Stonehenge and the Summer Solstice, 30 years After the Battle of the Beanfield
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.
And so, for the solstice in June 2004, I was there with fliers for my first published book, Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, which I launched in the Green Fields at Glastonbury Festival, courtesy of Andy Hope and his solar-powered Croissant Neuf stage. and, on the solstice in 2005, I was there again (accompanied by some number of brandy coffees if I recall correctly), with my second published book, The Battle of the Beanfield, which I launched at Glastonbury again, after carrying a hundred copies of it in a rucksack across the entire water-logged site. They all sold, I’m glad to say, after I parked myself with a chair and a small table next to the Green Fields’ main drag.
Both books, I should note, are still available. Follow the links above.
After the publication of both books, I spent much of the summer in 2004 and 2005 visiting festivals to talk about the history of the Stonehenge festivals, the free festival movement in general, the Beanfield and the British counter-culture — at Shambala and the Big Green Gathering and Sid Rawle’s Super Spirit Camp — before I was distracted by the human rights abuses committed in the “war on terror,” and began what became my third book, The Guantánamo Files, and has now become ten years of writing, researching and campaigning to get the US prison at Guantánamo Bay shut down.
For anyone interested, there’s a video below, via YouTube, of the talk I gave at the Big Green Gathering in — probably — 2005 about Stonehenge’s mystical and pagan history, drawn from my books:
Every June, however, I revisit those times, in articles marking the summer solstice at Stonehenge, and the anniversary of the festival, and also in articles marking the anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield, the violent suppression of the travellers’ convoy that was en route to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th Stonehenge Free Festival on June 1, 1985, when they were ambushed by over 1,300 police from six counties and the MoD, who brutally “decommissioned” them in a field beside the A303, and proceeded to set up a militarised exclusion zone around Stonehenge every solstice which lasted until the Law Lords ruled it illegal in 1999.
All of this is discussed in my books, as is the fact that in 2000, after this historic ruling, English Heritage, which manages the site, initiated a programme of free “managed open access” to allow people to visit Stonehenge and to stay in the stones all night to watch the sunrise — if, of course, the skies are clear.
From 2001 to 2005, I visited Stonehenge for “managed open access,” which is an extraordinary opportunity to spend some time communing with an ancient sacred site and with a host of colourful characters — although it is also an excuse for a giant party for the youth of Wiltshire and any hedonist prepared to travel. It has echoes of the festival, but nothing more. Back in the ’70s and early ’80s even hedonism had a political dimension, a spirit of dissent that has largely been eliminated by the particularly bland excuse for culture that is currently touted by government and the corporations who dominate so much of our lives, encouraging us, 24/7, to behave and to conform, and to spend our every waking moment buying sh*t we don’t need.
Sunrise at Stonehenge on the summer solstice 2015. Photo by English heritage from their Twitter account.And so to this morning’s solstice sunrise, seen, it is reported, by an estimated 23,000 people, down from the record 36,000 who attended last year (the photo is from English Heritage’s Twitter account — how’s that for a sign of the times? — and check out this article in the Observer by Ed Vulliamy).
I hope a good time was had by all, but in the year that marked the 30th anniversary of the Battle for the Beanfield and the state’s attempt to wipe out an entire sub-culture, I’d like to encourage everyone reading this to reflect on the anniversary of the Beanfield, and to remember the survivors of that terrible day, who made their way to Bratton Castle, an ancient hill-fort in Wiltshire, by the Westbury White Horse, where they attempted to hold an impromptu festival-in-exile.
As I described it in Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion (and see this article for my description of the immediate aftermath of the Beanfield):
In the end, 2,000 people held a reconvened Stonehenge Solstice Celebration at Bratton Castle, an Iron Age hill-fort and, appropriately enough, a former Neolithic ritual site, complete with a long barrow, above the Westbury White Horse just twelve miles north west of Stonehenge. Hawkwind turned up to play, and the police stayed off-site. To this extent it was a triumph, although the fall-out from recent events was still readily apparent. Margaret Greenfields, a festival regular and welfare volunteer, recalled, “It was like a refugee camp — mud, rain, wind, people shocked and dazed, a man with a broken leg in plaster hauling water in the mud, people with dysentery.”
The excellent Festival Zone website noted that Ozric Tentacles also played, and that “[r]oads were blocked off and if anyone left the site they were not allowed to return.” See the Festival Zone’s archive about the Stonehenge Free Festival here.
Creative dissent did not, of course, die at the Beanfield. Surprises galore were in store in the years that followed, as the rave scene sprang to life out of nowhere, followed by the inspirational road protest movement. Then, in the late 1990s, the anti-globalisation movement, which was a global movement of resistance, grew huge, and caused enormous consternation to the authorities. But by 2003, when the largest ever protests in history took place — and were ignored — calling for there to be no illegal invasion of Iraq — we hit a brick wall, and haven’t been able to topple it ever since.
With greed out of control, the gap between the rich and the poor growing every day, the need for urgent environmental change neglected, and politics drifting ominously to the right, the need for massive left-wing dissent is, I would argue, greater now that it has been at any time in my life. I hope, as this dreadful Tory government, butchering the state and persecuting the most vulnerable members of society, tries to maintain power for the next five years, people will rise up in numbers not seen since the Iraq protest in 2003, and, most pertinently, the 1980s, under Margaret Thatcher, when many people who are now sleepwalking to disaster knew who was the enemy.
Enjoy the solstice today, but don’t forget those who have been persecuted by the state over the last 30 years, and those who are today’s “enemy within.”
For reflections on Stonehenge and the summer solstice, see Stonehenge and the summer solstice: past and present, It’s 25 Years Since The Last Stonehenge Free Festival, Stonehenge Summer Solstice 2010: Remembering the Battle of the Beanfield, RIP Sid Rawle, Land Reformer, Free Festival Pioneer, Stonehenge Stalwart, Happy Summer Solstice to the Revellers at Stonehenge — Is it Really 27 Years Since the Last Free Festival?, Stonehenge and the Summer Solstice: On the 28th Anniversary of the Last Free Festival, Check Out “Festivals Britannia”, Memories of Youth and the Need for Dissent on the 29th Anniversary of the last Stonehenge Free Festival and 30 Years On from the Last Stonehenge Free Festival, Where is the Spirit of Dissent?
For more on the Beanfield, see my articles, In the Guardian: Remembering the Battle of the Beanfield, which provides excerpts from The Battle of the Beanfield (and see the Guardian article here), The Battle of the Beanfield 25th Anniversary: An Interview with Phil Shakesby, aka Phil the Beer, a prominent traveller who died five years ago, Remember the Battle of the Beanfield: It’s the 27th Anniversary Today of Thatcher’s Brutal Suppression of Traveller Society, Radio: On Eve of Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, Andy Worthington Discusses the Battle of the Beanfield and Dissent in the UK, It’s 28 Years Since Margaret Thatcher Crushed Travellers at the Battle of the Beanfield, Back in Print: The Battle of the Beanfield, Marking Margaret Thatcher’s Destruction of Britain’s Travellers and It’s 29 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield, and the World Has Changed Immeasurably.
Also see my article on Margaret Thatcher’s death, “Kindness is Better than Greed”: Photos, and a Response to Margaret Thatcher on the Day of Her Funeral.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers). He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the co-director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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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