Saturday, March 24, 2007

Memory of a Free Festival I: Stonehenge 1984

On his 1969 album Space Oddity, David Bowie recorded a song with the title "Memory of a Free Festival" [Beware, pop-ups]. The lyrics began thus,

The Children of the summer's end
Gathered in the dampened grass
We played Our songs and felt the London sky
Resting on our hands
It was God's land
It was ragged and naive
It was Heaven.

Although there is a strong streak of the idealism of the 1960s that runs through these lyrics, they are not entirely fanciful. Up until the mid 1980s in Great Britain, there were many such Free Festivals that ran pretty much in accordance with the sentiments Bowie describes.

In the Summer of 1984, I was in Great Britain. Through a series of circumstances that are too complicated to recount here, I ended up attending the Stonehenge Festival that year. I still have the tee shirt from the time. The picture is below.

It was an interesting and amazing experience. I was there with several friends. If I recall correctly, Karen, Nik and Wendy all also attended. I think that Paul and Sandy may have been there too. We all got to the Festival by hitch hiking. This gives an idea of how the world has changed since then. However, a history of some of the festivals can be found here.

We were camped near a group of people who lived in teepees. They appeared to have turned their back on modern technology and instead preferred a more rustic approach to life. One of the most amazing sites was watching one of their number shoeing a horse, wearing nothing but a blacksmith's apron.

The Festival was a true free for all. There were many little businesses that had set themselves up in amongst the areas where people were camped. By wandering around, one could come across places to buy breakfast, henna tattoos, clothes, you name it. There were many kinds of excellent and cheap vegetarian food available. The attitude of the merchants was interesting too. Rather than engaging in business, with profit as the main motive, most traders seemed to be there to provide a service. A person could spend days just wandering around, chatting, sharing and observing. It was wonderful.

Some of the traveller vehicles were amazing sights in and of themselves. Indeed, although there were a number that were fairly basic, others were genuine works of art in their own right. Basically, the Festival was a social and visual feast!

Although the atmosphere on the Festival site was nice and relaxed, outside it was not quite so. The Police stood at the entrance to the site, where people had to go to get to the bathroom facilities and would occasionally hassle folks. It appeared that they did not dare enter the site, at least not in uniform. It was also the case that Police helicopters would regularly fly over the Festival site. When they did this, they were greeted by a wave of obscene gestures from the Festival goers below.

Of course, and important component of any such festival was the music. There was a large tent, rather like a circus big top that was set up for people to just jam in. Sometimes the results were amazing, at other times they were less so. There were also bands who had set themselves up in amongst the campers. Almost every type of music was represented, in these 'volunteer' musical outfits.

The most important venue though was the main stage. The main way to find out who would be playing was from two guys who rode around the Festival grounds on two bicycles that were tied together with a longish rope. As they cycled, they would call out the musical acts that would be on later. Who knows if this was an 'official' mechanism, or whether these were just volunteers. It did not matter. The Festival was not organized in this kind of sense.

The biggest night of the entire Festival was naturally Solstice night. The classic British band Hawkwind played twice that night. It really was a night to remember.

By the time it came to sunrise, many of the Festival goers had moved across the road to stand within, or close to Stonehenge itself. It appeared that the Police had entirely given up trying to prevent people getting to the Stones themselves. Instead Policemen stood in groups of two and threes, moving about within the crowd of revelers, from time to time.

I had the good fortune of standing by the Slaughter Stone around Sunrise. Unfortunately, the day dawned overcast, so we did not get to see the Sun. The experience was not without amusement though. As well as the crowds from the Festival, the Druids were there also, performing their rituals, in their elaborate ritual attire. The crowds were respectful enough to give the Druids the space they needed. There was one slight issue though around the Slaughter Stone. One dog kept running up onto the Stone. Eventually, the dogs owner managed to get it under control, but not before some wag from the crowd had warned the dog to "Get off the Stone, or the Druid laser will get you, dog", to the vast amusement of the assembled masses near by.

