In 1992, the spring bank holiday fell on Monday 25th May. Just three days earlier, groups of New Age Travellers had been stopped by police on their way to the annual Avon Free Festival at Inglestone Common in Gloucestershire, eventually congregating instead at Castlemorton Common near Malvern. Through a combination of blazing sun, word of mouth and heavy media attention, about 30,000 people ultimately turned up. The event didn’t fully conclude until the 29th – which meant thousands spent almost a week dancing amid the rolling hills in what was later declared the biggest illegal rave in UK history.
“NEVER AGAIN!” exclaimed the Friday edition of the Malvern Gazette and Ledbury Reporter. “The events at Castlemorton Common in the last week have offended and shocked all decent-minded people,” ran the opening line of the front-page story. And they weren’t alone: speaking in a House of Commons debate, the local Conservative MP Michael Spicer echoed the paper’s sentiment demanding “tighter laws, especially to give banning powers to the police”. Legislation followed with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which – 30 years on – continues to inform policy today.
“New Age Travellers first came to public notice not long after Thatcher’s thumping election victory of 1983,” explains Dr. Ben Mechen, a lecturer in British history at King’s College London. “At some point, a decision was made by the government, local councils and the police that this lifestyle couldn’t continue.” The Battle of the Beanfield was an early instance of this: On 1st June 1985, over 1,000 police officers from multiple forces tried to stop a Peace Convoy of about 600 travellers from going to Stonehenge, where an earlier iteration of the Avon Free Festival usually took place. The officers acted with extreme force, violently attacking people and smashing vehicles.
“People fixate on particular events, but they don't understand that that was just the latest transmogrification,” says Alan ‘Tash’ Lodge, a photographer who was at Stonehenge and Castlemorton. “It was a consequence of the law chasing us about that [Castlemorton] happened. Avon and Somerset Police and Gloucestershire police shoved people across boundaries – that's how you knew policing had been successful in those days, you didn't stop something, you moved it.”
Lodge had been involved with the free festival circuit since the 70s, having previously worked for the London Ambulance Service. In the 80s, he was part of the founding group behind the Festival Welfare Services (FWS), formed as a response to criticism from locals they encountered. FWS acted as a sort of preventative measure to ensure only those who really needed them used local hospital services; it was even initially supported by the Home Office.
“Festivals [before Castlemorton] had services – medicine, healthcare, people that dug the shit pits – infrastructure to enable people to survive in a field for a couple of weeks. At Castlemorton, nobody thought about that, it was just a great gathering of people on a field with no cohesiveness,” he tells VICE.
What typically would have been a gathering of about 400 people, that week became a mammoth event in the thousands. As travellers and ravers converged on the Common, prompting complaints from people in the nearby town, the police were overwhelmed.
Claire Smith, who asked to use a pseudonym due to her current occupation, had recently finished an art degree and was working with young homeless people at the time. She attended Castlemorton with friends who were part of the traveller community. “The scene was extraordinary, like something out of Mad Max,” she says. “I have a lasting impression of movement, colour and chaos; smoke from campfires, washing lines, dancing, lots of music playing, and everyone was juggling. It was wild and utterly awesome. Creative chaos, but with a really friendly atmosphere.”
Marrying tenets of the earlier festival spirit with the incoming rave scene, music was a core element of Castlemorton (and the volume subsequently a major complaint from nearby residents), with soundsystems like DiY, Circus Warp and Spiral Tribe all present. Simone Sim Simmer was an early member of the latter. “It was all encompassing. We completely gave ourselves to the mission,” she says, reflecting on the collective’s early days. “On many levels Castlemorton was great, all these people had come together. But there was an impending sense of doom. Things had been gradually getting more hairy – police coming in, getting violent.”
But there was little interaction from police during Castlemorton, due to the force getting caught off guard and the sheer number of people involved. As the then Chief Constable David Blakely said at the time, “There was no way I’m going in with riot shields, with public order gear, to move them off.”
Despite the Battle of the Beanfield and the Public Order Act 1986 that arose as a result, the movement had continued: The week before Castlemorton, about 15,000 people attended a free festival at Lechlade in Gloucestershire. “But Castlemorton was the size that you knew it politically couldn't be ignored,” says Alan, recalling the shift. The perceived inaction of the police only further added to this.
