40 Years of the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge: From Anarchy to State Repression to ‘Managed Open Access’

21.6.24

Summer solstice at Stonehenge, June 21, 2024. Photo via English Heritage’s official Stonehenge account on X.

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To celebrate the summer solstice today, I encourage you read my article from June 1, Joys and Agonies Past: 40 Years Since the Last Stonehenge Free Festival; 39 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield, if you haven’t already seen it, in which I marked the long passage of time since two particular events of great resonance — one fundamentally liberatory, and the other its complete opposite, an almost unprecedented demonstration of grotesque police violence against civilians.

To follow up, I’m adding some further thoughts and recollections about summer solstices at Stonehenge over the last 40 years, tracing a path from the anarchy of the festival, through the repression of the years that followed, to the vast but managed party that is now allowed to take place in the stones every year.

For those who were at the Stonehenge Free Festival — as I was in 1983 and 1984 — it really was a thrilling, eye-opening, anarchic gathering of the tribes, attended by tens of thousands of people, part of the multi-faceted resistance to the anti-communitarian tyranny of Margaret Thatcher that has, over the last several decades, morphed into a dispiriting and socially atomised world of empty materialism.

For most of the festival-goers, the stones were actually peripheral to their experience, although to those who represented the festival’s spiritual heart, gathering in the stones’ vast sarsen embrace on midsummer morning was the pinnacle, not just of the festival, but of the entire year, part of an ancient series of festivals — marking the solstices, the equinoxes and the quarter days in between — which predated kings and queens, and churches and parliaments and capitalism, revisiting an ancient connection to the land, and providing a focal point for the travelling free festival culture that moved around the country every year from May to September.

Even through the 40-year fog of time, and, at the time, of sleeplessness and substances, I still recall visiting the stones on the day of the solstice in 1984 — not at dawn, but after the crowd of celebrants had thinned out — and both the festival and Stonehenge itself left a lasting impression on me.

In the late ‘90s, I undertook several long distance walks through the ancient landscape of southern England, which, for many years, I tried unsuccessfully to shape into a book that someone might publish. Eventually, however, I was advised to focus instead on Stonehenge and the festival, and so, 20 years ago, my first book, Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, was published, a unique social history of Stonehenge, in which I wove its antiquarian and archaeological history in with the more colourful history of the Druids and other pagans, students, hippies, anarchists, travellers and festival-goers who have also been drawn to this powerful but enigmatic sun temple, which — because its creators left no written records — continues to mean many different things to many different people.

Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion is still in print, marking its 20th anniversary, and you can buy a copy from me here.

The festival’s suppression, on June 1, 1985, was a key event in Margaret Thatcher’s paramilitarised Britain that ought not to be forgotten, although it is far less-known than its nearest counterpart, the Battle of Orgreave, on June 18, 1984, the most notorious scene of conflict in the Miners’ Strike of that year, when Thatcher brought 6,000 paramilitarised police to Orgreave, a coking plant near Doncaster, to suppress striking miners with extraordinary violence.

No official inquiry has been allowed into the events at Orgreave, although ex-miners, activists and lawyers have been trying to get one established for many years. Even more overlooked are the travellers who were assaulted at the Battle of the Beanfield, where 1,400 police violently “decommissioned” a convoy of around 450 men, women and children in colourful second-hand vans and coaches and old military vehicles, who were trying to get to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual festival.

The suppression of civil liberties, triggered that day, has not only blighted the lives of all of Britain’s nomadic people — whether Gypsies, or the newer travellers drawn to the road in the depression of the Thatcher years — but a line can also be drawn from the laws enacted after the lawless brutality of the Beanfield, through the anti-rave and anti-trespass legislation of the 1990s to the hideously authoritarian clampdown of all dissent under the deeply intolerant clownshow of recent Tory governments, particularly under Boris Johnson’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and her counterpart, Suella Braverman, under Rishi Sunak.

The year after Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion was published, I completed a follow-up book, The Battle of the Beanfield, which is also still in print, and available to buy from me here.

Its 14 chapters feature extracts from the police radio log (‘liberated’ from the police during the travellers’ 1991 trial) and in-depth interviews with a range of people who were there on the day — including travellers Phil Shakesby and Maureen Stone, journalists Nick Davies and Kim Sabido, the Earl of Cardigan and Deputy Chief Constable Ian Readhead — as well as Lord Gifford QC, who represented 24 of the travellers at the trial. Many of these interviews were transcribed from footage taken for the 1991 documentary, ‘Operation Solstice.’ Also included are many previously unseen photos, a description of the making of ‘Operation Solstice’, and chapters which set the events of the Beanfield in context.

For 15 years after the Battle of the Beanfield, a militarised exclusion zone was established around Stonehenge every summer solstice, until, in 1999, the Law Lords ruled that it was illegal, and its managers, English Heritage and the National Trust, were obliged to reinstate access to this most bitterly-contested of ancient monuments.

