Memories of Youth and the Need for Dissent on the 29th Anniversary of the last Stonehenge Free Festival


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.

I was 20, and a student, when I visited the Stonehenge Free Festival in 1983 — an eye-opening event that was literally life-changing, as it showed me an alternative to the hectoring world of order and greed that Margaret Thatcher was busy establishing, as she took the axe to the British state, to the trade unions, and to the spirit of the 60s, which had gone suburban in the 1970s and was eating away at the dull conformist straitjacket of Little England.

Tens of thousands of people — none of them supporters of Margaret Thatcher — were on Salisbury Plain, sticking two fingers up to the British establishment. There were wall-to-wall drugs, of course, including a couple of beaming elves beside a barrel — a literal barrel — of magic mushrooms, and the cries of “Acid! Speed! Hot knives!” rang through the sky. But there was much, much more. Street after street of wildly painted old vehicles — trucks and buses and coaches — and their inhabitants, refugees from the unemployment of Thatcher’s Britain, or visionaries actively seeking out an alternative — life on the road, not cooped up in ghettos, with visions of ecological solutions to society’s problems, of communes and cooperatives, of land reform, an end to nuclear proliferation and an end to society’s enthusiastic endorsement of nuclear power.

By 1984, as Thatcher declared war on the miners and George Orwell’s prophesies were ringing through everyone’s ears, life became darker, and in 1985 Margaret Thatcher brought the Stonehenge Free Festival to a violent end, and struck a savage blow to the viability of the travellers’ society, at what will forever be known as the Battle of the Beanfield, when 1,300 police from six counties and the MoD cornered the advance convoy heading to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th festival, and decommissioned them with a brutality that is still shocking today. For further information, see my article from June 1, 2012, “Remember the Battle of the Beanfield: It’s the 27th Anniversary Today of Thatcher’s Brutal Suppression of Traveller Society,” which, I’m delighted to note, has had over 6,700 “likes” on Facebook.

This was not the end of dissent, of course. As though poetic justice were being exercised, within a few years ecstasy arrived on these shores, and, with new forms of electronic dance music, a massive new movement of dissent was created, with massive warehouse parties and raves in fields taking place up and down the land. State repression, and changes in the law killed off this movement too, between 1992, when a Stonehenge-sized festival took place at Castlemorton in Gloucestershire, and 1994, when the Criminal Justice Act was passed, the successor to the Public Order Act that was passed after the Beanfield, which finally criminalised any unauthorised gatherings of more than two people.

Fortunately, hedonism was not the only game in town in John Major’s Britain, because, as the young often fail to realise, it is not the same thing as political consciousness. While opportunistic businessmen circled the rave scene, hoping to make a fortune when it was castrated and subsequently licensed (as they did), other forms of dissent sprang up spontaneously — primarily the extraordinary road protest movement, a direct response to the clampdown on travellers, which transformed the nomadic impulse into one of occupation, as defenders of trees and wildlife — defenders of Mother Nature — occupied trees and invented new forms of front-line resistance to the wrecking crews sent out by the government to clear the way for numerous road-building projects that were ecologically ruinous, and that would only increase the self-obsessive tyranny of car use (as has, indeed, come to pass). Note: For the road protest movement in 2013, see this Guardian article.

The road protest movement spawned the wonderfully theatrical and confrontational Reclaim the Streets, and all of these impulses fed into the massive anti-globalization movement of the early 90s and the start of the 21st century, which was only finally suppressed with extreme violence, and the distractions — not uncoincidental — of terrorism and war.

While there is no easy answer to what getting older means and how to cope with the vanishing of youth, I do not believe the same is true of political dissent, which briefly flickered back into life with the Occupy movement in 2011. Horribly, the governments of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron have continued to clamp down on our civil liberties in the most disgraceful manner, generally using “terrorism” as an excuse, and, beginning with Blair, we have also seen the final realisation of Thatcher’s dream — a world in which money is the only measurement of success and worth; politicians pimp the country and their constituencies for banks, corporations and the super-rich, who are all, very literally, out of control; the key aspects of life are relentless self-obsession, relentless materialism, increasing vacuousness, directly connected to the depoliticisation of life in general, and a creeping hatred of a demonised “other” — be it Muslims, immigrants, the unemployed, or the disabled.

