Two old festival goers meet in a pub, and begin reminiscing about a particular festival. Except that, within ten minutes, they discover that they have no memories in common: not one memory coincides. They know that they were at the same festival on the same date, but beyond that nothing. They remember entirely different things.
“Were we even at the same festival?” one of them asks.
The cliche about the sixties is that whoever remembers them wasn’t there. The line about the free festivals might be: whoever doesn’t remember something utterly unique about them wasn’t there.
The difference between a free festival and a pay festival may appear obvious on the surface. A free festival is free. But, while they have a common origin—the earliest free festivals, such as Woodstock in the United States, and Phun City in the UK, having started as pay festivals that went wrong—the main difference lies in the organisation, there being no overarching structure of control at a free festival, and no profits for the corporations. Thus the differences are immeasurable.
So what is a free festival? It’s a lot of things.
It’s a party. It’s a camping trip. It’s a social gathering. It’s a spiritual occasion. It’s a celebration. It’s a political protest. It’s a rally. It’s a bike rally, a truck rally and a political rally all at the same time. It’s an alternative economy, a market, where you can buy and sell all sorts of things. It’s a craft fair. It’s a place where you can meet new lovers or old friends. It’s a showcase for bands and for alternative technologies. It’s an exercise in collective decision making and collective dreaming. It is the model for a certain type of pop anarchism. It’s an extended family. It’s a cheap holiday. It’s a safe place to bring the kids. It’s a romantic interlude. It binds you to the past and anticipates the future. It’s all of these things and more.
Somebody to Love
Inspired partly by the film of Woodstock, which came out in 1970, and by the sequence of free concerts held in Hyde Park during the late sixties and early 70s, the early free festivals were unique affairs.
The slogan for the Windsor Free Festival, one of the earliest, held at Windsor Great Park during the August bank holidays between 1972 and 1974—reclaiming what had once been common land—was “Pay No Rent”. That tells you a lot about what was going on at the time.
In fact, the man who first conceived of the festival, Bill Ubi Dwyer, a civil servant who utilised government copying facilities to publicise the event, saw it in a vision. He saw a mass of people, like a gathering of the tribes, on Crown land. And when attempts were being made to block his progress, by denying him permission, he said: “I personally have God’s permission for the festival.”
This is the stuff of legend, of course. It may or may not have happened. But if it didn’t happen, it ought to have.
And that’s what people seem to remember about the festivals. Something archetypal: something reflecting a mythological dimension, like a stirring from the depths.
As Willow, from Glastonbury, said referring to the Stonehenge festival: “To me it was like a strobe light. You saw the sacred and the profane interacting every minute. On mid-summer’s eve, it would buzz, it was like a dome came down over it, and I saw whirling orange spirals in the sky, and everything became completely archetypal.” And she likened the atmosphere to one of those Goblin Fairs of fairy-stories: a place where anything can happen.
Des, also from Glastonbury, agreed.
He was remembering one particular festival.
“Might have been Trentishoe. Right on the North Devon coast. I remember we got there about four in the morning. You couldn’t drive to this place. You had to walk up a track. And I remember as I got to the bottom of the valley with the crest of the hill in front of me, these three people and a goat appeared through the mist, and there was this woman, a very tall Apollonian figure, with long blond hair wearing a loin cloth, and some bloke carrying a big bundle tied up on his back and leading this goat on a lead. They were leaving this festival and walking back up into the world. And it was a bit like something out of Crock of Gold, you know, the James Stevens book. Because it was so mythological. They just seemed so majestic.”
This was deeply impressive to the young man, who set about remaking himself as his own archetype.
It was this quality that separated the festivals from ordinary political events. Because, although there was a political intent, to do with the liberation of private property, born from a specifically anarchist perspective, the events themselves brought up much that was deeply embedded in the human heart.
Not that everything was perfect.
Willow also remembered the biker riot one year at the Stones, when the Hell’s Angels had moved in and attempted to take over. The bikers and the travellers had ended up eyeballing each other across the main drag, until the bikers had backed down. You had to be willing to protect yourself. But in later years the bikers became as much a fixture of the festival as everyone else. Willow had only escaped the fearfulness of the occasion because she was, as she says herself, in fairyland at the time.
