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.
At Stonehenge, after the Battle of the Beanfield, an exclusion zone was declared every June, to prevent the festival from ever taking place again, but eventually, in a memorable ruling in 1999, this was ruled illegal by the Law Lords, and since then what remains of Britain’s counter-cultural tribes — largely supplemented with the hedonistic youth of Wiltshire and the surrounding counties — have been free to celebrate summer solstice in the stones for a 12-hour period overnight, a bizarre and ironic recreation of the festival, which, for the most part, cheerfully occupied the land across the road from the stone circle with only a few thousand festival-goers deigning to make the journey to the stones for spiritual reasons.
The festival, from small beginnings, had become gigantic by 1984, a town that occupied the fields opposite Stonehenge for the whole of June. That last year was dark, as was so much in Thatcher’s Britain at the time, as she was also engaged in violently “decommissioning” her other, bigger “enemy within”, the miners. This was a key part of her malignant mission to destroy Britain’s manufacturing base, through a deeply-engrained hatred of unions and working people, and, through dangerously irresponsible deregulation, making bankers the drivers of the economy instead — with all the divisiveness, misery and almost unbelievable greed and impunity that sector of society has demonstrated ever since, leading to the global crash of 2008 and the subsequent — and largely unremarked — public bailout of the greatest criminals of our lifetimes, none of whom have been jailed for their actions.
Back in 1985, the authorities demonised the festival, using it as an excuse to justify their appalling treatment of the men, women and children of the convoy at the Battle of the Beanfield, but, in large part, what they wanted to destroy was: 1) an ever-growing movement of people taking to the road in response to the tsunami of unemployment in Thatcher’s Britain; 2) a free festival movement that ran from May to September and that functioned as an alternative economy; and 3) perhaps, most crucially, the environmental protestors who, along with the women of Greenham Common, were engaged in frontline direct action that was both environmental and anti-military. The Greenham women’s permanent peace camp, in Berkshire, was opposed to US cruise missiles being based on British soil, and travellers also set up a second camp at Molesworth, in Cambridgeshire, which was earmarked as the second cruise missile base.
Most people don’t know, or don’t remember, but that camp was violently broken up by the largest peacetime mobilisation of troops in modern British history, on February 6, 1985. Symbolically led by Michael Heseltine, 1,500 Royal engineers, 1,000 police and 600 MoD police evicted the 150 members of the “Rainbow Village,” and spent the next four months hounding them as they took to the road, culminating, on June 1, with the assault that came to be known as the Battle of the Beanfield.
It doesn’t take too much thought to realise that, although the authorities couldn’t be seen to truncheon, en masse, the women of Greenham Common, they could violently assault the environmental campaigners of the convoy, and get away with it, by portraying them as dangerous, dirty anarchists threatening Britain’s heritage at Stonehenge with their festival.
That was indeed what happened, even though myself and the majority of the tens of thousands of people who visited — or were part of — the Stonehenge Free Festival in the late 70s and early 80s were only dangerous because we were exploring different ways of living than what was being dictated to us by an intolerant, authoritarian state that, it transpires with hindsight, wanted us to be nothing more than obedient corporate slaves.
It’s exactly ten years since my book The Battle of the Beanfield was published, which features interviews with a variety of people involved in the events of June 1, 1985 (police and observers, as well as travellers), as well as the police log and essays putting the events of June 1, 1985 in a wider context.
The Battle of the Beanfield is still available to buy, as is my previous book Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, a social history of Stonehenge that also functions as an account of British counter-cultural history.
The Battle of the Beanfield features transcripts of some of the interviews conducted for the 1991 documentary ‘Operation Solstice’, made while a number of those assaulted on June 1, 1985 were suing the police. To mark the anniversary, I’m posting ‘Operation Solstice’ below, via YouTube. The documentary, directed by Gareth Morris and Neil Goodwin, was screened by Channel 4 back in 1991, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. This version was digitised from the last remaining sub-master tape by Gareth Morris to mark the 30th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield.
I’d also like to mention another event taking place this year to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Battle of the Beanfield.
‘The Beanfield’ is “a multimedia show about national heritage, state violence and civic freedom,” by performance makers Breach and Guardian award-winning filmmaker Dorothy Allen-Pickard. Mixing Dorothy’s films with live direction by Billy Barrett, winner of the Sunday Times Harold Hobson Drama Critic Award 2014, it is being performed on the following dates:
– Warwick Arts Centre Studio, University of Warwick, CV4 7AL, Tuesday June 23, 1.45pm (contact the venue here)
– Theatre503, The Latchmere, 503 Battersea Park Road, London SW11 3BW, Saturday July 25, 9pm and Sunday July 26, 7pm (contact the venue here)
– Edinburgh Fringe: theSpace on the Mile (Venue 39), The Radisson, 80 High Street, EH1 1TH, August 7-8, 10-15, 17-22, 10 am (book tickets here)
I hope, if the Beanfield interests you, that you can make it to one of these shows. Dorothy and Billy invited me to Wiltshire on a memorable day back in March, to be a consultant as they filmed recreations of the events of June 1, 1985 for the show. The political engagement of everyone involved — mostly students at Warwick University — was refreshing, and it was great to discover that they had all been studying my book in preparation for the filming, which took place at the Beanfield itself.
It was my first visit to this iconic site, although I had passed it many times on the A303, and as we arrived at what we knew to be the approximate location, it became apparent that the change in the road layout since 1985 — with the replacement of a section of the A303 with a dual carriageway — made it difficult to work out exactly where the Beanfield — and the pasture field — were. After driving into the car park of the hotel by the Parkhouse roundabout, we were accosted by an angry local who wanted us to know that, although 30 years had passed, people were still very sensitive about the events of the day.
However, after he was talked down, he pointed us in the right direction, and, while police sirens passed us by, we spent a few hours filming, and reflecting on the events of the day, with — ironically, given the convoy’s environmental leanings — a small solar farm in the background, where, 30 years ago, there would only have been broken and burning vehicles, and bleeding travellers.
See below for the trailer for ‘The Beanfield’, via Vimeo, prepared for its first performances in Warwick last month:
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.
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?
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).
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.