As I sit down to write, it is twenty years and one hour since the Battle of the Beanfield, perhaps the most brutal police operation in the history of the United Kingdom. On 1 June 1985 police from six counties attacked a convoy of men, women and children who were making their way to Stonehenge. Half an hour later, 420 people had been beaten and arrested and up to 140 vehicles seized.
There are many things to be disgruntled – and even seriously bloody angry – about in the state of the United Kingdom today. Nonetheless it has to be admitted that things ain’t what they used to be: 1985 was a time of three million unemployed (official figures, real figures something over six million), wretchedly run-down council estates rife with drugs and crime, and a Prime Minister who explicitly stated that there was
no such thing as society. The message of the Government was unequivocal: you lot are on your own.
This was how the Peace Convoy had come into being – or rather, how it came into being every year. It comprised an assortment of people who had chosen to go on the road as a way of life, travelling between festivals through the summer making a living by supplying the wants of the weekend crowds, from vegeburgers to hash. In the winter, some would return to their urban lives, while others would do agricultural work to tide them over. The Peace Convoy didn’t exist in the sense of being an organisation; it was an amorphous, distributed anarchistic community, a term applied to any gathering of old coaches and lorries converted into mobile homes by people sick of life in the devastated inner cities of Thatcher’s Britain.
Peace Convoy was primarily promoted by the Press, who depicted its “members” as a drug-crazed menace to all the cows that were sacred, mainly because a number of people matching their description were to be found at the various Peace Camps that kept the security people on their toes at nuclear weapons bases throughout the country. Apparently, even when society doesn’t exist, it is still possible to be a menace to it.
The People’s Free Festival of Albion had been held at Stonehenge every year since 1974 (or 1972 according to some sources) . Traditionally, the Peace Convoy would come together and travel to the large fields over the road from the stones at the start of June, establishing a festival which lasted until the end of the month, peaking at the Summer Solstice sunrise celebration. In 1984 official estimates put the number attending at about 30,000; in the way of these things, those who were there claim that the figure was nearer 50,000. Whatever the truth, the Stonehenge Free Festival was the major counter-cultural event of the year, marking the start of the festival season. From the end of June it was possible to travel to a different free festival every weekend for the entire summer. Often there was a choice of several.
A large subculture, able to prove to its own satisfaction that an anarchic way of life was a major improvement on the nightmare of subsisting at the bottom of the capitalist heap, was never going to be welcome to the powers that be. In 1985 it was declared that no festival would be allowed; the Association of Chief Police Officers obtained a blanket injunction and the stage was set.
The trouble was, none of us believed them. If all those people went to Stonehenge simultaneously, how could they possibly stop them? The answer should have been clear from the brutal suppression of dissent during the Miners’ Strike. Margaret Thatcher had greatly increased police salaries immediately she came to power; now we were finding out why.
The level of brutality of the police action which began at 7:10pm that June Saturday can hardly be overstated. Experienced ITN journalist Kim Sabido said to camera:
What we – the ITN camera crew and myself as a reporter – have seen in the last 30 minutes here in this field has been some of the most brutal police treatment of people that Iâ€™ve witnessed in my entire career as a journalist. The number of people who have been hit by policemen, who have been clubbed whilst holding babies in their arms in coaches around this field, is yet to be counted…There must surely be an enquiry after what has happened today
while Home Affairs correspondent for The Observer, Nick Davies, wrote:
There was glass breaking, people screaming, black smoke towering out of burning caravans and everywhere there seemed to be people being bashed and flattened and pulled by the hair…men, women and children were led away, shivering, swearing, crying, bleeding, leaving their homes in pieces…Over the years I had seen all kinds of horrible and frightening things and always managed to grin and write it. But as I left the Beanfield, for the first time, I felt sick enough to cry.
Among the observers of the police action that day was the Earl of Cardigan; he had travelled ahead of the convoy on a motorbike when they left their gathering place in Savernake Forest (which he happened to own). He was later to testify against the police, and stated that at one point a senior police officer warned him to leave,
as my men are out of control.
The entire business of policing Stonehenge that year cost Â£5 million, and for years thereafter vast sums were spent ensuring nobody could see the sunrise from Stonehenge. English Heritage now provide “managed access” to the stones at Summer Solstice sunrise, so maybe I’ll see you there. If you want to know more about what happened twenty years ago today then read the words of photographer Alan Lodge (Tash), who was arrested that day: