Remembering the Stonehenge Free Festival 37 Years On, and the Video of Last Year’s Virtual Stonehenge Festival

A photo of celebrants/campaigners at Stonehenge on June 21, 2021, who occupied the stones despite a call by English Heritage for people to stay away because of Covid regulations (Photo: Reuters).

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Happy summer solstice, everyone, wherever you are. I’m in London, where it’s overcast and drizzly, as it is across much of southern England, but although I’d love to be basking in the sun, I’m also rather enjoying how, today, Mother Nature is dominant in a different way, as a few people scurry about under umbrellas, while everything green and rooted happily soaks up the rain. In addition, although I’m not at all happy about the economic hardship that an extra month of lockdown will mean for businesses that were hoping to reopen today, concerns about the rising numbers of Covid infections are genuine, and part of me is relieved that Boris Johnson didn’t succeed in declaring the summer solstice as ‘Freedom Day’, as he originally intended.

Today, like every summer solstice, I’m also thinking about Stonehenge, the ancient iconic temple in Wiltshire, where, on several occasions in my life, I’ve spent the summer solstice — twice at the Stonehenge Free Festival, in 1983 and 1984, and on five occasions from 2001 to 2005, at the ‘Managed Open Access’ events organised by English Heritage, the body that manages Stonehenge on behalf of the government.

Stonehenge, of course, remains enigmatic about issues of ownership, as it has done for thousands of years. Those who created it aligned its main axis on the summer solstice and the winter solstice, but left no written records to indicate what its purpose was, and over the years the state, archaeologists, neo-pagans, anarchists, festival-goers and curious members of the public have all staked a claim on its significance, and on its central cosmic axis.

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36 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield, the Tories Remain Committed to Eradicating the Nomadic Way of Life

Six photos from the Battle of the Beanfield, on June 1, 1985, when the police, under Margaret Thatcher, destroyed, with unprecedented violence, a convoy of vehicles containing men, women and children, as they tried to make their way to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.

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36 years ago today, on June 1, 1985, Margaret Thatcher’s para-militarised police force, fresh from suppressing striking miners, turned their attention, via what has become known as the Battle of the Beanfield, to the next “enemy within” — the travellers, environmental activists, festival-goers and anarchists who had been taking to the roads in increasing numbers in response to the devastation of the economy in Thatcher’s early years in office.

The unemployment rate when Thatcher took office, in May 1979, was 5.3%, but it then rose at an alarming rate, reaching 10% in the summer of 1981 and hitting a peak of 11.9% in the spring of 1984. Faced with ever diminishing work opportunities, thousands of people took to the roads in old coaches, vans and even former military vehicles.

Some, inspired by the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common in Berkshire, which was undertaken to resist the establishment of Britain’s first US-controlled cruise missile base, engaged in environmental activism, of which the most prominent example was the Rainbow Village established in 1984 at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, intended to be Britain’s second cruise missile base, while others found an already established seasonal free festival circuit that ran though the summer months, and whose focal point was the annual free festival at Stonehenge, first established to mark the summer solstice at Britain’s most celebrated ancient monument in 1974, which had been growing ever larger, year on year, drawing in tens of thousands of visitors, myself included, in 1983 and 1984.

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This Summer Solstice, The Party’s Over; Now It’s Time to Save the Planet

The summer solstice 2019 at Stonehenge (Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters).

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Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and at Stonehenge, the astonishing Bronze Age temple on the downs in Wiltshire, around 10,000 people gathered to watch the solstice sun rise through the heart of the temple, on one of the relatively rare years that the dawn sky was clear. It’s a contemporary celebration of the cycle of the seasons, but it also ties us to our mysterious ancestors, 4,000 years ago, who spent untold years transporting and shaping the vast sarsen stones that make up the temple’s epic bulk, so that it aligned with the rising sun on this particularly significant day.

People seem to have been drawn to Stonehenge for the summer solstice for centuries, although many archaeologists have a different take on the monument’s purpose, suggesting that it was not built to celebrate the summer solstice, but to celebrate the other end of this cosmic axis: the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, when, as the archeologist Aubrey Burl has suggested, our distant ancestors — whose lives, to quote Thomas Hobbes, were “nasty, brutish and short” — sought to reassure themselves that life would return from the dead world of winter.

Burl may be right, and much of the archaeological record supports his Hobbesian analogy. Life was indeed hard and short, but the romanticised view of our ancestors celebrating the summer solstice — rather than undertaking the building of stone circles and other extraordinary monuments to seek reassurance, in the depths of winter, that life would return to a dead world — has a powerful resonance for anyone who lived through, or has been influenced by the counter-cultural movements of the western world in the decades following the Second World War, and, in particular, the 1960s and 70s.

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34 Years On from the Battle of the Beanfield, Is Widespread Environmental Dissent Conceivable?

A photo from the Battle of the Beanfield on June 1, 1985, when the government of Margaret Thatcher violently decommissioned a convoy trying to get to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.

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It’s 34 long years since the boot of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain crushed one of the most visible demonstrations of counter-cultural dissent in the UK via a brutal demonstration of the violence of the establishment at what became known as the Battle of the Beanfield, when 1,400 police — from six counties and the MoD — shut down a vastly outnumbered convoy of nomadic new age travellers, anarchists, environmental activists and free festival stalwarts as they attempted to get to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival.

From humble origins in 1974, the festival grew — reflecting massive discontent in Thatcher’s Britain, where unemployment was at an all-time high in the early ‘80s — so that by the time it was suppressed, tens of thousands of people, for the whole of June, set up a makeshift settlement, the size of a small town, in the fields opposite Stonehenge. 