We may not be able to turn back time to when we were all whippet thin, and full of the effervescence of youth, but we can continue to fight back against the dying of the light that is so horribly evident in the changes of the last decade and a half. Our current way of life — shallow, dead-eyed, self-obsessed, petty, spiteful, environmentally ruinous and driven remorselessly by greed and various false narratives of entitlement (especially amongst the rich and powerful) — is far more disastrous than the one we were fighting against in the 70s, the 80s and the 90s, and all of us who are conscious need to be aware that sitting back and putting up with it is no answer at all.

As 20,000 revellers return from the “managed open access” that English Heritage have successfully initiated since 2000 — after those 16 dreadful years of post-Beanfield exclusion, when, every year, Stonehenge was like a war zone — I wish you all a happy solstice, but I also urge you to remember the spirit of dissent that once permeated the veins and arteries of British life — and to do something, anything, to break some rules, to declare that property and the law are constructs, and to show that your life is your own.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. 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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26 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, when I posted this article, I wrote:

    Here’s an essay on youth and rebellion that I wrote today on the occasion of the summer solstice, the annual “managed open access” gathering at Stonehenge, and the 29th anniversary of the last Stonehenge Free Festival, crushed by Margaret Thatcher’s militarised police at the Battle of the Beanfield the year after. Where has the time gone? Where has the dissent gone?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    And where has my photo gone? Facebook apparently didn’t like the aerial photo of the 1984 festival that I used to accompany the article, taken from a police helicopter, which was “liberated” from the police, along with other significant documents, during a subsequent trial of some of the travellers who had had the effrontery to get in the way of the police’s truncheons:

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Rachels Page wrote:

    Crikey was it really 30 years ago we were there , feel very old now 🙂

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Sadly, Rachel, yes – hence my reflections on lost youth as well as the more general loss of rebellion in our current complacent, materialistic culture.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Dessie Harris wrote:

    Interesting and most informative article Andy and a special thanks for mentioning that by 1984 Mrs. Thatcher declared war on the miners and dare I say their families, and their miserable lives. Thank you again.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Dessie. Yes, that bleak period in history still has a hugely important resonance. The war on travellers overlapped with the war on the miners, and while the former was a savage attack on a way of life for thousands of people, the latter destroyed entire communities, with repercussions that are still being felt to this day.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Kamal Lbahri wrote:

    Ecco un saggio sui giovani e la ribellione che ho scritto oggi, in occasione del solstizio d’estate, la “gestito open access” raduno annuale a Stonehenge, e il 29 ° anniversario dell’ultima Stonehenge Free Festival, schiacciati dalla polizia militarizzata di Margaret Thatcher nella battaglia del Beanfield l’anno dopo. Dove è andato il tempo? Dove è andato il dissenso?

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Grazie, Kamal, per la traduzione!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Jaq White wrote:

    One thing that I believe has discouraged some people over here from expressing their dissent, is kettling, and the way police took photos and details of people protesting in the last few years before they were allowed to leave the scene.. I don’t know for certain if that was the case in the Occupy movement, but that’s what happened when the students were protesting the cuts. Imagine a young person who hopes to go to uni being terrified that prospective employers and goodness knows who else, will be told they have a police record. It’s a form of state terrorism really!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Oh yes, absolutely, Jaq, There has been, and continues to be heavy surveillance and intimidation to add to the massive depoliticised indifference of the many, which I should have mentioned. Kettling’s horrible, of course, and has been a serious killer of peaceful dissent since its introduction in 2001, but snooping on young people and trying to ruin their lives is even worse.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Toia Tutta Jung wrote:

