Our Travel blog
Our destination today was Wincanton racecourse, a Caravan Club site which we are using as a convenient overnight stop before we head to the Bath & West showground for the New Wine Festival where we are stewarding for a week. But first we had to negotiate the traffic. The M25 was, sadly not unexpectedly, running at a snail’s pace, the M4 likewise and then we joined the A303 which has the double problem of sections of single carriageway and it flows past Stonehenge. Well, crawls passed is a more accurate description. The monument causes motorists to slow down to have a look. A lot of people place great importance on Stonehenge, as an historical monument and as a spiritual centre.
For me though the part of the journey I was most looking forward to was joining the A303. This is simply because a song I rate as one of the best and most important of the 20th Century mentions it. The Battle of the Beanfield by The Levellers chronicles the violent clash between ‘New Age’ travellers and the Wiltshire Police on 1st June 1985. The police were preventing a convoy of several hundred travellers, the so called Peace Convoy, from setting up the 1985 Stonehenge Free Festival.
After an initial skirmish at a roadblock 600 or so travellers took refuge in an adjacent beanfield. After some further scuffles the police, numbering around 1300, attacked in a brutal display of state endorsed violence. Pregnant women were clubbed, coaches and vans, people’s homes, were smashed and children injured. 16 travellers and 8 police were hospitalised and eventually 537 travellers were arrested. There is no evidence to support most of the police ‘justification’. Reports of travellers having petrol bombs were falsely spread in the wake but this was 1985, the age of the video and of documentary evidence. They show little resistance and brutal police tactics. The Earl of Cardigan, on whose land the convoy had previously camped witnessed the events and subsequently refused the Police access to his land to “finish unfinished business…I did not want a repeat of the grotesque events that I’d seen the day before” he said.
One officer was found guilty of actual bodily harm in 1987 and in 1991 a civil court action awarded 21 travellers £24,000 in damages for false imprisonment, barely covering their legal bill (the judge didn’t award them legal costs).
Whatever the rights and wrongs of denying access to the monument, whatever the tactics of some convoy members, and many were no angels, the response from the police was sadly typical of a country in transformation. A country where tolerance and respect for alternative ways of life was challenging to the conservative mainstream and was being openly, sometimes violently repressed. A country where traditional industry was closing, where miner’s jobs were being fought for, where whole communities were being decimated and an overriding sense of a bleak and threatening society struggling to retain order lay like a fog over the land.
The genius of The Levellers Battle of the Beanfield is that it captures the sense of threat, of violence and injustice and channels it into a 3 minute song.
“Down the 303 at the end of the road
Flashing lights - exclusion zones
And it made me think it's not just the stones
That they're guarding”*
I should point out that for the most part the Peace Convoy and others living on the fringes of society were handled if not compassionately then at least sensitively. As is ever the case the police and authorities who handle anything controversial mostly do so with diplomacy and skill and they receive no attention in the press. The vast majority did a fine job in 1985, and still do, unrecognised and unheralded. To my eyes it’s a sad state of affairs that good work seldom receives attention and bad ones hit the headlines. Unhappily, selling newspapers is more important than reporting the news and as a result we get a dismal view of the world that’s distorted through the prism of editors eager to satisfy their shareholders.
To cheer us up after this meditation on the woes of the world, just after Stonehenge we passed a sign advertising Wookey Hole, which I’ve always thought was a pornographic Star Wars spin off but apparently is a cave system adorned with attractions to drag in families with money to spend.
And so we went on, crawling in the heavy traffic along straight roads, surrounded by vast rolling fields of greens and soft honey-toned browns until Wincanton and up through the pretty town to the racecourse. The site is basic for a Caravan Club site but clean, well maintained and the couple running it were almost painfully cheerily despite what was obviously a long day. We settled in and took a weary stroll around the grounds before retiring for an early night.
*Levellers - Battle Of The Beanfield
Tuesday 19 July
There comes a point when rest and recuperation intrude on what have essentially been a few days of rest and recuperation. Thus we did even less today than usual, and elected to sit in the shade and read and drink tea while our washing dried. It was glorious, sunny with a hint of sea breeze and the aroma of sheets drying to a crisp. Anything bright, like a yellow tee shirt, or Alison, became covered in tiny black bugs, tarmac on the road melted and the only movement under the midday sun was the occasional bird flapping lazily overhead. Colours were washed out; as if the landscape had faded with the rest of the laundry.
Around 4pm we strolled to the sea. Even then the air was still and a haze hung over the countryside around us, making the fields wave without any breeze. Down on the beach the air was fresher and smelled of ozone and the sweet tang of drying seaweed left stranded by the receding tide.
I stripped off to only my shorts (easy ladies…) and waded in, enjoying a cheerful swim in the cool waters, diving under the rich camouflage green saltwater and popping up amidst jelly fish. Now, I’ve swum in the sea plenty of times and don’t mind the odd small one but these were big buggers and taking evasive action only increased the chances of brushing into another, so like the brave little soldier I am I flapped for the shore and emerged less like Daniel Craig in James Bond and more like a silent film of Oliver Hardy running into the sea played backwards. I scuttled up to Alison who was emerging from her cocoon of towels in which she had changed into something skimpy, and advised her of the situation.
Thus she just enjoyed a paddle and happily (for me) spotted a few jelly fish to verify my tales of heroic struggles on the Hemsby foreshore with these beasts of the sea and my eventual cunning escape to dry land for tea and medals.
