Summer Solstice 2017: Reflections on Free Festivals and the Pagan Year 33 Years After the Last Stonehenge Festival
Back in 1983, as a 20-year old student, I had a life-changing experience when a friend of mine initiated a visit to the Stonehenge Free Festival, an anarchic experiment in leaderless living that occupied the fields opposite Stonehenge for the whole of June every year.
The festival had grown from a small occupation in 1974, and by 1984 (when I visited again) became a monster — one with a darkness that reflected the darkness that gripped the whole of the UK that year, as Margaret Thatcher crushed the miners and, metaphorically, razed the country to the ground like a medieval conqueror.
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I remember the 1983 festival with a great fondness — the elven people selling magic mushrooms from a barrel for next to nothing, the wailing of acid rock bands, the festivals’ thoroughfares, like ancient tracks of baked earth, where the cries of “acid, speed, hot knives” rang though the sultry air. Off the beaten track, travellers set up impromptu cafes beside their colourfully-painted trucks and coaches, unaware that, just two years later, on June 1, 1985, some of those same vehicles would be violently decommissioned at the Battle of the Beanfield, when Thatcher, following her destruction of Britain’s mining industry, set about destroying Britain’s traveller community, which, during her tenure as Prime Minister, had grown as unemployment mushroomed, and life on the road seemed to provide an appealing alternative.
A festival circuit, running from May to October, had grown up with this new movement, with Stonehenge at its centre. Michael Eavis’s Glastonbury Festival was also connected to it, as were numerous smaller festivals, as well as other events focused on environmental protest, especially against nuclear weapons and nuclear power. The travellers’ most prominent manifestation, the Peace Convoy, had visited Greenham Common, site of the famous women’s peace camp opposed to the establishment of US-owned and -controlled cruise missiles, in 1982, and in the summer of 1984 established a second peace camp at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, the intended second cruise missile base after Greenham Common.
That camp was violently evicted in February 1985 by the largest peacetime mobilisation of troops in British history, and for the next four months the travellers were harried until the Beanfield, when 1,400 police from six counties and the MoD violently decommissioned the advance convoy of vehicles trying to make it to Stonehenge to set up what would have been the 12th Stonehenge Free Festival.
In the years that followed, the Thatcher government set up an military exclusion zone around Stonehenge every summer solstice that was maintained under John Major and Tony Blair, and at various times under Thatcher there were other episodes of state violence against travellers, some of whom sought shelter with Michael Eavis in Pilton. The differences between Stonehenge and Glastonbury were not immense back then, when the travelling festival community was at the heart of Britain’s nascent festival scene. Stonehenge may have been the wild younger sibling, but Glastonbury was pretty out of it as well.
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine. Glastonbury Festival has become a corporate mega-city, with only traces remaining of its alternative heart, and Stonehenge, reopened to the public on the summer solstice in 2000, after the Law Lords ruled that the exclusion zone was illegal, has become a raucous one-night party for the youth of the West Country, attended by a smaller contingent of pagans and anarchists (which I visited every summer solstice from 2001 to 2005 with a variety of interesting companions). Last night, apparently, 13,000 people attended ‘Managed Open Access’ at the stones, witnessing a spectacular sunrise.
With supreme irony, the founders of the festival movement in the 1970s — some visionary, some hedonistic — created a concept that was so appealing that it has become a part of the fabric of Britain. Every summer, millions of people attend festivals, for the music, the hedonism, and, often, the establishment at some level of a tribal communality in contrast to the atomisation of our everyday civilian lives in cities and towns.
Of course, that transition from outsider status to establishment fixture has not happened without massive change that, at worst, means that the monster festival culture created in the last two decades only looks superficially like the offspring of the festival scene of the 70s and 80s when, in fact, it bears almost no resemblance to it.
This is certainly true in many profound ways. To begin with, those radicalised in the 1960s often brought with them a commitment to breaking down the structure of an oppressive society that, for example, saw them seeking to dispense with money. This was by no means always the case. Free festivals were often free at the point of entry only because of a lack of organisation, and many travellers worked hard to try to ensure that their efforts would generate a necessary income stream.
However, others were driven to try to tear down the materialistic culture — and their efforts were often inspiring. Bill ‘Ubi’ Dwyer, a renegade bureaucrat, set up the Windsor Free Festival in the Queen’s backyard in the summer of 1972, a provocative gesture against the monarchy and all it stood for, which returned in 1973 and 1974, when it was violently crushed. The Stonehenge festival was set up by another visionary, Wally Hope, who spread a quasi-communist sun-worshipping message, and intended his festival to colonise Salisbury Plain, and another sign of the intent to tear down materialism was through the free food kitchens that were part of the early festival culture. One favourite anecdote of mine concerns Sid Rawle, a key festival organiser, at the first Glastonbury Festival in 1971.
After a man turned up from Bath with a stall selling bacon, eggs and sausages, Sid apparently had a whip-round, sent someone off site to buy bacon, eggs and sausages, and then set up a free food kitchen next to him to drive him out of business.
Today, free food kitchens are only to be seen when the Hare Krishnas turn up at events, but whenever I see them their generosity cuts through the relentless materialistic fog that shrouds almost every aspect of our lives.
