31 years ago, the British state, under Margaret Thatcher, committed one of its most violent acts against its own citizens, at the Battle of the Beanfield, when a group of travellers — men, women and children — who were driving to Stonehenge from Savernake Forest to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival were set upon by tooled-up police from six counties, and the Ministry of Defence. The travellers were outnumbered three to one, while the police were at the height of their use as a paramilitary force by Margaret Thatcher.
The year before, the police had crushed the miners at Orgreave (promoting calls this year for an official inquiry after the belated triumph of victims’ families against the police at the Hillsborough Inquest), and the assault on the travelling community had started shortly after, when a group of travellers were harried from a festival in the north of England. Some of this group joined up with other travellers, festival-goers and green activists at Molesworth, in Cambridgeshire, the planned location for Britain’s second cruise missile base, where a peace camp was set up, following the example of the Women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, set up in opposition to the first cruise missile base. The Molesworth camp was, in turn, shut down by the largest peacetime mobilisation of troops, in February 1985, and for the next four months the travellers were harassed until June 1, when the Battle of the Beanfield took place.
The Beanfield was a horrible example of state violence, with both short-term and long-term implications. Severe damage was done to Britain’s traveller community, who had been seeking to create an alternative culture of free festivals from May to October every year, and who, as Molesworth showed, were not just hedonists, but also had ecological and anti-nuclear aims. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s over 30 years since the Battle of the Beanfield, a notoriously dark day in modern British history, when, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, 1,400 police from six counties and the Ministry of Defence “decommissioned” a convoy of around 500 new age travellers, free festival goers and environmental activists who were attempting to travel to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th annual free festival in the fields opposite the stones.
The Stonehenge Free Festival was a wild anarchic jamboree, which lasted for the whole of the month of June, and, in its last few years, attracted many tens of thousands of people, myself included — and the effect on me was so profound that I ended up writing about the festival and the Beanfield (and much more besides) in my 2004 counter-cultural history, Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion and then focused exclusively on the Beanfield in my 2005 book, The Battle of the Beanfield.
The festival’s violent suppression, in a one-sided rout of heartbreaking brutality, was one of the grimmer episodes in Thatcher’s bleak, eleven-year reign, dealing a crippling blow to Britain’s traveller movement, even though dissent refused to go away, as an ecstasy-fuelled rave scene, the road protest movement and the anti-globalization movement emerged to challenge the status quo in the late 80s and the 90s. Read the rest of this entry »
If anyone out there hasn’t yet completed their Christmas shopping and would like to buy any of my work, I’m delighted to let you know that all three of my books — about Guantánamo and the UK counter-culture — are still available, as is the album “Love and War,” recorded with my band The Four Fathers and released just a few months ago.
Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion is a social history of Stonehenge, interweaving the stories of the outsiders drawn to Stonehenge, primarily over the last hundred years — Druids, other pagans, revellers, festival-goers, anarchists, new travellers and environmental activists — with the monument’s archeological history, and also featuring nearly 150 photos. If you’re buying this from me from anywhere other than the UK, please see this page. You can also buy it from Amazon in the US. Read the rest of this entry »
If you’re around on Sunday, between 3pm and 5pm GMT, you can listen to me reading from my books and playing some of my favourite music with human rights activist and arts curator Hamja Ahsan (DIY Cultures), who has a show, DIY Sunday Radio, every Sunday afternoon (UK time) on One Harmony Radio, based in Brockley, south east London, where I live.
Hamja became a campaigner because his brother, Talha, a talented poet with Asberger’s Syndrome, was imprisoned without charge or trial in the UK for six years pending extradition to the US, and was then extradited, spending two years in a Supermax prison before a judge sentenced him to time served and sent him home. See the campaign’s Facebook page here.
One Harmony Radio, which mainly plays reggae music, is a community internet radio station, so you can listen to my show from anywhere in the world! The Facebook page is here.
Happy summer solstice, everyone! I thought I might visit megalithic Wiltshire this year, for my first solstice visit in 10 years, but the anti-austerity march in London — and my desire to attend it — rather put paid to that plan. My hoped-for destination was Avebury, the village built in the remains of a colossal stone circle, roughly 20 miles north of Stonehenge, which awakened — or rather reawakened — my interest in all things megalithic from 1996, when a chance visit with my new girlfriend (and now wife) Dot led to such enthusiasm on my part that I devoted much of the next ten years to visiting ancient sacred sites all over England, and in Scotland, Malta and Brittany.
I also wrote two books in this period, after my original plan failed to find a publisher. That project was, “Stonehenge and Avebury: Pilgrimages to the Heart of Ancient England,” and it was based on three long-distance walks I made with Dot and other friends in 1997 and 1998, along the Ridgeway from the Thames to Avebury, and then an eight-day trek through Wiltshire to Stonehenge, from Dorchester in Dorset, which I christened “The Stonehenge Way,” and another walk of my devising from Stonehenge to Avebury.
I hope one day to revive that particular project, but what happened in 2002 was that I was encouraged to focus on one particular aspect of the book — the Stonehenge Free Festival, my first inspiration when it came to ancient sacred sites. As a student, I had visited the festival in 1983 and 1984, and had found my view of the world transformed by this gigantic anarchic jamboree that filled the fields opposite Stonehenge every June. The photo above is from 1975, the second festival, and is from the Flickr site of Basil and Tracy Brooks. Basil played with Zorch, who played at both of the first two festivals, in 1974 and 1975. See the albums here and here. Read the rest of this entry »
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. Read the rest of this entry »
As tens of thousands of people gathered at Stonehenge last night and this morning for the summer solstice — and, presumably, more photos were taken than ever before, including, of course, the ubiquitous “selfie,” an example of which can be seen in the photo to the left — I recall that, 30 years ago, in June 1984, the last Stonehenge Free Festival took place in the fields opposite Stonehenge, and I was one of the tens of thousands of people who took part in it.
