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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 June, 2004, 08:44 GMT 09:44 UK
Revisiting Britain's biggest free festival
By Steve Hawkes
BBC News Online

Seventy thousand people attended the 10th Stonehenge Free Festival
Seventy thousand people attended the 10th Stonehenge Free Festival
This Monday sees the 30th anniversary of the biggest free festival in British history.

BBC News Online examines how a small gathering of hippies celebrating the summer solstice at Stonehenge evolved into the high point of the British counter-cultural calendar.

Last year, more than 30,000 people gathered at Stonehenge to mark the summer solstice.

But police in Wiltshire and neighbouring Hampshire warned they would not tolerate any unlicensed "mass gatherings" after the midsummer event.

And officers were out in force to thwart any attempts to hold parties.

Andover divisional commander Superintendent Mark Chatterton said: "We are not being killjoys.

The first Stonehenge Free Festival was in 1974 (c) Austin Underwood
The first Stonehenge Free Festival was in 1974 (c) Austin Underwood

"We are all in favour of people having a good time, provided the event is properly licensed to ensure that it is safe for everyone."

Stonehenge Free Festival was never licensed.

And in 1985 - after being banned by English Heritage - it became so unsafe that no-one actually reached the ancient stone circle.

Phil Russell, the orphaned son of a wealthy landowner, and Jeremy Ratter, who later co-founded the anarcho-punk band Crass, staged the first Stonehenge Free Festival during the summer solstice of 1974.

Five hundred hippies climbed a barbed wire fence erected by the Ministry of Works.

And after the solstice, a hardcore of 30 defied a court injunction to stay - for another six months.

The publicity surrounding their court case ensured the attendance doubled for the solstice the following year.

The Battle of the Beanfield was seven miles from the stones
The Battle of the Beanfield was seven miles from the stones

Mr Ratter later recalled the 1975 festival: "Wood fires, tents and tipis, free food stalls, stages and bands, music and magic... old friends met new, hands touched, bodies entwined, minds expanded and, in one tiny spot on our Earth, love and peace had become a reality."

But the festival's co-founder was not there.

Arrested for possession of LSD the previous month, Mr Russell had been committed to a psychiatric hospital.

Released immediately after the 10-day festival, he committed suicide weeks later.

Mr Russell's ashes were scattered over the stones during the summer solstice of 1976 - by which time, the festival's attendance had again doubled.

And, fuelled by the myth of martyrdom, the numbers continued to grow at the same rate until 70,000 people attended the 10th annual Stonehenge Free Festival on 21 June 1984.

It remains the biggest free festival in British history.

But the following year, the annual event's colourful history came to an abrupt end.

Stonehenge was closed to the public at the summer solstice for 15 years
Stonehenge was closed to the public at the summer solstice for 15 years

And Stonehenge remained closed to the public during the summer solstice for the following 15 years.

On 1 June 1985, 300 would-be festival-goers were arrested - and 12 put in hospital - following a violent confrontation with the police.

Five hundred officers from six different forces dropped 15 tons (15,041kg) of gravel onto a road seven miles (11.27km) from the stones, and used council vehicles to block the path of a 140-vehicle convoy travelling to Stonehenge.

What happened next is hotly disputed.

The police say they were attacked with lumps of wood, stones and petrol bombs.

But those in the convoy say police "ambushed" their peaceful procession of vehicles - methodically smashing windows, beating people on the head with truncheons as they tried to surrender, dragging women along by their hair, and using sledgehammers to damage the interiors of their coaches.

The 1986 Public Order Act made trespass a criminal offence
The 1986 Public Order Act made trespass a criminal offence

English Heritage had secured a court injunction to prevent 83 named individuals from travelling within a few miles of Stonehenge.

But the Battle of the Beanfield - as it quickly became known - happened outside the jurisdiction of the injunction, and was indicative of a harder line being adopted at the highest level of government against the growing number of hippies spending their summers on the free festival circuit.

Every year since Margaret Thatcher had become prime minister in 1979, the number of "new-age travellers" had doubled - partly because of the growing number of evictions of squatters in London, historian Andy Worthington, the author of Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, told BBC News Online.

And in 1982, 135 vehicles had left Stonehenge Free Festival and driven to join the Women's Peace Camp outside the airbase at Greenham Common, where US cruise missiles were housed.

The self-styled Peace Convoy had evaded 2,000 police officers to stage their own Cosmic Counter-Cruise Carnival behind the base, during which sections of the fence were pulled down, Mr Worthington told BBC News Online.

And from that day on the writing was on the wall.

"Thatcher decided to take on the travellers."

Revellers at Stonehenge for the solstice
More than 30,000 people gathered to mark last year's summer solstice

Mrs Thatcher would later tell the Commons she was "only too delighted to do anything we can to make life difficult for hippy convoys", adding that "if the present law is inadequate we will have to introduce fresh law".

True to her word, the 1986 Public Order Act made trespass a criminal offence and stated: "Two people proceeding in a given direction can constitute a procession and can be arrested as a threat to civil order".

This was the final nail in the coffin of the British free festival movement - effectively stopping the "new-age travellers" and festival-goers in their tracks.

"People split all over the place," festival photographer Alan Lodge told BBC News Online.

"Large numbers went to Europe."

But rather than putting an end to the politicisation of the Peace Convoy, the Battle of the Beanfield pushed a significant number of free festival veterans further towards the activism of the emerging anti-globalisation and road protest movements.

At least 30,000 people are expected for this summer's solstice
At least 30,000 people are expected for this summer's solstice

As Mr Lodge, who was there, succinctly puts it: "If you have been hit around the head with a truncheon, you don't feel the same as you did before."

And by driving the free festival scene underground, the Public Order Act inadvertently paved the way for the numerous illegal rave parties that sprung up in increasingly remote locations during the late 1980s.

Today, Stonehenge is again at the centre of a bitterly contested conflict.

A plan to build a 1.3 mile (2.1km) tunnel under the World Heritage Site to reduce traffic congestion has divided opinion.

And with at least 30,000 people expected to converge on Stonehenge again for this summer's solstice - on Monday 21 June - the stones seem set to continue to arouse passions on both sides of the cultural divide for at least another 30 years.

Solstice revellers watch sunrise
23 Jun 03 |  Wiltshire
In pictures: Solstice at Stonehenge
21 Jun 03 |  Photo Gallery
Draft Stonehenge plans published
05 Jun 03 |  Wiltshire
Stonehenge tunnel approved
10 Dec 02 |  England


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