85. By that time, social mobility was so well promoted that the thick public schoolboys were no longer automatically accepted, and 50% of the students were from state schools, but it was still the public schoolboys’ finishing school. Financially comfortable (at the least), confident and primed to win and to make money, they went on to assume various leadership positions in the professional and corporate worlds. However, I wouldn’t say that they were all clever people. They could pass exams, even get firsts, but they didn’t necessarily have what I suppose I would call practical and moral intelligence. The state school students, on the other hand, tended to be boffins, excellent in their academic fields, and many went on to find rewarding work, but they lacked that arrogance that comes with being a part of the elite, and that is so much more damaging today than it was then. Back then, Thatcher was about to “liberate” the financial sector to begin its reign of thievery – with public schoolboys getting into it big time – and in the last 15 years, of course, money has generated money through rigged housing bubbles that benefit those who are already rich, as well as attracting and facilitating a certain amount of wannabes, who then prop up the Tories’ cold, selfish ideology with their own fulfilled greed.
    What a disgrace. Anyway, thought you might like my reflections. What’s really lived me with all these years is the arrogance of the elite, and their cold desire to win at all costs. What chance do creative, loving people have against that? We have to remember how to resist, or they will strip us of everything they can get away with.

  23. damo says...

    People would say if you can’t beat them join them,lol no thanx right now apart from a bloody revolution to get rid of them I just don’t know wot the answer is ,I see so many ,many super bright working class lads at my boxing gym they realy are struggling some of them …..there so bright they out class ..basicaly out everything the likes of etonians …but they struggle to be given the chances and that’s a bloody crime

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, we’re going backwards in time, Damo, to before the working class revolution of the late 50s and early 60s, to before the welfare state. Who knows where we’ll end up? Sometimes it feels lie the powdered wigs of the late 18th century – but with Twitter, sometime I think they won’t rest until we’re back in the middle ages.

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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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