In this post I’m going share some of my memories of the free festivals I attended in the late 1970s and early 1980s including the People’s Free Festivals at Stonehenge and a few others. This post might appeal to not only those who also attended festivals themselves but also anyone interested in or researching alternative lifestyles and UK society during this period.
It’s very easy, as time passes, to assume that everyone knows what you’ve seen and experienced and that therefore it’s not worth making a record. Forty-five years later it’s apparent that, like every generation before, my generation assumes wrongly that the days of our youth are easily understood by those who have been born since.
So let’s wind the clock to the mid 1970s, long before the web, mobile phones, and personal computers, when there were just three terrestrial channels on TV. This was a time when live music and gathering outside in the summer months was a vital way to celebrate life, and having a lot of fun. It was a much needed pressure valve for people who spent the rest of their lives in the rough inner cities.
Woodstock & the Isle of Wight
The small free festivals of the 1970s took their inspiration from the big events that marked the end of the 1960s, like Woodstock (1969) and the Isle of Wight festivals at which Jimi Hendrix had played one of his last gigs in 1970. Free festivals were the vision of people like William Ubique Dwyer, an anarchist who believed in the liberating properties of LSD and who had seen the fences torn down at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 turning it into a free festival.
From 1972 to 1974 there had been free festivals in Windsor Great Park (organised by Ubi Dwyer) but eventually the authorities decided that they didn’t want a couple of thousand hippies cluttering up the Queen’s front garden so the Windsor Free Festival was firmly quashed.
However, in an unusually generous mood the government of the day decided to allocate some space elsewhere in which the hippies could do their thing for a week or two in the summer, and so it was that a People’s Free Festival was held in August 1975 at an abandoned World War II airfield called Watchfield in the county of Berkshire. I remember the wide open space that was in contrast to the crowded conditions that were to be found at Stonehenge in later years. Watchfield had a stage, a free food kitchen, and a daily newsletter to keep us informed of events around the site and bands likely to perform.
I was only 15 years old at the time, still at school and trying to sell copies of the underground newspaper International Times (IT) to my school friends and anyone else who would listen in an attempt to subvert them into joining the alternative society. International Times survives to this day and you’ll find it at internationaltimes.it which contains an extensive archive of the editions from the 1970s.
The Watchfield festival was the birthplace of the Here & Now band who saw play at several other festivals. The psychedelice space travellers Hawkwind were the house band for Stonehenge but Here & Now were the nomadic ensemble who turned up at all sorts of festivals. To see both at one, like at Stonehenge one year, was a real treat.
Watchfield airfield has long since been returned to agricultural use but part of it, where the main part of the festival was held around the control tower, is now the Westmill Wind Farm Co-operative. It’s nice to know that alternative ideas promoted by those on the fringes of society during the ’60s and ‘70s have not only become mainstream but are encouraged and endorsed by the government and society at large.
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Stonehenge Free Festival
The following year in 1976 the People’s Free Festival was held at Stonehenge where it remained for several years after. It was held in June so that the event covered the days before and after the summer solstice, in a field directly north of Stonehenge and accessed by a road that’s now been converted into a path. Y
As well as the New Age travellers those attending varied from curious weekenders, Hell’s Angels, squaddies from nearby army camps on Salisbury Plain, Hare Krishnas, and those who attended festivals to lend support in some way, like Release and Festival Aid. On the solstice itself a procession of people, often led by a tipi-dweller called Sid Rawle, would make its way to the stones to see in the sun and celebrate the turning of the year.
One day, early in the festival in 1976, I was lying in the grass doing nothing in particular when I noticed a long-haired older guy taking pictures of me with a professional looking camera. He came over and introduced himself – it was Ron Reid, photographer and photojournalist, whose pictures of the subcultures and music scene in the 1970s are now an historic record. Look up his archive on Camerpress.com for an insight into those times. You’ll need to open a free account but there are 200 of his images in there that you can preview and purchase. A couple of his snaps of me appeared in an edition of International Times a few months later.
The first few days of the Stonehenge festival were the ones I enjoyed the most. The June grass was fresh and many an hour was spent watching people arrive; setting up tipis, laying out stalls, pitching tents, and generally settling in, in anticipation of the days and nights ahead. The stage at the festival was usually the small green pyramid stage that belonged to Hawkwind saxophonist Nick Turner. On this stage we’d watch all kinds of bands but the most memorable were the Here & Now band and Hawkwind themselves.
The Stonehenge festival became the highlight of the alternative season, which began in May and ended in September. During these months many free festivals, large and small, took place up and down the UK, and blended in with demonstrations and one day events.
After the 1977 Stonehenge festival people moved on to another free festival near Glastonbury, not at Michael Eavis’s Worthy Farm but on a strip of land on the other side of the Vale of Avalon, near the Hood monument. I bumped into Ron Reid there too, watched an excellent set by the Here & Now band, and imbibed quite a lot of the local scrumpy.
After the summer solstice In 1978 the core of the Stonehenge festival made its way to Michael Eavis’s Worthy Farm and asked for permission to hold an impromptu festival there. He agreed and the 1978 Glastonbury Free Festival took place in the field adjacent to the farm house. The following summer the ticketed 1979 Glastonbury Fayre was attended by about 10,000 people – a small crowd compared to the hundreds of thousands that now visit.
By 1979 I was going to as many festivals as I could muster the enthusiasm and the cash for; from the Rougham Tree Fayre in East Anglia, to the Horseshoe Pass festival near Ruthin, from the Seasalter Festival in Kent to the Elephant Fayre in Cornwall, and each year going to every Glastonbury from 1978 to my final visit in 1990.
Other Festivals and Fayres
The End of Free Festivals
The 1976 Stonehenge festival was fairly small, probably only a couple of thousand people, but grew each year until by 1984 there were an estimated 35,000 people there and the festival was so large that it had used up all the tolerance and patience of the local authorities. Aside from the fact that tens of thousands of people were illegally holding an annual festival at one of the UK’s most famous landmarks there was the growing problem of supplying adequate fresh water, and dealing with the effluent and litter generated by such a crowd.
The following year, on June 1st 1985, the Peace Convoy of about 600 New Age travellers was making its way to the site to set up that year’s festival, but it was not to be and during several days of stand-offs a 1,300 police force brutally enforced the High Court injunction stopping the festival from taking place. The level of violence used by the police and witnessed by journalists was appalling. It is said that some of the officers present were those who had previously been breaking demonstrations by the striking miners – the Special Patrol Group.
The sight of paramilitary style officers in riot gear; helmets, batons, and shields, pulling people out of buses by their hair, breaking windows, and beating up these travellers was not Her Majesty’s Constabulary’s finest hour. Dozens were hospitalized and hundreds were arrested. This event became known as the Battle of the Beanfield and it marked the end of the Stonehenge free festival.
New Era of Festivals
The era of free festivals was over replaced by commercial events like Glastonbury and the many others that have emerged since.
For a while, during the late 1980s, that free festival spirit lingered on albeit in an enclave in King’s Meadow, Worthy Farm, where the tipis and painted buses of the travellers overlooked the main Glastonbury festival site, which I heard one bus-dweller refer to jokingly as Babylon.
Experimental alternative technology from the 1970s has evolved and has become enshrined in renewable energy policies. You can spend summer holidays glamping in tipis and yurts and there are dozens of music festivals to attend every year. The festivals and glamping trips of their day can be traced directly back to the alternative seasonal festivals of the past.
Where to find out more
There’s lots of footage on YouTube uploaded by people who were present at these events. The four below entitled ‘Stonehenge Visions Tipi Valley Dreams’ by Chris Watts are among the best at evoking the atmosphere at Stonehenge. There’s no commentary, just clips edited together with a Hawkwind backing track for each. In Part 1 at 4:05 there’s even a flypast by Concorde with its landing gear down!
And to see hundreds of photos and to read recollections from many festivals of the 60s, 70s, and 80s visit UKRockFestivals.com – it’s probably the biggest archive of its type.
Were you there? What do you remember? Post your recollections below.
Stonehenge Visions Tipi Valley Dreams – Part 1
Stonehenge Visions Tipi Valley Dreams – Part 2
Stonehenge Visions Tipi Valley Dreams – Part 3
Stonehenge Visions Tipi Valley Dreams – Part 4
Last update on 2021-01-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API