“We always tried to be friendly [to the police], but we were aware that we were being observed,” remembers Simone. “Every situation was different – different areas, different police – but building up to that particular festival, all eyes were on us. We felt their presence, even when they weren't around.” Alan’s photography was a direct result of this distrust, and he would develop film in the back of his truck and nearby streams to use as evidence if police objected to claims of their malpractice.
After Castlemorton, the police and the politicians needed a scapegoat. Thirteen members of Spiral Tribe were arrested. “They took possessions, vehicles... They went to great lengths to find evidence,” says Simone. “We had an office in West Hampstead, that’s where I got arrested, and they took every last scrap of paper from the room.”
Spiral Tribe’s trial cost the state £4 million and all members were eventually acquitted. But enough damage had been done, and a new piece of legislation that built on the 1986 Act was drawn up. As Dr. Jac St John, a lecturer in Politics and International Relations at University of Westminster, describes it, “the emphasis on a tough approach to law-and-order during the Thatcher years had embedded what [sociologist] Stuart Hall described as a politics ‘authoritarian populism’. In this climate, the Castlemorton free party and the ‘moral panic’ that followed led directly to the passing of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.”
The Act increased police powers and, perhaps most notably, criminalised any gathering of 20 or more where ‘”music” includes “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. Three decades on, it’s not hard to connect what happened in the early 90s with the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. Enacted in April, the latter arrives in the wake of direct action from campaign groups like Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter and Insulate Britain, and like its predecessor will impact large assemblies and the right to protest, as well as expanding stop and search, and effectively criminalising Roma and other traveller communities thanks to a provision against trespassing.
“The Public Order Act 1986 was chapter one,” notes Alan. “Chapter two is the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act is chapter three, and all the things that failed in the House of Lords are to be introduced as a new Public Order Act, so that’s chapter 4. They really have a downer on people that don't conform. They can't stand the idea of trying to develop an alternative to the ‘working for the man’ principle.”
After their trial, Spiral Tribe left the UK for mainland Europe. “It was one of the greatest things really,” says Simone, who now lives in Sicily. “France welcomed us, then Holland, Berlin, Czech Republic, Italy, Austria. They stopped the party but they didn't stop the future. What's interesting from this vantage point,” she continues, “is that in England now, there's millions of festivals, overkill even, and they're selling free party back to you. They’re making money on alcohol and selling what's rightfully ours back at us – water, land.”
While the parties did continue – and contemporary variations still do – Castlemorton helped shape an even broader section of the cultural landscape. As Stephen stresses, the event was a defining moment in the UK, and informed the communal sensibility of Block9: responsible for Glastonbury’s famous late night LGBTQ+ spot NYC Downlow and megasoundsysem Genosys.
“Genosys is about the legacy of those early pioneers and how their influence is found in music now,” he say. “It has never been about nostalgia, it is about acknowledging where you’ve come from. Genosys Soundsystem honours all the people who got together with their mates, found a field and threw a party.”
“The DIY and anarchic spirit of early rave culture very quickly came up against not only the forces of public order, but also commercialisation,” posits Ben of the other side. “Castlemorton was pretty much contemporary with the opening of ‘superclubs’ up and down the country – Cream [in Liverpool] opened in 1992 for example – with cleaner toilets and branded mix CDs. These became the more acceptable face of rave and part of the ‘cultural economy’.”
Like most subcultures that arrived before the internet, the free party and rave scene has come to represent something unique for both those who were there and those who weren’t. As Ben puts it: “Rave, in its Castlemorton iteration was oppositional. It connected youth culture and partying to politics.”
“It's interesting that everyone’s focusing back on that period, but for us it just carried on,” says Simone, who’s still part of the collective, renamed SP23 in 2011. “Personally, the previous year and a half building up to that point [Castlemorton], was more magical and significant.” For Claire, however, Castlemorton was “a kind of a peak experience. It was exhilarating and liberating”.
As part of the 30th anniversary celebrations, Bristol’s Lost Horizon Arts Centre is hosting Free Party: A Retrospective Exhibition (featuring work from Alan), while a documentary of the same name, made by former DJ Aaron Trinder, is set for release later in the year. At Glastonbury, Block9 will replace the mammoth machinery of Genosys with a DJ in a vintage coach and a soundsystem, says Stephen. “It will also,” he adds, “feature amplified music wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”