The only task now awaiting me was to change out of my sopping shorts. Other people on the beach don’t seem to have trouble with this. They wrap a towel around their midriff and 30 seconds later whip it aside to reveal a pair of pristine swimming shorts with everything tucked in, cord tied and the clothes they’ve removed neatly folded on the floor in front of them. I wrapped the towel around me, managing to do it up in such a way that the split down the side revealed my entire right leg up to my armpit. With a bit of jiggling I secured it more modestly and set about removing my wet shorts under it. This is of course entirely impossible. After much cursing and cheeky glimpses of white flesh to anyone unwise enough to be watching, I found I’d hopped and staggered a quarter of a mile up the beach. In the distance I heard Alison explain to a passing stranger that I was still affected by the tide on dry land.
Now bent double with one leg out and one in and my free hand clutching the towel I found most of the beach was stuck to my legs, making every movement feel like I was being caressed with sand paper. In an effort to secure the towel I reached in and grabbed what I thought was one end of the bit I’d knotted and realised that it wasn’t, and I now had a firm grip on a part of my anatomy that a gentleman shouldn’t grip on a public beach. Letting go I made a grab for the towel, stepped free of the shorts and stood upright still holding the towel and set off on my long journey back to Alison, who I noticed was now wearing dark glasses and pretending not to be with me.
At this point I’d like to apologise to the nice family whose lingering memory of their fortnight in Hemsby may well be the sight of my pale buttocks waddling away since the knot in the towel had twisted round to the back, framing them like curtains in a theatre. Alison kindly pointed out that I was lucky no one was on the beach looking for a place to park their bike.
We walked back to Mavis and took dinner there. I spent the entire evening in dark glasses hoping that the police weren’t out looking for the strange man from the beach.
Wednesday 20 July
Alison smuggled me across the border into Suffolk so I mercifully escaping custody and entry on some kind of register. We stopped at a 1950’s style dinner, one of many independent restaurants we’ve seen on our travels trying to bring life back to former Little Chef premises. It was spotlessly clean, the staff cheerful and attentive, although with only a few customers the ratio of staff to clientele was almost 1:1 and the food good, if on the pricy side. I had possibly the worst meal I’ve ever had, at least one not prepared by my mother, in a Little Chef so I applaud anywhere that is trying to usurp them. On the occasion in question I knew as soon as I sat down and my arms stuck to the table that I should have left immediately. The waitress tossed a menu on my table, a duplicate of the one I was reading so quite why I never discovered. Maybe in case I vomited on one. The whole place was dirty and unkempt, spiders had colonised the rafters and insects feasted on the debris around the skirting. I considered curious white marks on the carpet and concluded that they may have been from the staff trying to scuff out the chalk outline the forensic department left around a previous customer.
The food was so late I asked for it in a take away box as I needed to be elsewhere. Thus the waitress, who I christened Adolf on account of her clear hatred of humanity, and her moustache, dumped what may have once been a vegi-burger in front of me. In its short journey from the kitchen it had come completely apart in a box far too big for it, and now sat forlornly in an ooze of mayonnaise, limp lettuce and stale bun. It brought to mind the stage in an operation when the surgeon turns to the nurse and informs her that there’s nothing further they can do for this one except make him comfortable so let’s stitch him up and get him back to the ward.
It also arrived without the promised chips so I interrupted Adolf on her way to fetch more phials of botulism and enquired after their whereabouts. 10 minutes later she delivered them on a plate. I wondered if I was allowed to take the plate with them on in my car so, not wanting to disturb Adolf again in case I too became a chalk outline I went to the lady on the till and pointed out the idiosyncrasy of a takeaway in which half is served on a china plate and half in a box. Her face appeared to melt with concentration as she struggled with this delicate conundrum. It was like I had asked her to explain quantum theory in return for a tip. How difficult was it to grasp? She did offer to put them into the box with the burger until I opened it. She actually recoiled.
After some negotiation I was given a separate box for my chips, and made to pay. For everything. Short of time and patience and frankly rather scared of Adolf lurking in the background I paid up and ceremoniously dumped the box containing the burger into the bin beside the till. The chips were awful too.
Sorry, I got rather carried away there. Meanwhile, back on our travels we left the dinner, fatter and poorer, and made our way to Cambridge.
Thursday 21 July
We returned to Cambridge to attend the wedding of Alison’s best friend’s mother and her beau. It was a sunny day, we all scrubbed up well, the service was lovely, people smiled and joked, fawned over the happy couple and there was love and affection in the air.
The reception was an afternoon tea in a Cambridge college and it was wonderful. I didn’t seem to wear too much food and mercifully managed to eat a meringue without my dining companions ending up resembling snow-capped Alps.
Afterwards we wandered around the college library and along the corridors looking at sepia pictures of former students at work. They all looked earnest and determined, serious and slightly sinister. Quite a contrast from the vivid colour photos on the student’s noticeboard of eager young people doing their best to look fun and engaging to draw you into their society. The college seemed to be composed of the sort of people I avoided at school. The joiners, the people who for curious reasons I could never fathom didn’t just attend school but actually enjoyed it and became part of its fabric. Then again they ended up going to Cambridge University and I went to Colchester School of Nursing so I suppose the difference today is that they live in big houses with big burdens and I live in a motorhome. And no amount of money could make me trade places.
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