Summer solstice: How the Stonehenge battles faded
By Emma Hallett
20 June 2014
For more than a decade violence, screaming and bloodshed marred the summer solstice at Stonehenge – a far cry from the hippy ideal followed by those wanting access the site. Now families, school groups and druids mingle peacefully amongst the ancient stones as the sun sets on the longest day – so what changed?
The events ahead of solstice day in 1985 are still hotly disputed – but those trying to reach the ancient monument said police officers in full riot gear rushed on to the field “attacking absolutely everything in sight”.
The new age travellers, many of them accompanied by their children and pets, said they were left stumbling around in a bewildering convoy of battered vehicles, attempting to escape.
Hours earlier they were making their way to the spiritual landscape of Stonehenge. It was an annual pilgrimage that hundreds of travellers had completed every year since the early 1970s.
But by the mid-80s, the authorities had a High Court injunction preventing the traditional gathering and, as police admit, were determined to uphold it.
What unfolded, according to local journalist James Cameron, was “like something out of the Wild West” and it would set the template of confrontation for years to come.
Just a year earlier, there had been tents, caravans, cars and vans for as far as the eye could see, as thousands of travellers attended a festival where they would exchange ideas, trade and music.
They were among those who had turned to an alternative culture outside the “common order”, transporting themselves across the country on a well-trodden circuit of free festivals.
These events celebrated their culture and in Wiltshire, Stonehenge had become the site of the largest free festival.
Traveller and photographer Alan Lodge was one of those bringing his family up on the road.
“It had been a tribal route for 8,000 years up until 1985, but suddenly it was wrong,” Mr Lodge says.
The free festivals had always been against civil law, but Mr Lodge says he was “equally surprised as anybody else with the force that was used to uphold a civil injunction”.
Police account different
For Wiltshire Police though, the festival was regarded rather more simply, as a huge drain on police resources.
“Whilst the Stonehenge Free Festival was illegal, it is not easy to prevent several hundred people, leave alone several thousand, from doing something which in their eyes they feel they should be allowed to do,” retired officer Peter Spencer says.
“Consequently, the festivals of the 70s and early 80s could only be policed on the fringes.”
As well as damage to Stonehenge, land owners complained about trespassing, damage to property, drug taking and of people washing naked in the rivers.
“It had gone completely out of hand… you just don’t want that sort of thing,” Mr Spencer said.
After the festival in 1984, a High Court injunction preventing the Stonehenge gathering was sought by the authorities.
And in the summer of 1985 a four-mile exclusion zone was set up around the monument at the end of May, with road blocks on the approaching highways – including tonnes of gravel tipped across the road – and rings of barbed wire surrounding the ancient stones.
But it did not deter those who saw access to the stones as a right, arriving for the festival some weeks before the solstice.
At about midday on 1 June a “peace convoy” of up to 140 vehicles headed for Stonehenge on a route taking them south on the A338.
Then 19, traveller Helen Hatt, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, was driving her converted ambulance down the road with seven or eight other vehicles in front of her.
“There was this jolly atmosphere,” she said.
“Then all of a sudden people were running back down the road and somebody was covered in blood. There was just this state of panic. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could.”
‘Ripped chunks of hair’
What happened next would quickly turn into – the so-called – “Battle of the Beanfield”.
“I saw police coming down the line smashing up the windows. I was screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it’,” Ms Hatt claimed.
“They were screaming at me ‘Stop the vehicle, stop the vehicle’.”
She alleges a policeman then pulled her through the window causing her foot to slip off the clutch and the ambulance to lurch backwards.
“They tried to pull me out of the window but it was too small for me to actually get out of it. They kept tugging at my hair, trying to pull me out,” she claimed.
“There was a tug of war between the police officers. They ripped chunks of my hair out and the copper on the inside struck me with his truncheon on my leg so hard, that to this day I have a huge dent in the muscle of my leg.”
In the back of the ambulance, she says her friends were being showered with glass.
Now out of the vehicle, Ms Hatt’s knees collapsed before she claims she was dragged away “upside down, with my nose about four inches off the concrete and my hands behind my back”.
Other travellers who witnessed the violent scene started tearing down fences to get into the adjacent bean field, “bearing in mind we had our children, our animals, our homes…there was nowhere else to go”, Ms Hatt said in her account.
‘At the front of the convoy’
James Cameron, Wiltshire Radio reporter in 1985
The police called in support from police forces around the country, and they arrived and kitted themselves up in riot gear, and effectively surrounded the convoy.