The festival culture of the 70s and 80s may not always have been intentionally free, but those who played a part in it and have now passed on would I think, be shocked if they were able to see what the culture has become in the last 20 years, as almost every aspect of our lives has become monetised. The giant capitalist machine that is modern society now defines almost everything by its perceived value, has encouraged us to see everything through a prism of money, used as the sole reference point of success or failure, and its stranglehold on our lives is such that we are encouraged to believe that our waking lives are nothing more than a succession of financial transactions. Repeat the mantra: “Breathe in. Breathe out. Buy something. Breathe in. Breathe out. Buy something.”
It generally costs hundreds and hundreds of pounds to attend a festival, as festival-goers are constantly required to drip-feed the capitalist machine in which most of of us are trapped, like hamsters in a wheel — well-branded wheels, no doubt, and well-designed, but hamster wheels nonetheless.
Back in the 70s and 80s, the free festivals’ advocates prevailed on artists to give something back for free to their fans during the festival season — and artists often took that stance themselves. Now everyone pays for everything endlessly — the hyped-up bands and solo artists endlessly treated as royalty or as exceptional creative geniuses, the endless food stalls, the endless booze, the endless craft stalls. We have, to some extent, created a modern-day fulfilment of Napoleon’s comment about Britain being a nation of shopkeepers, although now we are a nation of shopkeepers endlessly servicing itself, with most people trapped somewhere in this cycle while the rich and the super-rich float above it all, exploiting or having exploited others to such an extent that they alone have endless liquidity.
The festivals of the 70s and 80s were also more than capable of getting messy, but often there was an awareness that we should leave places as we found them. In this respect, modern festival culture is a disgrace, a shocking manifestation of our throwaway culture, as anyone seeing photos of the aftermath of a modern festival can see. Consumerist hedonism without a shred of responsibility dictates that tents should be abandoned along with the detritus of the corporate world — clothes, bottles, packaging, leftover food. Someone else will clean it up, and no one is encouraged to think about how we are turning the earth into a giant landfill site.
As well as losing the anti-materialist heart of the early festival culture, the modern festival scene also only tangentially connects to the paganism that also ran through the pioneering decades of the counter-culture, from the 60s to the 90s; primarily, it seems to me, though an embrace of the cycles of the seasons, and the festivals of the pagan year — the solstices on June and December 21, the equinoxes at a similar time in March and September , and between them the quarters days of a year that tends to be associated with the Celts, with festivals on the 1st days of February (Imbolc), May (Beltane, associated with May Day) August (Lughnasa) and November (Samhain, associated with Hallowe’en and All Saints’ Day).
After the travelling festival culture was crushed at the Beanfield, an unexpected new movement — the road protest movement — arose. Unable to travel freely, those drawn to the earth and her cycles seized on the Tories’ road expansion programme as a development to be resisted, and set up fixed camps in places threatened with destruction, living in trees, and, eventually, though many battles were lost, pushing road expansion down the government agenda.
With the tsunami of materialism that defines modern life, and the clampdown by the benefits system on the freedom of the unemployed to do what they want in exchange for living off a small provision of government money (which was how so many of us lived in the 80s, and is actually the heart of the basic universal income that is currently being widely discussed), it is unimaginable now that such a movement could take place, but back in the mid-90s it was part of a kind of a cultural civil war that also involved the hedonism of the rave scene, movements like Reclaim the Streets and, eventually, the anti-globalisation movement, which became a world movement and was only halted by the “war on terror” after 9/11, the clampdown on benefits, the elevation of greed as the driver of existence, and the fetishisation of products and services.
Throughout this period in the 90s, the pagan year became a anti-establishment statement, and although it has not gone away, my fear is that, as with so much else in modern life, the growing pagan movement in the UK that, of course, embraces it, is often doing so in a superficial manner, seduced by the outward appearances and the opportunities to buy into it through the usual avalanche of materialism and more of those same entrepreneurial service industries that accompany us almost everywhere we turn.
I don’t seek to blame anyone for getting caught up in the all-consuming materialistic world in which we find ourselves, but I do, on this summer solstice, as I look back on my past through what appears to be the wrong end of a telescope, urge anyone reading this to reflect on how the most important things in life — our love, our joy, our children, our creativity — are not actually part of the endlessly churning consumerist machine, and that, for us to have a future at all, and for us to tackle the endlessly growing gulf between the rich and the poor, we have to find ways to step off the treadmill, to get out of what used to be called the rat race, to find space, time and nature and to begin to create a culture more in tune with itself — with ourselves — and the natural world in which we are a part.
For my previous reflections on Stonehenge and the summer solstice from 2008 to 2015, 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, 30 Years On from the Last Stonehenge Free Festival, Where is the Spirit of Dissent? and Stonehenge and the Summer Solstice, 30 Years After the Battle of the Beanfield.
For more on the Beanfield, see my 2009 article for the Guardian, Remember the Battle of the Beanfield, and my accompanying article, In the Guardian: Remembering the Battle of the Beanfield, which provides excerpts from The Battle of the Beanfield. Also see The Battle of the Beanfield 25th Anniversary: An Interview with Phil Shakesby, aka Phil the Beer, a prominent traveller who died six 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, It’s 29 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield, and the World Has Changed Immeasurably, It’s 30 Years Since Margaret Thatcher Trashed the Travellers’ Movement at the Battle of the Beanfield, It’s Now 31 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield: Where is the Spirit of Dissent in the UK Today? and, most recently, Never Trust the Tories: It’s 32 Years Today Since the Intolerable Brutality of the Battle of the Beanfield.
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, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp).
He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), 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).
To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.