Summer Solstice 2017: Reflections on Free Festivals and the Pagan Year 33 Years After the Last Stonehenge Festival

21.6.17

An aerial view of the Stonehenge Free Festival in 1984, liberated from the police during the subsequent trial.Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist and commentator.

 

My books Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield are still in print, and please also feel free to check out the music of my band The Four Fathers.

Back in 1983, as a 20-year old student, I had a life-changing experience when a friend of mine initiated a visit to the Stonehenge Free Festival, an anarchic experiment in leaderless living that occupied the fields opposite Stonehenge for the whole of June every year. The festival had grown from a small occupation in 1974, and by 1984 (when I visited again) became a monster — one with a darkness that reflected the darkness that gripped the whole of the UK that year, as Margaret Thatcher crushed the miners and, metaphorically, razed the country to the ground like a medieval conqueror.

I remember the 1983 festival with a great fondness — the elven people selling magic mushrooms from a barrel for next to nothing, the wailing of acid rock bands, the festivals’ thoroughfares, like ancient tracks of baked earth, where the cries of “acid, speed, hot knives” rang though the sultry air. Off the beaten track, travellers set up impromptu cafes beside their colourfully-painted trucks and coaches, unaware that, just two years later, on June 1, 1985, some of those same vehicles would be violently decommissioned at the Battle of the Beanfield, when Thatcher, following her destruction of Britain’s mining industry, set about destroying Britain’s traveller community, which, during her tenure as Prime Minister, had grown as unemployment mushroomed, and life on the road seemed to provide an appealing alternative.

A festival circuit, running from May to October, had grown up with this new movement, with Stonehenge at its centre. Michael Eavis’s Glastonbury Festival was also connected to it, as were numerous smaller festivals, as well as other events focused on environmental protest, especially against nuclear weapons and nuclear power. The travellers’ most prominent manifestation, the Peace Convoy, had visited Greenham Common, site of the famous women’s peace camp opposed to the establishment of US-owned and -controlled cruise missiles, in 1982, and in the summer of 1984 established a second peace camp at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, the intended second cruise missile base after Greenham Common.

That camp was violently evicted in February 1985 by the largest peacetime mobilisation of troops in British history, and for the next four months the travellers were harried until the Beanfield, when 1,400 police from six counties and the MoD violently decommissioned the advance convoy of vehicles trying to make it to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th Stonehenge Free Festival.

In the years that followed, the Thatcher government set up an military exclusion zone around Stonehenge every summer solstice that was maintained under John Major and Tony Blair, and at various times under Thatcher there were other episodes of state violence against travellers, some of whom sought shelter with Michael Eavis in Pilton. The differences between Stonehenge and Glastonbury were not immense back then, when the travelling festival community was at the heart of Britain’s nascent festival scene. Stonehenge may have been the wild younger sibling, but Glastonbury was pretty out of it as well.

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine. Glastonbury Festival has become a corporate mega-city, with only traces remaining of its alternative heart, and Stonehenge, reopened to the public on the summer solstice in 2000, after the Law Lords ruled that the exclusion zone was illegal, has become a raucous one-night party for the youth of the West Country, attended by a smaller contingent of pagans and anarchists (which I visited every summer solstice from 2001 to 2005 with a variety of interesting companions). Last night, apparently, 13,000 people attended ‘Managed Open Access’ at the stones, witnessing a spectacular sunrise.

With supreme irony, the founders of the festival movement in the 1970s — some visionary, some hedonistic — created a concept that was so appealing that it has become a part of the fabric of Britain. Every summer, millions of people attend festivals, for the music, the hedonism, and, often, the establishment at some level of a tribal communality in contrast to the atomisation of our everyday civilian lives in cities and towns.

Of course, that transition from outsider status to establishment fixture has not happened without massive change that, at worst, means that the monster festival culture created in the last two decades only looks superficially like the offspring of the festival scene of the 70s and 80s when, in fact, it bears almost no resemblance to it.

This is certainly true in many profound ways. To begin with, those radicalised in the 1960s often brought with them a commitment to breaking down the structure of an oppressive society that, for example, saw them seeking to dispense with money. This was by no means always the case. Free festivals were often free at the point of entry only because of a lack of organisation, and many travellers worked hard to try to ensure that their efforts would generate a necessary income stream.

Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion by Andy Worthington.However, others were driven to try to tear down the materialistic culture — and their efforts were often inspiring. Bill ‘Ubi’ Dwyer, a renegade bureaucrat, set up the Windsor Free Festival in the Queen’s backyard in the summer of 1972, a provocative gesture against the monarchy and all it stood for, which returned in 1973 and 1974, when it was violently crushed. The Stonehenge festival was set up by another visionary, Wally Hope, who spread a quasi-communist sun-worshipping message, and intended his festival to colonise Salisbury Plain, and another sign of the intent to tear down materialism was through the free food kitchens that were part of the early festival culture. One favourite anecdote of mine concerns Sid Rawle, a key festival organiser, at the first Glastonbury Festival in 1971. After a man turned up from Bath with a stall selling bacon, eggs and sausages, Sid apparently had a whip-round, sent someone off site to buy bacon, eggs and sausages, and then set up a free food kitchen next to him to drive him out of business.

Today, free food kitchens are only to be seen when the Hare Krishnas turn up at events, but whenever I see them their generosity cuts through the relentless materialistic fog that shrouds almost every aspect of our lives.

The festival culture of the 70s and 80s may not always have been intentionally free, but those who played a part in it and have now passed on would I think, be shocked if they were able to see what the culture has become in the last 20 years, as almost every aspect of our lives has become monetised. The giant capitalist machine that is modern society now defines almost everything by its perceived value, has encouraged us to see everything through a prism of money, used as the sole reference point of success or failure, and its stranglehold on our lives is such that we are encouraged to believe that our waking lives are nothing more than a succession of financial transactions. Repeat the mantra: “Breathe in. Breathe out. Buy something. Breathe in. Breathe out. Buy something.”

It generally costs hundreds and hundreds of pounds to attend a festival, as festival-goers are constantly required to drip-feed the capitalist machine in which most of of us are trapped, like hamsters in a wheel — well-branded wheels, no doubt, and well-designed, but hamster wheels nonetheless.

Back in the 70s and 80s, the free festivals’ advocates prevailed on artists to give something back for free to their fans during the festival season — and artists often took that stance themselves. Now everyone pays for everything endlessly — the hyped-up bands and solo artists endlessly treated as royalty or as exceptional creative geniuses, the endless food stalls, the endless booze, the endless craft stalls. We have, to some extent, created a modern-day fulfilment of Napoleon’s comment about Britain being a nation of shopkeepers, although now we are a nation of shopkeepers endlessly servicing itself, with most people trapped somewhere in this cycle while the rich and the super-rich float above it all, exploiting or having exploited others to such an extent that they alone have endless liquidity.

The festivals of the 70s and 80s were also more than capable of getting messy, but often there was an awareness that we should leave places as we found them. In this respect, modern festival culture is a disgrace, a shocking manifestation of our throwaway culture, as anyone seeing photos of the aftermath of a modern festival can see. Consumerist hedonism without a shred of responsibility dictates that tents should be abandoned along with the detritus of the corporate world — clothes, bottles, packaging, leftover food. Someone else will clean it up, and no one is encouraged to think about how we are turning the earth into a giant landfill site.

As well as losing the anti-materialist heart of the early festival culture, the modern festival scene also only tangentially connects to the paganism that also ran through the pioneering decades of the counter-culture, from the 60s to the 90s; primarily, it seems to me, though an embrace of the cycles of the seasons, and the festivals of the pagan year — the solstices on June and December 21, the equinoxes at a similar time in March and September , and between them the quarters days of a year that tends to be associated with the Celts, with festivals on the 1st days of February (Imbolc), May (Beltane, associated with May Day)  August (Lughnasa) and November (Samhain, associated with Hallowe’en and All Saints’ Day).

After the travelling festival culture was crushed at the Beanfield, an unexpected new movement — the road protest movement — arose. Unable to travel freely, those drawn to the earth and her cycles seized on the Tories’ road expansion programme as a development to be resisted, and set up fixed camps in places threatened with destruction, living in trees, and, eventually, though many battles were lost, pushing road expansion down the government agenda.

With the tsunami of materialism that defines modern life, and the clampdown by the benefits system on the freedom of the unemployed to do what they want in exchange for living off a small provision of government money (which was how so many of us lived in the 80s, and is actually the heart of the basic universal income that is currently being widely discussed), it is unimaginable now that such a movement could take place, but back in the mid-90s it was part of a kind of a cultural civil war that also involved the hedonism of the rave scene, movements like Reclaim the Streets and, eventually, the anti-globalisation movement, which became a world movement and was only halted by the “war on terror” after 9/11, the clampdown on benefits, the elevation of greed as the driver of existence, and the fetishisation of products and services.