There was a small group of… I suppose one would call them anarchists. They started pelting the police lines with stones and stuff they picked up from the field and there was this strange stand-off between the police, who were reluctant to go in, and this group of anarchists who were goading them.
I was standing by a police van and one ball-bearing hit the police van right beside my head.
Then at some stage the police took the decision to go in.
There was this extraordinary scene where you had a helicopter overhead with police shouting instructions through a loud speaker and you had a large number of police rush on to the field from all sides who stared smashing the windows of the buses.
It was like something out of the Wild West. There were these huge buses and cars and vans all charging around in circles. The buses were trying to run the police down, the police were trying to stop them.
They [the police] would smash the sides of the bus windows with the batons and drag anyone they could find inside out.
There was a lot of screaming, a lot of shouting and with the noise of the helicopter overhead, the whole thing felt extremely intimidating and terrifying.
The convoy – a slow procession of cars, vans, buses and caravans – was still seven miles from Stonehenge, some way out of the newly imposed four-mile High Court exclusion order.
Traffic officer Bernie Lund, who served with Wiltshire Police from 1968 until 1998, had been sent to a “designated stop site” to intercept it.
“Our information was that the convoy was going to make it to Stonehenge, the objective of Wiltshire Police was to stop this,” he says.
“I stood on the pegs [of the motorbike], and stood up and gave them the stop signal… it was obvious they weren’t going to stop.”
Mr Lund says the first coach rammed the first police vehicle, pushing it back into the second and blocking the road. With nowhere else to go, the convoy entered an adjacent bean field
The scene then turned chaotic as a stand-off between the police and travellers took hold. Mr Lund says it was then that Molotov cocktails and sticks were thrown at officers.
Hundreds of arrests
“If it had hit anyone in the head it would have just killed them, so I was quite pleased I had a helmet on at the time,” he adds.
As the confrontation unfolded Mr Lodge, who was working with the festival welfare agencies, was trying to negotiate with the police.
“I was split between four different roles – there’s me as a father, there’s me as an ambulance man, there’s me as a photographer and there is me trying to stop getting beaten up,” he says.
By now, families of travellers were driving their vehicles around in “some alarm”, surrounded by police and uncertain of what was happening, Mr Lodge says.
“The police formed up and attacked absolutely everything in sight – smashing windows, dragging people out by their hair through broken glass. It was overwhelming,” he adds.
Mr Lodge strongly refutes claims that travellers deliberately drove their vehicles at police officers, adding that if this had happened people would have been killed.
“The idea that this is two opposing armies having a pitch battle in a field in medieval style is completely false – this was an ambush that happened on a small, mild mannered bunch of people – hippies, for God’s sake,” he adds.
Footage from archive news reports posted online shows police smashing windows, hitting people with truncheons, and dragging people away to be arrested.
The day ended with police – whose numbers were estimated by witnesses to be over 1,000 – gaining control and arresting 420 people. Twelve were taken to hospital.
In the years that followed, Mr Cameron says there was a slow recognition that the cost of trying to stage a festival at Stonehenge was too high.
“For the vast majority of peaceful festival loving travellers, that was a price they weren’t prepared to pay,” he says.
“There was a feeling that surely that wouldn’t – and couldn’t – be repeated because it was so horrific and so violent.”
Despite this, some smaller groups continued to try to re-stage events, including Mr Lodge.
“What are you going to do? Do you comply with that kind of intimidation, or do you try and stand up to it?” he says.
Between 1985 and 2000, King Arthur Pendragon, now a senior druid, was arrested every year trying to break the four-mile exclusion zone.
Under the 1986 Public Order Act groups of people found inside the exclusion zone were deemed an illegal procession and violators faced a maximum three-month prison sentence.
“There remained a feeling of confrontation that was to last for 10 to 15 years,” King Arthur says.
On 22 June 1989, 260 travellers who tried to reach Stonehenge for the summer solstice were arrested for public order offences – more than twice as many arrests as the year before.
Wiltshire Police had 800 police officers on the ground to deal with about 400 people trying to reach the stones.
This time six people managed to scale a fence on the perimeter before they were detained, and one of them shouted to reporters: ”Free the stones, Free the people”.
The police pushed people back through the town of Amesbury, two miles from Stonehenge, to the fury of many local residents who described it as “operation overkill”.
Nearly six years after the events in the beanfield and following a four-month trial, a verdict was given at Winchester Crown into the actions of Wiltshire Police.
Twenty-four travellers, including Mr Lodge and Ms Hatt, had sued the police for wrongful arrest, assault and criminal damage.
