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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Thoughts on the Summer Solstice – and Video of The Four Fathers’ Set for the Virtual Stonehenge Free Festival

A lonely Stonehenge on the summer solstice 2020, and The Four Fathers playing a solstice set for the Virtual Stonehenge Free Festival.

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Normally, for the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, I write an article about Stonehenge, the ancient temple aligned on the solstices, discussing its long and contested history, and the crowds who have gathered there to celebrate the solstice sunrise. If this is of interest, then please feel free to check out my articles from 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

My fascination with Stonehenge dates back 37 years, to when I was a student and visited the Stonehenge Free Festival, in 1983, and subsequently in 1984 — visits that not only awakened in me an interest in ancient sacred sites, but also showed me the reality of an alternative lifestyle outside of the prevailing model of nuclear families in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.

The festival, which had started in 1974, had grown to become a huge autonomous gathering that occupied the fields opposite Stonehenge for the whole of the month of June — and which has been accurately described as “a working exercise in collective anarchy” — until its violent suppression in 1985, when a convoy of travellers making their way to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th festival were ambushed by 1,400 police from six counties and the MoD, and were then violently “decommissioned”, in one of the most shocking episodes of state brutality against unarmed men, women and children in modern British history, which has become known as the Battle of the Beanfield.

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It’s 35 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield; Where Do We Go Now?

Police swarming around the last bus to be violently “decommissioned” at the Battle of Beanfield, on June 1, 1985.

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Today is the 35th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield; actually, a one-sided rout of heartbreaking brutality in a field in Wiltshire, when 1,400 police from six counties and the MoD violently “decommissioned” a convoy of 400 travellers trying to get to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual Stonehenge Free Festival, a huge autonomous settlement, numbering tens of thousands of people, that occupied the fields by Stonehenge for the whole of the month of June, and that had become a target for violent suppression by Margaret Thatcher.

My book The Battle of the Beanfield, published to mark the 20th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield, is still in print, so please feel free to order a copy. Also available: Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion, my counter-cultural history of Stonehenge.

Thatcher had spent 1984 crushing one group of citizens described as the “enemy within” — the miners — while also paving the way for the next “enemy within” to be crushed — the travellers, anarchists and environmental and anti-nuclear activists who made up the convoy attempting to get to Stonehenge when they were ambushed, and then crushed after they sought refuge in a bean field off the A303.

Elements of the convoy had been violently set upon by police in the summer of 1984, at Nostell Priory in Yorkshire, and in February 1985, activists and travellers who had established a settlement at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire (the second proposed site for cruise missiles after Greenham Common in Berkshire, the site of the famous women’s peace camp) were evicted by the largest peacetime mobilisation of troops in modern British history, symbolically led by Thatcher’s right-hand man and defence secretary, Michael Heseltine.

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Change the World! A Life in Activism: I Discuss Stonehenge, the Beanfield, Guantánamo and Environmental Protest with Alan Dearling

Andy Worthington calling for the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay outside the White House, singing and playing guitar, and challenging the police and bailiffs on the day of the eviction of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford.

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At the start of the year, I was delighted to be asked by an old friend and colleague, Alan Dearling, the publisher of my second book, The Battle of the Beanfield, if I’d like to be interviewed about my history of activism for two publications he’s involved with — the music and counter-culture magazine Gonzo Weekly and International Times, the online revival of the famous counter-cultural magazine of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

In February, after my time- and attention-consuming annual visit to the US to call for the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay on the anniversary of its opening, I found the time to give Alan’s questions the attention they deserved, and the interview was finally published on the International Times website on March 21, just two days before the coronavirus lockdown began, changing all our lives, possibly forever. Last week, it was also published in Gonzo Weekly (#387/8, pp. 73-84), and I’m pleased to now be making it available to readers here on my website.

In a wide-ranging interview, Alan asked me about my involvement with the British counter-culture in the ’80s and ‘90s, which eventually led to me writing my first two books, Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion, and, as noted above, The Battle of the Beanfield. my work on behalf of the prisoners in Guantánamo Bay, which has dominated much of my life for the last 14 years, and my more recent work as a housing activist — with a brief mention also of my photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’, and my music with The Four Fathers.

