40 Years Of Summer Solstice At Stonehenge: From Anarchy To State Repression To ‘Managed Open Access’ – OpEd


To celebrate the summer solstice today, I encourage you read my article from June 1, Joys and Agonies Past: 40 Years Since the Last Stonehenge Free Festival; 39 Years Since the Battle of the Beanfield, if you haven’t already seen it, in which I marked the long passage of time since two particular events of great resonance — one fundamentally liberatory, and the other its complete opposite, an almost unprecedented demonstration of grotesque police violence against civilians.

To follow up, I’m adding some further thoughts and recollections about summer solstices at Stonehenge over the last 40 years, tracing a path from the anarchy of the festival, through the repression of the years that followed, to the vast but managed party that is now allowed to take place in the stones every year.

For those who were at the Stonehenge Free Festival — as I was in 1983 and 1984 — it really was a thrilling, eye-opening, anarchic gathering of the tribes, attended by tens of thousands of people, part of the multi-faceted resistance to the anti-communitarian tyranny of Margaret Thatcher that has, over the last several decades, morphed into a dispiriting and socially atomised world of empty materialism.

For most of the festival-goers, the stones were actually peripheral to their experience, although to those who represented the festival’s spiritual heart, gathering in the stones’ vast sarsen embrace on midsummer morning was the pinnacle, not just of the festival, but of the entire year, part of an ancient series of festivals — marking the solstices, the equinoxes and the quarter days in between — which predated kings and queens, and churches and parliaments and capitalism, revisiting an ancient connection to the land, and providing a focal point for the travelling free festival culture that moved around the country every year from May to September.

Even through the 40-year fog of time, and, at the time, of sleeplessness and substances, I still recall visiting the stones on the day of the solstice in 1984 — not at dawn, but after the crowd of celebrants had thinned out — and both the festival and Stonehenge itself left a lasting impression on me.

In the late ‘90s, I undertook several long distance walks through the ancient landscape of southern England, which, for many years, I tried unsuccessfully to shape into a book that someone might publish. Eventually, however, I was advised to focus instead on Stonehenge and the festival, and so, 20 years ago, my first book, Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, was published, a unique social history of Stonehenge, in which I wove its antiquarian and archaeological history in with the more colourful history of the Druids and other pagans, students, hippies, anarchists, travellers and festival-goers who have also been drawn to this powerful but enigmatic sun temple, which — because its creators left no written records — continues to mean many different things to many different people.

The festival’s suppression, on June 1, 1985, was a key event in Margaret Thatcher’s paramilitarised Britain that ought not to be forgotten, although it is far less-known than its nearest counterpart, the Battle of Orgreave, on June 18, 1984, the most notorious scene of conflict in the Miners’ Strike of that year, when Thatcher brought 6,000 paramilitarised police to Orgreave, a coking plant near Doncaster, to suppress striking miners with extraordinary violence.

No official inquiry has been allowed into the events at Orgreave, although ex-miners, activists and lawyers have been trying to get one established for many years. Even more overlooked are the travellers who were assaulted at the Battle of the Beanfield, where 1,400 police violently “decommissioned” a convoy of around 450 men, women and children in colourful second-hand vans and coaches and old military vehicles, who were trying to get to Stonehenge to establish what would have been the 12th annual festival.

The suppression of civil liberties, triggered that day, has not only blighted the lives of all of Britain’s nomadic people — whether Gypsies, or the newer travellers drawn to the road in the depression of the Thatcher years — but a line can also be drawn from the laws enacted after the lawless brutality of the Beanfield, through the anti-rave and anti-trespass legislation of the 1990s to the hideously authoritarian clampdown of all dissent under the deeply intolerant clownshow of recent Tory governments, particularly under Boris Johnson’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and her counterpart, Suella Braverman, under Rishi Sunak.

The year after Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion was published, I completed a follow-up book, The Battle of the Beanfield, which is also still in print, and available to buy from me here.