After the verdict was given – both sides emerged claiming victory.
The police were cleared of wrongful arrest but the travellers were awarded £24,000 for damage to “persons and property”.
Despite the result, Mr Lodge says there continues to be “an attempted re-write of history”, that the travellers had been a “bunch of violent anarchists that needed sorting out and the police acted accordingly”.
“That is not so. And the jury agreed with us,” he says.
But with the exclusion zone still in place, skirmishes between police, travellers and “anarchists” continued to take place every year at the time of the summer solstice.
Ms Hatt said: “We tried to sneak in by means we could to celebrate the solstice as close to Stonehenge as we could.
“None of their policing ever worked – what they did at Stonehenge was like waving a red flag at a bull.”
But she alleged police “bully-boy tactics” continued and they were regularly “beaten up”.
Meanwhile, King Arthur had launched a long court battle arguing that keeping Stonehenge closed to the public was illegal and in 1998 took his case to the European Court of Human Rights.
‘Two broken ribs’
“It was ruled it was legal for the government to put the exclusion zone in, but only if they could prove it was in the interest of national security – which of course they couldn’t,” he says.
The first chinks of light in the stand-off emerged in 1999, when English Heritage decided to allow limited access – with a ticketing system – hoping it would help defuse tension and prevent some of the trouble seen in recent years.
“I told them it wouldn’t work, and it didn’t work,” King Arthur says.
“I was offered 001 – the first ticket – and I refused it. So I stood outside with the people because I wasn’t going to go in until everyone went in.
“Events went down, we all got in, I got two broken ribs, and hoicked out by the police eight times before they eventually arrested me.”
Recalling the events of 1999, former chief inspector Nick Mitchell-Briggs – who was joint commander on the night – now sees that year as the turning point after years of trying to “get to grips” with the situation.
“1999 was the last real battle at Stonehenge,” he says.
“We, and English Heritage, decided, we could not go on any longer with these confrontations, year after year, and as a result of negotiations with them, the year 2000 was the first year that people were allowed to go up to the stones on the night.
“On that night, there was only two arrests. The rest is history.”
In fact, in 2000, King Arthur received an e-mail from the Wiltshire Police operations manager which read: “An excellent evening all round… The only person who was disappointed was my custody sergeant because he had got you a breakfast lined up.”
“That is how much it changed by 2000,” King Arthur says.
“There are still issues and we still don’t think they allow us in for long enough, and we are still fighting, but we are dealing with it a lot more sensibly then through the 80s and 90s.”
Ms Hatt added: “We just kept pointing out ‘you are wasting millions of pounds policing an exclusion zone, you would spend a lot less money, facilitating us to go to Stonehenge’, and eventually they did.”
In 2014, solstice operations are being overseen by Supt Gavin Williams of Wiltshire Police – under the same managed open access policy, which has successfully been run since 2000.
Reflecting on past events, he said there had been “lawlessness” and a “risk to public safety”, which the then chief constable, Donald Smith, had decided needed “a really robust response”.
He added: “Back then it probably had slipped too far and it had got out of control.
“Yes, a robust response was needed and it is like anything, once you have given that response and you normalise things, hopefully it is a case of maintaining them.
“But we did have significant resistance back then and antagonistic people who were hell-bent on doing what they wanted to do. They were in vans that they did drive at police and officers were at risk.
“That said, absolutely we learnt from it. Now, it is at a containable level and we need to be in a position where we maintain it.”
Supt Williams said this is now done through “dialogue, negotiation and relationships” between Wiltshire Police, English Heritage and partner agencies, including representatives of the druid orders.
“It has gone from a position of ‘you ain’t coming in’, a confrontation… to last year, when we had groups of school children turning up, chaperoned by teachers, to soak up some of the culture,” he said.
This year’s solstice will take place on a Friday into a Saturday – with police therefore expecting higher numbers than during a mid-week solstice.
“Last time I did this at a weekend, I think we counted about 34,000 people, so a huge amount of people,” Supt Williams says.
But these days the biggest issue for police is dealing with minor drug offences and traffic management.
Kate Davies, English Heritage’s manager of Stonehenge, believes all sides have come a long way since the days of the exclusion zones, describing today’s event as a “peaceful celebration enjoyed by many thousands”.
She puts their success down to a “close working relationship” with the druid and pagan groups as well as Wiltshire Police.
But 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.
“I find it so depressing, as I have some appreciation of what it is that we have lost,” he says.
“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?