    Nothing is going to change until we change our monetary system. We can talk about many different methods, tactics, strategies that serve to the purpose of keeping things as they are. That´s also why we see different generations making the same mistakes when they try to change something. We have to attack the problem by its roots.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I think a genuinely socialist revolution in thought would do it, Toia, so that money is a tool rather than what it’s become – an addiction for the super-greedy who are unrestrained by laws and by politicians. I was very taken with the analysis of the destructive madness of the financial markets that was in Wednesday’s Guardian:
    That doesn’t provide the solution – and I have to say that I don’t know who is seriously putting together a new socialist model that would work – but it does explain succinctly how we currently have a broken system that cannot be reformed.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Frazer Mckenzie wrote:

    There is a good video on YouTube showing the police going crazy and smashing the windows on the coaches ! back in the late 80’s I think. I heard somewhere that the British government brought the CIA over to help crush the Miners Strike and also to crush the traveling community. After all the recent scandals of cops going undercover in protest groups and even fathering a child as part of their cover it would not surprise me in the slightest if thats the kind of tactics they are prepared to use against peaceful people.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Frazer Mckenzie wrote:

    I never thought the gatherings got that big. Was that a good year ? Looks like a mini Glastonbury 🙂

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Frazer. That’s the documentary called “Operation Solstice.” I transcribed some of the interviews conducted for the documentary for my book The Battle of the Beanfield:

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    That last year was huge, Frazer, but there was a darkness that year, as Thatcher had begun destroying the miners and was about to start seriously harrying the travellers in the run-up to the Beanfield. 1983 was much happier, although I loved being at the stones in 1984 – around midday, if I recall correctly.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    A friend just let me know that “Operation Solstice,” the documentary about the Battle of the Beanfield by Gareth Morris and Neil Goodwin, is on YouTube:
    You can also buy it from Culture Shop in the UK:

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Good post, good writing, Andy. I’m sharing this. Here’s an example of the power of monetary thinking, and the values that it enforces. As you know, I got a provisional All Clear from a life-threatening cancer on 18 June. I live comfortably and happily in a one-room hotel apartment and shall keep on doing so. I told a friend about the All Clear, and the very first thing he said was, “Are you going to buy a house now?”

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Ha! Yes, the only indicator of value in modern life, George – the mortgage! It’s sad how much the conformist mentality is pushed by the dark forces shaping our lives (the banks, the corporations and their pimps in government and the media), and how widespread it has become – and also how materialism so thoroughly contaminates life itself, which should, of course, be lived as much as possible without price tags being attached to it.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    David Leeson wrote:

    Bean meaning to buy this [the book] for a while (see how I did that?) – of course, that would require shipping to the US! I guess it would be easier to go through Amazon. 🙂

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    David Leeson wrote:

    Ant Phillips – small world! Andy – Ant was at Nostell Priory when the stuff hit the fan…

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Let me know if you can find a copy Stateside, David, as I seem to be figuring out that that’s where you’re based these days. If not, get back to me. A copy can be sent from the UK, although postage is nearly a tenner, if I recall correctly.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    And hi, Ant. I only knew about Nostell Priory through Phil Shakesby. I met him at Glastonbury when I launched “The Battle of the Beanfield” there in 2005. That was a good weekend! I took a rucksack with 50 copies, which was very heavy, and I had to carry it all the way across the entire festival site which had just flooded. OK, so that bit wasn’t great, but then the sun came out, and I set up a table by the main drag in the Green Fields and just sat there for two days, chatting to people and selling books!

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Frazer Mckenzie wrote, in response to 16, above:

    Well lets hope we can turn the tide and go back to a time like those before thatcher 🙂
    We need to reverse our course and go back to a simpler community based society more like the clan system or tribes I feel. Well Andy Keep up your great work glad there are some people who fight for what is right on the world – All the best for the future

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Frazer Mckenzie wrote:

    I was 10 in 84 so do remember the news reports and I knew a few travelers at the time who told me about the festival but it was about then I thought that sounds like the place for me I wanted to join them 🙂

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Frazer. I agree about the need for a simpler time. The obsession with money as the only reason for existence is making life harder and harder for more and more people, and making our countries more and more likely to creep ever closer to fascism, as well as being environmentally insane, while people become colder and more and more self-obsessed, when there is nothing else but materialism by which to measure the value of life.

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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