Its 14 chapters feature extracts from the police radio log (‘liberated’ from the police during the travellers’ 1991 trial) and in-depth interviews with a range of people who were there on the day — including travellers Phil Shakesby and Maureen Stone, journalists Nick Davies and Kim Sabido, the Earl of Cardigan and Deputy Chief Constable Ian Readhead — as well as Lord Gifford QC, who represented 24 of the travellers at the trial. Many of these interviews were transcribed from footage taken for the 1991 documentary, ‘Operation Solstice.’ Also included are many previously unseen photos, a description of the making of ‘Operation Solstice’, and chapters which set the events of the Beanfield in context.

For 15 years after the Battle of the Beanfield, a militarised exclusion zone was established around Stonehenge every summer solstice, until, in 1999, the Law Lords ruled that it was illegal, and its managers, English Heritage and the National Trust, were obliged to reinstate access to this most bitterly-contested of ancient monuments.

Since 2000, ironically, the stones, which were something of a niche attraction in the festival years, have become the annual site of a massive party — albeit one limited to a 12-hour period, through what is unromantically called ‘Managed Open Access’ — in which those on a spiritual quest are joined by vast numbers of other spectators, part of the participatory “age of spectacle” that so much of 21st century experience seems to be based around, in which one might almost expect attendance at Stonehenge for the summer solstice to be an entry in a global tourist guide along the lines of ‘100 Things You Must See and Do Before You Die.’ 

I don’t wish to sound entirely dismissive of the ‘Open Managed Access’ experience — which I took part in every year from 2001 until 2005, and thoroughly enjoyed — but as the BBC explained when they ran a major feature on ‘How the Stonehenge battles faded’ in 2014, and interviewed Alan ‘Tash’ Lodge, ex-traveller, and the great photographer of the travelling free festival circuit, “for Mr Lodge, the whole ethos of the days of the free festivals are long gone, with access largely managed by private security who move revellers away by morning.”

As he described it, “I find it so depressing, as I have some appreciation of what it is that we have lost. All we were trying to do is have an association with people of our kind at a location, where people are used to doing so. If Stonehenge wasn’t built for that, then what is it?”

With the solstice crowds safely banished once more, and the stones once more fenced off, only to be watched from a safe distance by paying customers, I can’t help but reflect on Tash’s words. Even though the state violence of the 1980s and ‘90s is long gone, and the stones’ current curators — and archeologists — are much less dismissive of, or are even actively supportive of the pagans and revellers drawn to the stones than they were in those time-dimmed days of extraordinary conflict and violence, Stonehenge remains a place where the gamut of opinions — from those drawn to it as some sort of manifestation of heritage and national pride to those for whom its attraction is that it stands outside of, and before all of that narrow patriotism and nationalism — can still be profoundly at odds.

On the day before the crowds gathered, two activists with Just Stop Oil, the collective of largely autonomous activists who are committed to getting the government to end our destructive addiction to fossil fuels before the planet becomes uninhabitable, broke through what is nowadays the quite lax security at Stonehenge and sprayed cornstarch-based orange paint on three of the sarsen stones.

As commentators went apoplectic with rage — as is sadly all too typical these days, as public figures and armchair critics alike go from zero to homicidal in a micro-second, the most extraordinary comment came from Shelagh Fogarty, a radio presenter on LBC, who wrote on X, “Just Stop Oil just stopped millions listening to their arguments because they stopped arguing and became ISIS thugs destroying our Palmyra. Idiots. Brutes.”

As I explained in a post in response, “This is a radio presenter on LBC, comparing Just Stop Oil to ISIS’s actions at Palmyra, where 400 people were murdered and the chief archaeologist beheaded, because, at Stonehenge, two activists threw some cornstarch on the stones, which will wash away in the rain. Humanity is lost.”

40 years since the last Stonehenge Free Festival, violent intolerance is, it seems, never far away.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is an 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). Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison"

One thought on “40 Years Of Summer Solstice At Stonehenge: From Anarchy To State Repression To ‘Managed Open Access’ – OpEd

  • June 23, 2024 at 4:24 pm

    This is some of the silliest jibberish I have read in a long time. A modern, capitalistic (and Christian) society made it possible for you to travel, to write, to have enough to eat, and to enjoy inventions powered by electricity. If you lived as did the Druids, as you have admitted, you would have no written language at all. Stonehenge is interesting, but emblematic of a time and lifestyle in which you would not have survived.


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