I had first visited with friends the year before, and had been astonished to discover that, while Margaret Thatcher was embarking on her malevolent plan to create a taxpayer-funded privatised Britain of selfishness, consumerism and unfettered greed, tens of thousands of people were on Salisbury Plain — partying, yes, or just getting wasted, but also sidelining consumerism and embracing communalism and alternative ways of living and looking at the world.
My experiences were central to my book Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, a social history of Stonehenge, which I wrote over an 18-month period from 2002 to 2004, and which was published ten years ago. It’s still in print, and you can buy it from me here, or from the publisher, Heart of Albion Press, or, if you must, from Amazon. After ten years, it is also — finally — being stocked at Stonehenge itself, in the new visitors’ centre that opened last December.
From humble beginnings ten years before, the Stonehenge Free Festival had grown to become the definitive counter-cultural expression of hedonism and dissent, a month-long manifestation of an alternative society, which so alarmed the authorities that the following year an advance convoy, travelling to Stonehenge to secure the festival site on June 1, was set upon by 1,400 police from six counties and the MoD, and decommissioned with shocking violence at an event that will forever be known as “The Battle of the Beanfield.” My book, The Battle of the Beanfield, about the terrible events of that day is also still available. For bulk orders, please contact Enabler Publications. Read the rest of this entry »
29 years ago, on June 1, 1985, a convoy of around 450 men, women and children — travellers, anarchists, free festival goers and green activists — were ambushed by 1,400 police from six counties and the Ministry of Defence, and decommissioned with a violence that has rarely been paralleled in modern British history.
The convoy was en route to Stonehenge, to set up what would have been the 11th annual free festival in the fields opposite Britain’s most famous ancient monument, but the savage decommissioning of the travellers’ vehicles, their mass arrest, and the raising of a military-style exclusion zone around Stonehenge put paid to that prospect.
The exclusion zone was raised every June for the next 13 years, until the law lords ruled it illegal in 1999, and since then English Heritage have allowed unfettered access to the stones on the summer solstice, with up to 30,000 revellers — everyone from pagan priests to teenage party-goers — availing themselves of the “Managed Open Access” policy. Read the rest of this entry »
Yesterday, December 1, 2013, was a cheerless anniversary of sorts — 28 and a half years since the Battle of the Beanfield, on June 1, 1985, when 1,300 police from six counties and the MoD trapped and violently decommissioned a convoy of several hundred travellers — men, women and children, the new nomads of the UK, including free festival goers, anarchists, and anti-nuclear activists — en route to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival. From humble origins in 1974, the festival had grown, by 1984, into a month-long counter-cultural extravaganza attended by tens of thousands of people, and in 1985, fresh from her success in suppressing the miners, Margaret Thatcher turned her attention to the festival and its loose network of organisers, planning to destroy it as ruthlessly as she was destroying British industry.
in 2005, to mark the 20th anniversary of this key event in the modern state’s clampdown on dissent, I compiled and edited a book about the Battle of the Beanfield, drawing on transcripts I made of interviews with travellers and witnesses to the events of the day and the months building up to it that were recorded for a 1991 TV documentary, “Operation Solstice” (screened on Channel 4 and available to buy here); the police log, liberated from a court case brought by some of the victims of the Beanfield; and other relevant information, book-ended with essays putting the Beanfield in context, written by myself and Alan Dearling, whose publishing company, Enabler Publications, launched the book in June 2005.
Eight and a half years later, The Battle of the Beanfield is still in print, and, to slightly contradict the heading of this article, it has never actually been out of print, although in summer, when Alan and I reprinted it, I was down to my last few copies. You can buy it here, in time for Christmas, if you, or anyone you’re hoping to buy a present for, was there, was affected by it, or is simply interested in knowing more about one of the key events that shaped the relationship between the state and those perceived as difficult. I should note that my previous book, Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion, is also still available, as is my third book, The Guantánamo Files. Read the rest of this entry »
Please note that my books Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield are both still available, and I also wholeheartedly recommend Travelling Daze: Words and Images from the UK’s New Travellers and Festivals, Late 1960s to the Here and Now, Alan Dearling’s epic review of the traveller scene (to which I was one of many contributors), which was published last year, and is essential reading for anyone interested in Britain’s traveller history.
Every year, on the summer solstice, I am confronted by two particular questions, as, I’m sure, are many people old enough to have spent their youth growing up under Margaret Thatcher, or in the years previously, under Ted Heath’s Tory government, and the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, when an unofficial civil war was taking place in British society.
Those two questions are: what happened to my youth, and what happened to massive, widespread societal dissent?
The former of course, is an existential question, which only young people don’t understand. It’s 29 years since the last Stonehenge Free Festival, an annual anarchic jamboree that lasted for the whole of June, when Britain’s alternative society set up camp in the fields across the road from Stonehenge, and it’s 39 years since the first festival was established, by an eccentric young man named Phil Russell, or, as his friends and admirers remember him, Wally Hope. Read the rest of this entry »
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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