Drug use was rife, as was acid rock music, while the festival’s regulars, who took part in a circuit of free festivals in England and Wales from May to September, tried to get by via the creation of a low-level, low-impact economy that, like their decision to take to the road in old vehicles rather than stagnating on the dole in towns and cities without jobs, fundamentally challenged the state’s insistence that nomadic activities were reserved solely for Gypsies, who, themselves, have a long history of persecution, as settled people generally, it seems, despise nomadic people. 

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Party in the Park, New Cross and Deptford 2018: Sun, Solidarity and the Struggle Against Social Cleansing

The arrival of a carnival procession of campaigners from the Old Tidemill Garden in Deptford to Party in the Park, a community festival in New Cross on September 1, 2018 (Photo: Andy Worthington).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist.




 

Welcome to Party in the Park 2018, in Fordham Park, New Cross. No fences, no huge metal walls, no entrance fee, no security checks — and no trouble. This was the community in solidarity, proving triumphantly that an open festival is infinitely preferable to the securitised fortresses that play such a divisive role in so many of London’s parks these days (see the big money festivals that, behind their soaring metal walls, take over much of London’s parkland every summer, and the debacle of the recent Lambeth Country Show, for example).

This was the fourth Party in the Park, after events in 2013, 2014 and 2016, but it wasn’t just the brilliant sunshine that made it such a great day, or the music from dozens of great performers (and with my band The Four Fathers honoured to take part). It was that thing I mentioned above. Solidarity.

The theme of the festival was housing, and housing is at the heart of the problems we face on all fronts in the never-ending “age of austerity” imposed by the Tories since 2010, with ongoing cuts to all the services that are essential for a civil society to flourish, and with a relentless onslaught of greed on a key essential of life — housing. Read the rest of this entry »

Why We’ve Occupied the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford to Prevent Lewisham Council’s Demolition Plans

Join the Tidemill Occupation: an image I put together featuring a photo from the Old Tidemill Garden in Deptford on August 28, 2018, the evening the garden was occupied to prevent Lewisham Council from taking it back the day after, prior to its intended destruction.On Tuesday evening (August 28), campaigners occupied the Old Tidemill Garden on Reginald Road in Deptford, London SE8 to prevent Lewisham Council from taking it back on the Wednesday morning (August 29), and boarding it up prior to its planned destruction as part of the proposed re-development of the site of the old Tidemill Primary School.

The garden is a much-loved community space, and was developed by teachers, parents and pupils from the school 20 years ago. When the school closed, to be replaced by a new academy, the garden was leased to the local community, but now the council wants it back, to destroy it, and the 16 council flats of Reginald House next door, in order to build new housing with the housing association Peabody, some of which be for private sale, with the rest a mixture of Sadiq Khan’s London Affordable Rent (63% higher than social rents in Lewisham) and the scam that is shared ownership.

For many years, campaigners have been working to urge Lewisham Council to re-draw its plans to re-develop the old school site, which, astonishingly, were first proposed ten years ago. The campaigners have relentlessly pointed out that increasing the density of the development on the old school site will allow the council and Peabody to save the garden and Reginald House, but they’re simply not interested in engaging with the local community, or with the residents of Reginald House. 80% of residents do not want to lose their homes but have not been offered a ballot, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s promise last autumn that all proposed demolitions should involve ballots, a position since endorsed by London Mayor Sadiq Khan. Read the rest of this entry »

Thoughts on Stonehenge and the Summer Solstice 2018: Has the Dominant Materialism Killed Some Magic in the World?

A photo of the summer solstice sunrise at Stonehenge on the morning of June 21, 2018. In a very modern manner, it was taken by a police drone.Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist.




 

So the sun shone this morning, and it looked like a lovely sunrise at Stonehenge on the summer solstice. According to the BBC, however, the number of attendees was just 9,500, considerably less than in some years since Managed Open Access to the great temple on Salisbury Plain was reintroduced in 2000, after 16 years in which access to Stonehenge on the summer solstice was prevented through the existence of a military-style exclusion zone.

In part, this was due to the solstice dawn taking place on a Thursday morning. Attendee numbers are highest when it falls on a weekend, but other factors may also have been involved. It now costs £15 to park a vehicle for the solstice — “£15 per car, live-in vehicle and non-commercial minibus (up to 19 seats)”, as English Heritage describe it — and security has been ramped up in the last two years, primarily, it seems, because of the government’s delight in keeping us in a perpetual state of fear — and racist fear, to boot — by pretending that every aspect of our lives is subject to a potential terrorist threat, even the summer solstice at Stonehenge.

“As with last year’s event”, the BBC explained, “Wiltshire Police confirmed it had stepped up security with armed police on patrol.” Yes, that’s right. Armed police at Stonehenge. What a horrible and unnecessary policy. Supt. Dave Minty, Wiltshire Police’s overnight commander, conceding that there had been no trouble at all, and that “behaviour at the stones was ‘brilliant’, with no arrests made”, nevertheless said of the security situation, “People seem to have adapted really well to the heightened level of security and they’ve been really patient with it.” Read the rest of this entry »

It’s Now 31 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield: Where is the Spirit of Dissent in the UK Today?

The cover of The Battle of the Beanfield, Andy Worthington's book about the dreadful events of June 1, 1985, collecting accounts fro those who were there on the day, along with contemporary analysis.

Buy my book The Battle of the Beanfield. Also available: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion.

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 »

Stonehenge and the Summer Solstice, 30 Years After the Battle of the Beanfield

The Stonehenge Free Festival in 1975, a photo from the Flickr page of Basil and Tracy Brooks. Basil played with Zorch, who played the first two festivals in 1974 and 1975.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 »

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

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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