Steve, from Cardiff, was also aware of some of the negative aspects of the culture.
He was hitch hiking home from one festival, when he collapsed. “I got to Bristol to an interchange there, and there was a whole queue of people, more festival goers, maybe twenty, thirty odd people lined along the road,” he says. “I’d been walking for hours, it was hot, I was tired, and I must have just flaked out: you know, exhaustion, heat, everything.” He came to several hours later. But what struck him was that the other festival goers hadn’t even checked if he was all right. “I’m thinking, where are all the people, where are all these hippie cool people gone? They all left me here. I could have been dead.”
So there was also a kind of narcissism there. Some people were just too cool to think about anyone but themselves.
Later came the introduction of heroin and cocaine, and the consequent involvement of the criminal fraternity, before ecstasy, Acid House parties and rave entered the picture in the late eighties, reviving the scene again.
The last great free festival was held at Castlemorton Common, near Tewkesbury in the Malvern Hills in May 1992. It lasted about four days and up to 50,000 people attended. There was a big court case afterwards in which fourteen people were charged with “Conspiracy to Cause a Public Nuisance”. Between them, the policing operation and the court case cost the British Taxpayer approaching £5 million. All fourteen people were found Not Guilty. The infamous Criminal Justice Bill of 1994 was enacted precisely to stop this kind of event from ever happening again..
Since then there have been a few other attempts to create a major free festival, most notably The Mother Festival in 1995, effectively splintered by the police into several smaller scale events. And every summer across the country small groups of people still gather to sit beneath the stars, in woods and fields, round an open fire, to revel in each other’s company.
As to whether there will ever be another large scale festival in the United Kingdom: that depends.
It’s down to you.
The Top Five Free Festivals.
Phun City, July 1970.
Originally conceived as a paying event, organised by Mick Farren of the Social Deviants (later shorted to the Deviants): when the organisation collapsed it turned into the first ever UK free festival. Several bands who had been invited were asked to pay for free. The only band who refused were, ironically, Free. The promo slogan was “Get Your End Away At Phun City!” Top of the bill was the MC5.
Glastonbury Fair, Summer Solstice 1971.
A visionary affair. Organised and paid for by Andrew Kerr, ex Personal Assistant to Randolph Churchill, on Michael Eavis’s dairy farm in Pilton, Somerset, it became the model for all subsequent Glastonbury Festivals. As Kerr said at the time: “If the festival has a specific intention it is to create an increase in awareness in the power of the Universe, a heightening of consciousness and a recognition of our place in the function of this our tired and molested planet.” Whew!
Windsor Free, August Bank Holiday 1972-74.
The last festival was violently attacked by the police, with a number of arrests and several injuries. Such was the negative reaction to this in the press that the police left the festivals alone for over ten years after that.
Watchfield, August Bank Holiday 1975.
Not a particularly good festival, by all accounts, it has the unique historical distinction of being the only free festival in which the British Government collaborated, by providing the site: a disused airfield in Berkshire. A model for the future, perhaps?
Stonehenge, Summer Solstice, 1974-85.
The Mother of all Free Festivals. The longest lasting and best remembered. Started by Phil Russell, aka Wally Hope, after a vision—an experience he shared not only with Bill Dwyer, but with Andrew Kerr too (is this a pattern?) – it was finally stopped in 1985 after the infamous Battle of the Beanfield: effectively a police riot. Gatherings at the Stones on Summer Solstice night resumed in 2000 and continue to this day. No festival, although there have been various attempts to set one up in the vicinity. One day maybe?
Memories of The Pilton Pop festival
From The Last of the Hippies, by CJ Stone.
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Happy to identify myself as the Steve with the memory of an unhappy hitchhiking experience, and, yes, it was a shock to me as an idealistic teenager to see what my fellow festival-goers were really like, but I went to many more events. That experience was after the Isle of Wight, a festival with a fee, but I went to many of the free events too, including Phun City, Windsor Free and the Watchfield festivals.