Throughout this period in the 90s, the pagan year became a anti-establishment statement, and although it has not gone away, my fear is that, as with so much else in modern life, the growing pagan movement in the UK that, of course, embraces it, is often doing so in a superficial manner, seduced by the outward appearances and the opportunities to buy into it through the usual avalanche of materialism and more of those same entrepreneurial service industries that accompany us almost everywhere we turn.

I don’t seek to blame anyone for getting caught up in the all-consuming materialistic world in which we find ourselves, but I do, on this summer solstice, as I look back on my past through what appears to be the wrong end of a telescope, urge anyone reading this to reflect on how the most important things in life — our love, our joy, our children, our creativity — are not actually part of the endlessly churning consumerist machine, and that, for us to have a future at all, and for us to tackle the endlessly growing gulf between the rich and the poor, we have to find ways to step off the treadmill, to get out of what used to be called the rat race, to find space, time and nature and to begin to create a culture more in tune with itself — with ourselves —  and the natural world in which we are a part.

For my previous reflections on Stonehenge and the summer solstice from 2008 to 2015, see Stonehenge and the summer solstice: past and presentIt’s 25 Years Since The Last Stonehenge Free FestivalStonehenge Summer Solstice 2010: Remembering the Battle of the BeanfieldRIP Sid Rawle, Land Reformer, Free Festival Pioneer, Stonehenge StalwartHappy 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 Festival30 Years On from the Last Stonehenge Free Festival, Where is the Spirit of Dissent? and Stonehenge and the Summer Solstice, 30 Years After the Battle of the Beanfield.

For more on the Beanfield, see my 2009 article for the GuardianRemember the Battle of the Beanfield, and my accompanying article, In the Guardian: Remembering the Battle of the Beanfield, which provides excerpts from The Battle of the Beanfield. Also see The Battle of the Beanfield 25th Anniversary: An Interview with Phil Shakesby, aka Phil the Beer, a prominent traveller who died six years ago, Remember the Battle of the Beanfield: It’s the 27th Anniversary Today of Thatcher’s Brutal Suppression of Traveller SocietyRadio: On Eve of Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, Andy Worthington Discusses the Battle of the Beanfield and Dissent in the UKIt’s 28 Years Since Margaret Thatcher Crushed Travellers at the Battle of the BeanfieldBack in Print: The Battle of the Beanfield, Marking Margaret Thatcher’s Destruction of Britain’s TravellersIt’s 29 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield, and the World Has Changed ImmeasurablyIt’s 30 Years Since Margaret Thatcher Trashed the Travellers’ Movement at the Battle of the BeanfieldIt’s Now 31 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield: Where is the Spirit of Dissent in the UK Today? and, most recently, Never Trust the Tories: It’s 32 Years Today Since the Intolerable Brutality of the Battle of the Beanfield.

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, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), 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).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

15 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Happy solstice! 33 years on from the last Stonehenge Free Festival, here are my reflections on how, from its counter-cultural roots, festival culture has become an essential part of British society, although along the way the contemporary virus of relentless materialism seems to have removed its wild and essentially anti-materialistic heart. I look back at festival and protest history from the 60s until now, also assessing the extent to which the fascination with the cycles of the pagan year that was part of both movements has also fallen prey to the omnivorous culture of materialism that defines the modern day, and I hope that we can somehow find a way to “reflect on how the most important things in life — our love, our joy, our children, our creativity — are not actually part of the endlessly churning consumerist machine.”

  2. Mark says...

    I totally agree. But how? We seem so disconnected. Where is the movement after occupy?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s what I’ve been wondering for five years, Mark. I spoke and wrote at the time about how Occupy needed to focus on occupying buildings after its struggle to take public spaces was lost, but of course it never happened because that would have been civil war.
    And so, instead, we had to watch as austerity bit and our fellow citizens got meaner and started blaming immigrants and drifting to the far-right and that clown Farage who was bigged up relentlessly by the mainstream media as though far-right ideology is somehow harmless.
    I only have hope now because so many people voted for Jeremy Corbyn and against the Tories, and Corbyn, as a serial critic of his own party, is so evidently untainted by Blairism. So I’m encouraged because it’s been a particularly depressing year since Brexit. However, there’s obviously still a long way to go.
    I would say, though, that one thing for sure is that we need to get out, and meet and mobilise more. No meaningful change is going to happen if we remain atomised and always on our phones.

