Remembering Historical Counter-cultures (or Bring Back Our Free Festivals!)

Sadly, Glastonbury is most people’s experience of festivals. The memory of the free festival has been practically expunged from the public memory.

The festival season is underway. If you have large amounts of disposable income and don’t need to rely on a credit card to bail you out in the second week of the month because you’ve spent all your money on frivolous things like rent, bills and travel, then Britain’s festivals are there to take your money. These festivals are exclusive and are the very thing that free festival veterans fought against. Only those who come from upper middle-class backgrounds have sufficient levels of economic capital to draw from and are thus able to pose at these festivals in their Hunter wellies  (no others are acceptable), Barbour coats and/or hipster clothing.

We used to have many free festivals in this country, but since the end of the 1980s they’ve all been shut down in a gradual process that began in the 18th century. Free festivals had been a part of British life since the 1960s with the first jazz  festivals that were held at Lord Montagu’s Beaulieu estate. The last jazz festival to happen there was on 31 July, 1961 when a riot broke out during Acker Bilk’s set. Yes, I know, it sounds absurd that teenagers could riot over a set by a trad jazzman, but this was buttoned-up, straight-laced Britain where pin-striped suits and bowler hats ruled supreme and trad jazz was strangely hip. The free festival movement continued through the 1960s and into the 1970s. The Rolling Stones played a free festival in Hyde Park in 1969, the same year that Britain’s first pay festival on the Isle of Wight happened.

Let me take you back to Britain’s pre-industrial era. Fairs were frequent and popular and were and integral part of people’s lives because they marked the naturally occurring events in the year: the solstices, the equinoxes and various other occasions like the harvest, for example. The aristocracy and the emerging capitalist class saw the continuing fairs as unwanted distractions; a threat to their money-making capacities and using the Inclosure Acts, local authorities accelerated the enclosure of common land on which these fairs were held. This was a process that continued well into the 1850s. With nowhere to play, the performers of these fairs moved indoors to play the penny gaffes and free and easies in halls attached to pubs and inns. These venues gradually became the music halls.

The Albion or East Anglia Faires were some of the most popular free festivals in the country. I went to quite a few of them in the 1980s. I also went to one of the last Stonehenge Free Festivals in 1982, which had been set up by the People’s Free Festivals in 1974, and who were also responsible for creating the Windsor Free Festivals between 1970 and 1974. The last Windsor Free Festival was broken up by police from the Thames Valley Constabulary, who cheerfully went about their violent business cracking heads and kicking pregnant women. Another popular free festival is the much-diluted Strawberry Fair, held annually on Midsummer Common in Cambridge, this festival has been gradually commercialized; so much so that it has become a shadow of its former self. In 2010, it was cancelled because of ongoing tensions with Cambridgeshire Constabulary.

But it was Stonehenge that drew the most ire from the establishment and English Heritage, who managed the stones, was determined to put an end to the festivals. Created in 1983 during the peak of Thatcher’s reign, English Heritage has responsibility for the country’s stately homes, listed buildings and ancient monuments. As soon as English Heritage assumed control for Stonehenge, they complained about “damage” to the stones. The real reasons were probably less prosaic: the open sale of drugs, for example, was reported in the tabloids and the fact that it wasn’t commercial, and therefore unsanctioned by the authorities, were causal factors in the Thatcher government’s banning of the festival. The presence of the Peace Convoy, too, had been cited by the authorities as another excuse to close down Stonehenge and many others.

The words “Peace Convoy” (sometimes swapped with ‘hippy convoy’ by the Thatcher government) were often used as a blanket term for any persons travelling around the country in buses and disused ambulances. Many of these people referred to themselves as ‘New Age Travellers’ and many made their living by working at the free festivals. Living on the road was also an escape from the drudgery of the dole and the miserable landscapes of industrial decay. Many came from working class backgrounds, others were middle-class university drop-outs. Indeed when many people think of the word ‘counter-culture’ they tend to think of an event that happened between 1965 and 1975 but the counter-culture is always present but not always visible or, indeed, discussed as such. Yet, this was a counter-culture in every sense for it contained all the elements of a counter-culture: social and political action, underground lifestyles, bohemianism and the creation of alternative markets (Bourdieu, 1986), such things have been around since the beginning of recorded history but yet the media will often refer to them as a recent phenomena. For example, if we go back the to the aftermath of the English Civil War, we can regard the Diggers as counter-cultural because of their social and political actions but also for their auto-didactic  interpretation of the scriptures.

Confrontation between the authorities and the travellers was inevitable and on 1 June, 1985, officers from the Wiltshire Constabulary attacked a group of travellers in what became known as The Battle of the Beanfield. The confrontation began when travellers, unaware that an exclusion zone had been set up around the monument, were intent on reaching Stonehenge and had camped in a field outside of the zone. The battle took place over several hours and, with few journalists present apart from The Observer’s Nick Davies and ITN’s Kim Sabido and a camera crew, the cops felt they had a licence to use extreme brutality as the video clips below show us.

Here’s another report

Tickets for this year’s Glastonbury Festival (which began as a free festival) sold for £205 plus £5 booking fee plus a further £6 per person. So that’s a total cost of £216 before you’ve even walked through the gates. The cost of food and drink is usually between 20% and 50% more expensive than elsewhere. The queues are long and sometimes stretch for kilometres. Needless to say, Glastonbury has become a victim of its own success. I’d noticed this when I last went in 1985 (for free because my then girlfriend was a stallholder) when it rained the entire weekend. I was probably the only person to wear wellies (not Hunter). I also remember thinking “there are too many people here”. It was such a relief to go to the Elephant Fayre the following weekend. The Elephant Fayre was free and was a much smaller event that often featured some of the same acts as Glastonbury. The Elephant Fayre, sadly, is no more. Its closure was blamed on elements of the Peace Convoy.

Slightly cheaper at £190.50 (how did they work out this exact figure?) is the Latitude Festival in Southwold. This is c0mprised of £186.50 plus £8 booking fee. There’s also an “accompanied teen ticket” available at £150.50. The festival also offers an “instalment plan” where you can pay £70.50, presumably over the course of three months.

Today’s festivals are large scale affairs. They are easily monitored and those who live, what could loosely be described as ‘alternative lifestyles’, have been effectively excluded. Festival organizers are likely to be moneyed types, whose only experience of festivals comes from the experience of Glastonbury and other large scale events.  Free festivals have almost been erased from the public memory and replaced with the capitalist extravaganzas that now dominate the summer months. It is now hip to be seen at festivals. Once upon a time, it was simply a way of life.


Bourdieu, P (1986) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London: Routledge



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Filed under police brutality, social engineering, Society & culture

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