Until recently, I thought that the whole Stonehenge 1984 Festival experience was something that would just reside in my memory. However, I recently discovered that the performance by Hawkwind had been videotaped and now has been made available on YouTube. The video runs about an hour and is divided into six sections, each of about ten minutes. The video can be accessed through the following links (N.B. You will probably need JavaScript enabled);

Hawkwind, The Solstice at Stonehenge, 1984, Part 1

Hawkwind, The Solstice at Stonehenge, 1984, Part 2

Hawkwind, The Solstice at Stonehenge, 1984, Part 3

Hawkwind, The Solstice at Stonehenge, 1984, Part 4

Hawkwind, The Solstice at Stonehenge, 1984, Part 5

Hawkwind, The Solstice at Stonehenge, 1984, Part 6

Even if you lack the time and inclination to watch all the videos, I would recommend at the very least watching the first one. This is because it opens with some general scenes from the Festival itself. It provides some insight into the general look and feel of the event. It was a wonderful time. There is also some further Festival footage at the end of the sixth video. As the slogan on the tee shirt pictured above noted, it was a 'fun, free, festival'. It is a great shame that this would be the last ever 'Henge Festival of this era. More on this in the next post in this series.

The CP


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My partner was at this festival as a 16yr old, it changed his life. It is great to see the sign 1984 'mind your head' having heard about it. We lived for some years by the principles you speak of, idealistic and free though poor. When Thatcher said she meant to stop these Medieval Brigands she meant it. Stonehenge 88 saw the police massed ranks brutalise, terrorise and attempt to destroy all that the festival and way of life stood for. Really they succeeded. It was a golden time of freedom and dissent and I for one have never really found a place in this society I find myself forced back into.

4:18 AM  
Blogger The Combat Philosopher said...

I think that the events you are alluding to is the infamous 'Battle of the Beanfield'. This occurred in 1985, not 1988. The next post will cover this. Check back for more details. Thanks for the comment though. I'm glad that you liked the post.

The CP

6:15 PM  
Blogger death said...

I attended the henge in 84 as part of the "PEACE CONVOY". I remember that time stood still as the sun rose over the heel stone and we knew it was the last time we would be there, and that the acid was gogd As the events of 1985 proved,in the Beanfield where they destroyed our homes because we didn't wantm to live the way of soitity

6:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was there in '84, many memories of folowing a friend around and eating fried egg sarnies. Being at the stones at sunrise was just mystical even if we weren't treated to the full experience. I found some arial photos on line and actually found my tent! I can't say I remember all of it as I went for the full festival experience ;)

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

after 88 i went to live on site in cumbra and found that tht way fo live still there anyione who has been tou pched by the sprite of the convoy has iot with them always

5:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too was at Henge 84, I turned up with a small group of friends on motorbikes. We were made welcome by everyone we met, we stayed for 2 weeks socialising, there was a great feeling of belonging amongst us. Spent most nights sleeping under my bike and the days walking around site chatting to all kinds of different people and munching great veggie food. 85 I was supposed to be going again but I was in hospital having my son, I couldn't believe what I saw on the news, how could that happen...these were some of the most gentle people you could ever meet.What the government and police did is still utterly unforgivable.

8:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


3:55 AM  
Anonymous Niceritchie said...

Just testing. Is this a dead site, it hasn't been used for years.

I was at 1984 Stonehenge, can't find any valid sites.

6:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was at Henge 83 and 84 and many other festivals/sites besides,the free festivals of the 70s and early 80s were great days,things haven't been the same since...

7:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

was there 82 & 84. part of me is still sitting on a burial mound looking out across the sea of tipi's, benders, tents, vehicles, generators, fires, & people just wandering a scene from a mad max movie only it was real....I think? would be back there tomoro..if only..

8:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Me and a pal hitched from London for the '84 festival - we'd never been to anything like it before. First thing we saw was a nudist digging a (toilet?) hole near her van. Next couple of days passed in a blissful ravishing haze. By the time another friend (who'd motor biked down from London) found us, I was wandering around in a purple lab-coat while my companion brandished a long stick-candle - he still chuckles at that zany memory. I distinctly remember seeing an amazing acid-rock band playing at dawn in a small tent. Somehow we all managed to miss actually seeing Hawkwind. It was an amazing few days which also made me realise how some people really were still (attempting to) live THE alternative lifestyle. For us (and no doubt others) it was a mad, brief and brilliant encounter with another world.

9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remember watching The Enid become distracted during their set and the vocals kept playing...... " Your faking it" was the cry......brilliant experience, was at 83 but have no memory of that year...I wonder why !!

5:51 AM  

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