  4. damo says...

    we are disconnected more than ever we seem to be at each others throats constantly bickering and squabbling the 21st century so far has been a disaster for most and a nightmare for others and if you want to see how divided we are just read the comments on a youtube vid posted about what kensington residents think about the rehouseing of the grenfell survivors in luxury apartments …its realy realy sad…bitter and sad …it was not meant to be this way all this hatred ,strife,and war..those 60,s counterculture pioneers showed us another way another way of seeing and doing ,being and liveing of shareing ..hell that was still about in the late 80,s and early 90,s with the rave culture it was a great time we felt a bond with people yeah we might have all been on an ….e….but it was a liberateing time but my god it was fun.london was a fun place,people were fun,you could live here on buttons work part time sighn on live in the cracks or a pidgen on a ledge i loved it going to parties ,raves going on critical mass ,going to gay pride in brockwell park when it was free …before the corperates moved on to us ..lol ..when they reolised there was money to be made from the pink pound ….when glastonbury was….cool….take some acid..wonder around people watching ..haveing a great time ..i mis those times i realy do ….it dosent have to be like it is now…all this shit…but first we need to remove the tories they have poisoned society and that poison is seeping into us all like breathing in a toxic miasma …put down those dam phones and get out there log off and get out there meet people organise things …..face to face….as you say andy its a time for change weve seen the starting of it with the swing to labour and the belife in corbyn we have to build on that…..our lives depend on it. damo xxx

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Hey, Damo, great to hear from you, my friend. I’ve missed our conversations here.
    So yes, as you say, it’s very important, I think, to remember the fun we had. The materialistic culture constantly tries to brainwash us that we’ve never had it as good as now, but that’s just a lie. I remember Gay Pride in Brockwell Park when it was free – such a different vibe to when it became corporate. I suppose, as with the festivals, it’s a sign of the success of the movements that corporate interests move in, but people should remember – or find out if they’re too young – how much better it is when you make your own event rather than endlessly spending money, and I so dearly wish there was a way to get back to that – although now, of course, the whole health and safety scam has been set up to make sure that can’t happen.
    I really do hope that people work out or remember that it’s up to us to get rid of the Tories – and to make sure that the New Labour project is also gone forever. It’s definitely time for an alternative, and I’m relieved and even occasionally exhilarated now that hope is back on the agenda, after the dark year of Brexit. But now we need to keep meeting and talking to one another, breaking out of the atomised bubbles the corporate world wants to keep us in, and making a change.
    Perhaps see you on the March for Homes tomorrow? https://www.facebook.com/events/1270028319777609/

  6. Peter McCollin says...

    Hi Andy, great article and I couldn;t really disagree with any of it – although we do need to be careful of looking back through rose tinted spectacles; there was definately a dark undercurrent to many free festivals especiallly as the numbers swelled with youth diaspora created by Thatcher’s policy of mass unemployment and smack appeared alongside acid on the dealer’s menus.

    Its also worth noting that there is a thriving undergroud festival scene at the moment. The Horsedrawn Camp’s Beltane Bash for example, Common Ground (although that has moved indoors this year), the Something Else festivals, the convoy caberet stage, and then the larger ones – Surplus and Equinox all carry forward the DIY sense of the free festivals at a much more affordable cost (beltane was £25 for 3 days). There are others too

    Thanks for everything yoiu do

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Peter. Great to hear from you, and thanks for your comments.
    You make a very good point about the hugely negative impact that heroin had – and also, I’d say, the cocaine that, from what I understand, also arrived on the festival scene in the early 80s. I think both are/were hugely destructive to the spirit of festivals as they were when they were based on hash and psychedelics. I think the same thing happened in the 90s with the rave scene when coke took over. Everywhere I find people coldheartedly f*cking people over, I look for coke. The killer of community as much as smack.
    On another note, I hadn’t heard of the festivals you’ve mentioned, so very glad to hear about them. I have a band, The Four Fathers, and we’re looking for opportunities to play. Do check us out, and if you know any organisers that might be interested, let me know.
    https://thefourfathers.bandcamp.com

