Remembering the Stonehenge Free Festival – 1972-1985

8 02 2020

The Stonehenge Free Festival, held at the ancient stones every June between 1974 and 1984 culminating with the summer solstice, was a cultural phenomenon.

Stonehenge free Festival

The Stonehenge Free Festival was a British free festival from 1974 to 1984 held at Stonehenge during the month of June, and culminating on the summer solstice on June 21st. The festival attendees were viewed as hippies by the wider British public. Photo credit

By 1984 it had become the UKs premier free festival after many others were violently supressed. Founded on utopian ideals of unity and comradery the festival grew from a few people in 1974, to thousands in 1984. However, the festival’s reputation soon became marred by reports of violence, tribalism and drug use and the government decided to crack down on it. Stonehenge Free festival was eventually violently supressed by hundreds of policemen in a brutal clamp down that became known as the ‘The Battle of the Beanfield’. No free festival has been held at Stonehenge since – although people have been allowed to congregate at the stones for the solstice since 1999. 35 years on, I wanted to look back at the origins of the free festival, its brutal suppression, and its lasting impact on the site.

Stonehenge Free Festival. Summer Solstice

By the 1980s, the festival had grown to be a major event, attracting up to 30,000 people in 1984. Photo credit

The free festival movement started in the UK in the 1970s. Ostensibly, the festivals were a combination of music, arts and cultural activities, for which no admission was charged. With Britain facing high unemployment, the free festivals became a focal point for disenfranchised youth and the working class as well as melting pots of the British counterculture. This perhaps intensified during Thatcher’s tenure, when the counterculture, as well as the working classes were being squeezed even tighter. Having started as a small event in 1974, by the 1980s, the Stonehenge free festival had transformed into a major event, attracting up to 30,000 people in 1984 (although some estimates have it at 100,000). The festival had become a cultural magnet, attracting such artists as: The Damned, Dexys Midnight Runners, Hawkwind the Thompson Twins and Benjamin Zephaniah who all played for free amongst many others. Perhaps the most renowned counter-culture attendees were a group called the ‘peace convoy’ who have been described as ‘Post punk urban squatters’, although perhaps unsurprisingly, the general public viewed the festival attendees as hippies.

Stonehenge summer solstice celebrations

Stonehenge summer solstice 2019: Thousands gather to cheer sunrise Photo credit

As the festival grew however, fences were introduced around the stones, perhaps due to the open drug use and sale, and reports of far rowdier and violent attendees. The very same year, 1977, police even reintroduced a law against driving over grassland in order to levy fines against festival goers. These laws were the beginning of a total breakdown in relations between festival goers and the authorities. Although police restrictions were relaxed in 1984, the final year of the festival, the writing was on the wall. One festival goer described the festival that year as ‘like being in some kind of medieval nightmare’. Although this was probably not everyone’s experience and the truly bad attendees were probably in the minority, the authorities were not prepared for the festival to continue.

On the 1st June 1985, 1,300 police officers were deployed to stop any person from setting up camp on or around the site of Stonehenge, enforcing a High Court injunction obtained by the authorities which prohibited the festival from occurring that year. Taking place over several hours on 1 June 1985, the police prevented The Peace Convoy, who numbered around 600, from setting up.  Videos of ‘The Battle of Beanfield’, show one of the most harrowing examples of police brutality ever witnessed. Even if the festival had got out of hand, the carnage of that day are still hard to justify. Although the police at the time claimed the travellers rammed police vehicles, footage shows the police marching with truncheons and riot shields onto the field and laying waste to all vehicles and travellers in their path – smashing windows and crawling into buses to arrest the inhabitants. The Police claimed they were subject to an attack of stones and petrol bombs, but there is little evidence to back this up. 537 travellers were eventually arrested.

Of course, the festival was doomed to end, but this brutal and ruthless method still seems to leave a bitter taste. However, the spirit of the festival was perhaps reignited in 1999 when the summer solstice was once again celebrated. Revelry returned to the stones once a year – and maybe even the same old controversies, with an alcohol ban coming in in 2016 to curb ‘drunken and disrespectful behaviour’ and ‘better look after’ the stones and the attendees. Regardless, it seems that the magic of the summer solstice will always attract a crowd and hopefully we will always be able to maintain this joviality alongside the sanctity of the stones.

  • Stonehenge Free Festival and Summer Solstice links:

    History of the Stonehenge Free Festival :1972-1985. UK Rock Festivals
    30 Years On from the Last Stonehenge Free Festival, Where is the Spirit of Dissent? Andy Worthington
    Summer Solstice at Stonehenge. From Past to Present. Stonehenge News Blog
    ‘Sex n Drugs n Rock n Roll’ – The Last Stonehenge Free Festival in Photos (1984)
    Stonehenge Free Festival 1984 – 2020 – Pinterest
    Druid Leader King Arthur Uther Pendragon – Stonehenge News
    Stonehenge Free Festival Campaign on Facebook
    Stonehenge Stone Circle Solstice Photos – Flickr

Our sponsors ‘Stonehenge Guided Tours’ operate Summer Solstice tours with transport from London or Bath

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