Since 2000, ironically, the stones, which were something of a niche attraction in the festival years, have become the annual site of a massive party — albeit one limited to a 12-hour period, through what is unromantically called ‘Managed Open Access’ — in which those on a spiritual quest are joined by vast numbers of other spectators, part of the participatory “age of spectacle” that so much of 21st century experience seems to be based around, in which one might almost expect attendance at Stonehenge for the summer solstice to be an entry in a global tourist guide along the lines of ‘100 Things You Must See and Do Before You Die.’

I don’t wish to sound entirely dismissive of the ‘Open Managed Access’ experience — which I took part in every year from 2001 until 2005, and thoroughly enjoyed — but as the BBC explained when they ran a major feature on ‘How the Stonehenge battles faded’ in 2014, and interviewed Alan ‘Tash’ Lodge, ex-traveller, and the great photographer of the travelling free festival circuit, “for Mr Lodge, the whole ethos of the days of the free festivals are long gone, with access largely managed by private security who move revellers away by morning.”

As he described it, “I find it so depressing, as I have some appreciation of what it is that we have lost. All we were trying to do is have an association with people of our kind at a location, where people are used to doing so. If Stonehenge wasn’t built for that, then what is it?”

With the solstice crowds safely banished once more, and the stones once more fenced off, only to be watched from a safe distance by paying customers, I can’t help but reflect on Tash’s words. Even though the state violence of the 1980s and ‘90s is long gone, and the stones’ current curators — and archeologists — are much less dismissive of, or are even actively supportive of the pagans and revellers drawn to the stones than they were in those time-dimmed days of extraordinary conflict and violence, Stonehenge remains a place where the gamut of opinions — from those drawn to it as some sort of manifestation of heritage and national pride to those for whom its attraction is that it stands outside of, and before all of that narrow patriotism and nationalism — can still be profoundly at odds.

On the day before the crowds gathered, two activists with Just Stop Oil, the collective of largely autonomous activists who are committed to getting the government to end our destructive addiction to fossil fuels before the planet becomes uninhabitable, broke through what is nowadays the quite lax security at Stonehenge and sprayed cornstarch-based orange paint on three of the sarsen stones.

As commentators went apoplectic with rage — as is sadly all too typical these days, as public figures and armchair critics alike go from zero to homicidal in a micro-second, the most extraordinary comment came from Shelagh Fogarty, a radio presenter on LBC, who wrote on X, “Just Stop Oil just stopped millions listening to their arguments because they stopped arguing and became ISIS thugs destroying our Palmyra. Idiots. Brutes.”

As I explained in a post in response, “This is a radio presenter on LBC, comparing Just Stop Oil to ISIS’s actions at Palmyra, where 400 people were murdered and the chief archaeologist beheaded, because, at Stonehenge, two activists threw some cornstarch on the stones, which will wash away in the rain. Humanity is lost.”

40 years since the last Stonehenge Free Festival, violent intolerance is, it seems, never far away.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (see the ongoing photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison 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 you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and, in 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to try to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody.

Since 2019, Andy has become increasingly involved in environmental activism, recognizing that climate change poses an unprecedented threat to life on earth, and that the window for change — requiring a severe reduction in the emission of all greenhouse gases, and the dismantling of our suicidal global capitalist system — is rapidly shrinking, as tipping points are reached that are occurring much quicker than even pessimistic climate scientists expected. You can read his articles about the climate crisis here.

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

13 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    To mark the summer solstice at Stonehenge, I recollect my experiences at the last Stonehenge Free Festival in 1984, before its violent suppression at the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985, when I visited the stones after staying up all night. My experiences of the festival and the stones left a deep impression on me, which, in the ’90s, encouraged me to undertake several long-distance walks through southern England’s ancient landscape, for a book that, eventually, materialised instead as ‘Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion’, my unique social history of Stonehenge, published 20 years ago, and still in print.

    I also reflect on the militarised exclusion zone that existed on the summer solstice at Stonehenge until 2000, when a court ruling led to the reopening of the stones for what is unromantically called ‘Managed Open Access’, when crowds are allowed in for 12 hours, and I also reflect on the latest example of conflict at Stonehenge: a truly absurd comparison between Just Stop Oil and ISIS, after JSO activists sprayed harmless cornstarch-based paint on the stones two days ago.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Dave Goateze wrote:

    It’s a militarized inclusion zone now. How old were you in 84? The vicar of a high church who had been up there cos he was interested came to our school and told us everything which had happened in an assembly.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I like that, Dave – it’s “a militarized inclusion zone now.” I haven’t been since 2005, when it already seemed to me that it was getting more restrictive – and, to be honest, I wasn’t entirely enamored by the ’empty spectacle’ aspect of many of those there. I have friends who regard it as significant, and I’m happy for them, but the more I think about it the less inclined I am to want to be ‘policed’ at such a resonant site of dissent.