  8. Tom says...

    What’s one of the biggest blocks to a united progressive front (at least in the States)? The Democrats refusal to deviate from a neo-liberal “I feel your pain” approach. The Republicans in the Senate will vote on “Trump Care” this week. If it becomes law, it will destroy Medicaid. Right now, that’s one of the closest things we have here to the NHS. If it becomes law, 26 million people will lose health coverage. It’s not health care. It’s just a tax cut for multi millionaires (many of which are in Congress). There’s a faction now in the Democrats called “Justice Democrats”. Only 1 Congressperson supports them.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tom. It’s very sad to see the Republicans trying to make healthcare coverage worse for ordinary Americans – not to mention the fact that some of Trump’s supporters must have voted for that in an extraordinarily self-defeating manner. I hadn’t even heard of Justice Democrats before, so thanks for letting me know about them: https://justicedemocrats.com

  10. Charlotte Ashwanden says...

    Hi Andy
    Thanks a lot for this article, it’s very refreshing to see a real history of the festivals movement in Britain from someone who was there. I agree with you to some extent about the rise of materialism creating a mainstream ‘product’ out of festivals. However, I think it is also important to recognise that “our love, our joy, our children, our creativity” are still here! I am only 28 and I did not attend the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge until 2015 but I can tell you that the travellers’ community has not gone away and many people are living outside the so-called ‘rat-race’ as you call it… I think it probably is more difficult nowadays but it is not impossible. I am reminded of a lyric from a favourite band of mine, “And even all the garbage, they pull over our eyes, cannot prevent us from living the most magical of lives”.
    Even all the garbage that they leave at the festivals cannot prevent us from bringing the magick to the festivals. Even the extortionate prices they charge cannot stop us from partying for free. Even the rise of food businesses cannot stop us from giving out free food to people.
    “There were never any good old days, they are today, they are tomorrow!”

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    What an inspirational commentary, Charlotte. “Even all the garbage that they leave at the festivals cannot prevent us from bringing the magick to the festivals. Even the extortionate prices they charge cannot stop us from partying for free. Even the rise of food businesses cannot stop us from giving out free food to people.” Excellent!
    I also have to think hard and try to take to heart your comment, “There were never any good old days, they are today, they are tomorrow!”
    Nice lyrics too. Can I ask which band that is.

  12. John says...

    The problems that we are experiencing, be those, lack of personal responsibility, desensitisation to our fellow humans, other animals and the environment and the emergence of a new selfishness are all being compounded and bought into sharp focus by the burgeoning numbers of people in the world, in our towns, cities and increasingly in the places that used to be devoid of crowds. While there have always been arseholes on the planet, the increasing numbers and density of people in these places – Glasto, Stonehenge etc means that it only takes few idiots to make it seem as if the world is full of these people. Other factors include the throwaway society that we now inhabit and the relative ease with which things are replaced.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts, John. An interesting perspective: the more people, the more the number of a*holes. Hard to argue with that logic! The throwaway society definitely has a big part to play, I think. We are conditioned endlessly to attach no value to longevity, to the durable, to the well-made, but to obsess instead about the new and the fashionable.

  14. daytripper says...

    Dear Andy,

    after Phun City I was the main driver behind the Glastonbury Free Festival in 1971, having bought the land and money together to create the festival. Not long after I was sectioned and forcibly drugged and plugged into the mains. Sid was at the 1971 festival and helped take over the farmhouse at Worthy Farm, because we were all cold and damp and the farmhouse was warm and dry. He was knocked to the ground by an American who was I think fleeing the draft. I handed the Free Food kitchen I’d created over to Sid. One thing I did was get the people on the Pyramid stage to ask if the crowd had any draw for the Free Food kitchen workers. They did and I was left with a large pile of the world’s finest dope, which we duly skinned up and smoked. Happy daze, I agree with what you say, the Free Festival movement was clubbed to death in the Beanfield, but it lives on in many hearts and will rise again, it is a basic human right.

    https://sunshineonarainyday.netfirms.com/I_never_saw_the_Beatles.html

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Really great to hear from you, daytripper, and thank you so much for sharing your memories. I love your unquenchable optimism – that the Free Festival movement “will rise again”, because “it is a basic human right.” It reminds me of how some more enlightened – or perhaps more paternalistic – authority figures used to behave back in the 70s, and how they regarded the foibles and even, dare I say it, the rights of people chasing their dreams, or even causing a nuisance. Thatcher brought in a much nastier group of people, there was no improvement under Blair, and the most recent Tories are the most lowlife politicians of all.
    I encourage readers to check out your site – very interesting.

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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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