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
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