    As for how old I was in 1984, I was three – no, just kidding, I was 21. A lifetime ago!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Tony Gosling wrote:

    I’m a big supporter of the travellers. And free festivals.
    But Stonehenge is hardly an icon for freedom. Maybe one of the many spots of C18 anti Enclosure risings?
    How much do those celebrating there today know or care about human sacrifice? https://youtu.be/P1rVoFtVt0s

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Tony. I hope you’re well. Thanks for your typically leftfield perspective!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Lilia Patterson wrote:

    Thanks, I went last year & almost went this year but got put off so stayed at home & had a gathering on the allotment instead lol.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Ha, Lilia. At least you had a gathering in your allotment. I just wrote this article instead after sleeping through the dawn and then cycling around in the sun for a while.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Lilia Patterson wrote:

    Andy, I woke up at the crack of dawn but it was too early for my brain lol, good the warmer weather is finally getting here now at least.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Now we just have to hope it doesn’t get too hot, Lilia, like two years ago. I see temperatures are passing 50°C in some places around the world now, which is pushing the human body beyond its ability to survive.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Jacqueline Durban wrote:

    I thought of you and your fabulous book when the Just Stop Oil action happened, Andy. Stonehenge continues to provoke such powerful emotion, although I continue to be astonished (that isn’t the right word, but there isn’t a right word that I can find) that so many have such strong opinions about cornstarch paint than about 40,000 people dead in Gaza or dying in extreme heat in Saudi Arabia, Mexico etc due to global warming. Psychologically I get it, but I continue to believe that we are a reflective species and can give ourselves a good talking to when we go off track. It’s just that we tend not to.

    As for the Beanfield, I am quite sure that it has shaped my way of thinking more than any other event growing up. When my Will died I was interviewed by a young reporter from a local paper who was writing about him and I mentioned the Beanfield. She had never heard of it! I was more than willing to explain it to her. Everyone ought to know about it. I had never thought of the connection with Orgreave, which I am woefully ignorant of. Thank you for making that connection for me and for all that you do.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks so much for your assessment of the response to Just Stop Oil’s action, and for your supportive words about my work, Jacqueline.

    It’s definitely a problem that we’re living in a time when so many people prioritise their emotional response over any kind of fact-based analysis, and how swiftly that turns to ‘outrage.’ As someone who values logic when dealing with facts, I noticed this drift particularly taking place around the EU referendum, when people who were objectively capable of logical assessment abandoned it for ‘feelings.’ The slimy Michael Gove tapped into that well when, at the time, he derided ‘experts’, and it is, of course, a hallmark of Donald Trump’s politics – an enthusiastic race to the bottom.

    That said, it’s heartening to hear you affirm that “we are a reflective species and can give ourselves a good talking to when we go off track.” We saw that to some extent, I think, during the pandemic, but we’re desperately in need of leadership – moral guidance, if you will, of the kind that was very definitely part of my northern, working class Christian upbringing, but that has been largely abandoned as we have all been encouraged to become empty self-obsessed materialists instead.

    We need leadership from politicians and the media, and, while it seems that we’re not going to get that on the genocide in Gaza, because apparently unquestioning support for the Zionists’ victimhood, and their ‘right’ to do whatever they want as the ‘chosen’ people on their ‘chosen’ land, is so deeply embedded in the structures of power and politics in so much of the west, our politicians and our media have no excuse for not telling the truth about climate collapse. Clearly, as with Israel, many politicians have also been bought, but the media – those who like to think of themselves as ‘liberal’ and responsible – need to stop pretending that the greatest crisis in all of our lifetimes can be wished away, when every day of delay makes the crisis worse.

    Logic, again. And while journalists can tiptoe around, privately discussing how they don’t want to cause panic or despair, and occasionally letting slip that ratings are involved when it comes to climate coverage, what we desperately need is for people with influence within the media and the political world to start prioritising the need to provide leadership and education.

    We are, as you note, capable of reflection, and even of admitting that we were wrong (often a desperately hard thing for humans to do), and I have no doubt that, despite the damage we have done, and that is already baked in, if we committed ourselves wholeheartedly to mitigation of climate collapse’s worst effects, we’d find something collectively positive that is so sorely lacking in these end times for rapacious capitalism.

    As for the Beanfield, like you I continue to believe in its significance, and I’m glad to hear that the Orgreave connection was useful. The two events are especially connected when you realise that some of the police involved in Orgreave began the suppression of the travellers just a month later, at a festival in Yorkshire, and continued to harass and monitor them throughout the next ten months, until the Beanfield, including the eviction of the Molesworth peace camp in February 1985, which was the largest ever peacetime mobilisation of British troops. ‘From Orgreave to the Beanfield’ would be a good topic for a documentary!

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Tim Morriss wrote:

    A great book and great times traversing the countryside with Dot and yourself and friends. Happy Solstice. Much love Tim x

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Tim. Yes, those were special times indeed, weren’t they? As you know, my proposed book about those walks never materialised, but I keep meaning to put some of the photos together, and to provide an overview, looking back on it from now, as a glimpse into a lost world (pre-9/11, pre-austerity, pre-Brexit). Perhaps one of these years …

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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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