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“First They Came for the Travellers”: Priti Patel’s Chilling Attack on Britain’s Travelling Communities

A composite image of the home secretary Priti Patel and a Gypsy caravan.

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I’ve chosen my headline with care, in response to the news that the home secretary, Priti Patel, has launched a horrible attack on Britain’s travelling community, suggesting that the police should be able to immediately confiscate the vehicle of “anyone whom they suspect to be trespassing on land with the purpose of residing on it”, and announcing her intention to “test the appetite to go further” than any previous proposals for dealing with Gypsies and travellers.

As George Monbiot explained in an article for the Guardian on Wednesday, “Until successive Conservative governments began working on it, trespass was a civil and trivial matter. Now it is treated as a crime so serious that on mere suspicion you can lose your home.” Monbiot added, “The government’s proposal, criminalising the use of any place without planning permission for Roma and Travellers to stop, would extinguish the travelling life.” 

“First they came for the travellers” alludes to the famous poem by the German pastor Martin Niemöller with reference to the Nazis, which begins, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a socialist”, and continues with reference to trade unionists and Jews, and ending, “Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

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The Significance of the High Court Ruling That the Police’s London-Wide Ban on Extinction Rebellion Was “Unlawful”

Metropolitan Police officers and the Extinction Rebellion camp at Trafalgar Square, October 11, 2019 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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The news cycle seems so frenetic right now that stories barely get noticed before the media spotlight promiscuously turns to some other topic. A case in point, to my mind, is an important High Court ruling last week — that a decision taken by the Metropolitan Police last month, to impose a blanket ban across the whole of London prohibiting any assembly of more than two people linked to Extinction Rebellion’s ‘Autumn Uprising’, under section 14 of the Public Order Act of 1986, was “unlawful.”

The two High Court judges who issued the ruling — Mr. Justice Dingemans and Mr. Justice Chamberlain — said, as the Guardian described it, that “the Met had been wrong to define Extinction Rebellion’s two-week long ‘autumn uprising’ as a single public assembly on which it could impose the order.”

As Mr. Justice Dingemans stated in the ruling, “Separate gatherings, separated both in time and by many miles, even if coordinated under the umbrella of one body, are not a public assembly under the meaning of section 14(1) of the 1986 act.” He added, “The XR autumn uprising intended to be held from 14 to 19 October was not therefore a public assembly … therefore the decision to impose the condition was unlawful because there was no power to impose it.”

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Photos of WOMAD 2019: Awareness of the Global Environmental Crisis Hovers Over Three Days of Sunshine and Great World Music

A few of my photos from this year’s WOMAD festival at Charlton Park in Wiltshire.

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Check out my WOMAD photos from this year here!

What a difference a year makes. Last summer the global environmental crisis was certainly on many people’s radar, but it hadn’t gone mainstream like it has in the last 12 months. The change has come about in particular because of the resonance of the global climate strikes by schoolchildren, initiated the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, and the actions of the campaigning group Extinction Rebellion, but the real trigger was the publication, last October, of a chilling report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warning that we have just 12 years to avert an unprecedented catastrophe caused by man-made climate change. 

Awareness of the unprecedented climate emergency was everywhere at WOMAD, as you would no doubt expect at a clued-up, globally-minded, middle class festival — and it certainly helped that the day most of the crew arrived, Wednesday, was the second hottest day ever in the UK, with temperatures reaching 38.1C (100.6F) in Cambridge. 

I had numerous discussions with people involved in the WOMAD organisation, in which we either briefly discussed the urgency of the environmental crisis, or alluded to it, although it wasn’t promoted specifically, except through the presence of Extinction Rebellion activists, and the conspicuous efforts to tackle waste and recycling issues. The most shocking example of out-of-control throwaway culture at festivals in recent years was, most notoriously, Glastonbury, whose aftermath was featured in truly shocking photos in 2015, but everywhere our casual addiction to plastic, and an enthusiasm for abandoning tents has led to the aftermath of festivals becoming a vivid and disturbing demonstration of how, collectively, we have become startlingly adept at turning everywhere into a vast dustbin. Even this year, at Glastonbury, where climate change and the environment were the festival’s theme, the sale of single-use plastic bottles was banned, and David Attenborough turned up to thank festival-goers for using less plastic, saying, “That is more than a million bottles of water that have not been drunk by you”, vast amounts of litter were still left behind.

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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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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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