Memory of a Free Festival

Homer Sykes – Free festival at Stonehenge, Summer Solstice 1976

Homer Sykes – Free festival at Stonehenge, Summer Solstice 1976

I have a memory of him standing there, fearless with arms outstretched through the heat of a long-ago festival afternoon. The more I look at this photograph the further I slip down a Where’s Wally search for my teenage face somewhere amongst the crowd. Later in the whirl of a lysergic night he was there still, arms wide open embracing us from the back of the crowd. Who was he? An acid-prophet hippy-messiah channelling our assembled freak-power counter-culture solstice energies? Quite possibly. Those days and dreams in the rolling heart of Wiltshire, where the words ‘free’ and ‘festival’ seemed for a naïve teenage moment to be blueprints for a utopian future. In Memory of a Free Festival David Bowie sang, “it was God’s land, it was ragged and naïve, it was heaven”. He was singing about the Beckenham Arts Lab Free Festival in London – but it was the same thing. On that summer’s day on a scrap of squatted land at Stonehenge people played music, danced and got intoxicated – as people had been doing since they first dragged the stones there. A people’s festival unregulated by the state, no barcoded wristbands, burger vans, fences or car parks – yet.

On the 1st June 1985 at the ‘Battle of the Beanfield‘, eager with lessons learned from the Miner’s strike, Thatcher and the Wiltshire police had a different future in mind for a group of men, women and children in vans and buses on their way to the 14th annual Stonehenge free festival. Forcing the convoy of ‘new-age travellers’ off the road and into a field, truncheon-wielding riot police smashed windscreens, dragged out occupants and battered anyone and everyone, including pregnant women and those holding babies. It became the largest mass civil arrest in English history.

Back to that summer’s day of 1976 one person who was there was the editorial photographer Homer Sykes. In 2013 Café Royal Books published a selection of his photographs of Stonehenge Festival in the limited edition zine Stonehenge: 1970s Counterculture. As for finding Wally – he was there all the time! I remember the shouts of “Wally” from the crowd at those early ‘70’s festivals – a lost sound-engineer? Maybe a dog? In 1976 a bunch of people stayed on camping after the solstice festival and to challenge a high court eviction notice based on individuals names all adopted the same name of ‘Wally’ – we are all Wally!

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