E&G revisits a literally landmark civil battle
On June 1 1985, Stonehenge was humming with hippies. The ‘Peace Convoy’, comprising 600 tie-dyed travellers, converged on the Wiltshire site for the Stonehenge Free Festival. The festival had been forbidden by the Wiltshire constabulary, using a government-backed High Court injunction, from going ahead; but in a fit of hippie recalcitrance the phalanx of frosted peace-lovers rumbled into town anyway.
Potholes on the Road
Channeling the spirit of Kris Kristofferson’s protagonist in Convoy, the caravan set its bearings for Wiltshire in full knowledge of the police presence it would encounter. It was about seven miles from Stonehenge that the incense of nonconformism was first wafted towards police, who had formed a barricade of 1300 personnel to the South of the site.
After trying to endear officers with a misty rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine, the convoy became restless during Hesitation Blues and ended defiantly with Piggies. It became clear that conflict was inevitable.
To acoustic strums of antipathy, the convoy made for the barricade and attempted to breach it. But police were ready. With truncheons, they smashed the windows of convoy vehicles, arresting members of the vanguard, and pursued an offshoot of the convoy to a nearby field where another stand-off ensued.
To this day debate rages as to what exactly happened, why and whose fault it was.
Disputation surrounds whether members of the convoy used improvised weapons - even petrol bombs - as part of a premeditated and sustained attack on police. Although the use of petrol bombs, if true, does hint at this, The Observer reported that police may have preemptively thrown shields and stones at the convoy to get it to stop.
Although such measures may have been born of desperation or fear, one wonders whether bombarding moving vehicles with objects could realistically have provided any logistical benefit; a fortiori one questions the wisdom of throwing stones at people who were already stoned.
Although publications such as the Guardian maintain that police measures were sanctioned against the travellers without justification, the general conception that both parties were at fault for escalating the conflict - which led to 24 injuries in total, as well as 537 arrests - prevails.
Perhaps understandably, Wiltshire police have made no official apology. At the time, they stood by their actions as the justifiable result of the court-ordered injunction which forbade the festival from taking place at the hallowed site. However, in 1991 a court ruling determined that £24,000 be paid to 21 travellers in damages – encompassing wrongful arrest, false imprisonment and damage to possessions.
This most historic of British civil battles, which briefly and unbecomingly threw Stonehenge into a new light, typifies the risk of overlap between politics and archaeology. It gave rise to questions of the extent to which the state has authority over our national heritage. Ultimately, the fact that the events of the battle are related today highlights what an important role our national monuments still play in modern life.