From Stonehenge to Priddy: The Green ’n’ White Story
It was cramped in the back of the van. I was used to cramped travelling conditions after hitch-hiking round Europe. I had hitch-hiked to India and when you’re hitch-hiking around India you get used to being cramped…nevertheless it was cramped going from Bath to Trentishoe, in early June 1976. The guy with the van had packed it with everything he would need for a week at a festival in north Devon, then he’d put his girlfriend and a couple of mates in, then he’d called at our squat in Bath to score a blim, and that’s where Terry and I got in. So when the van stopped and someone said to me and Terry and the others in the windowless back of the van, “we’re here,” I said “good”…and was completely unprepared for what happened next.
The door slid back and framed in that doorway, in the summertime English countryside, on the other side of a valley with a stream tumbling down its crevice was a large yellow North American Indian tipi…I was completely gobsmacked…what the fuck is going on here, I thought, I had been to a couple of the Windsors, I had been to Watchfield…but I had never seen anything like this. It wasn’t the structure of the tipi itself, they make them for movies, it was the fact that such a massive one was at a fairly random free festival where I knew I was going to be amongst friends and on home ground when it came to alternative thinking and living. Most people came with a rucksack and a small tent, or a car or van…the presence of the tipi made me aware that something more than individuals and small groups of friends were attending the free festivals…to get this thing here, across the stream in the valley and erected on the far side must of taken some serious effort…who did that?
I didn’t find out. We made our camp with our small tents and the van, stayed for the weekend and went back to Bath. Then Terry went to Stonehenge, came back and said there had been a site meeting, the festival was moving from the Henge to Elan Valley outside Rhayader, mid-Wales. I hitched up there, coming out of Rhayader, on the “mountain” road to Elan Valley I got picked up by some people in a Mini Minor, cramped again, we came over the top of this hill, the valley lay spread out below us and there it was, the massive Yellow Tipi, surrounded by smaller tipis, tents and a festival…in this setting the view from the van at Trentishoe was relinquished to a taster, here it was omnipotent, completely at home in the large rolling Welsh landscape…the sight of it cut through the trivial shallow efforts of 20th-century motorways, television and all the other meaningless trappings of modern society to something almost timeless, that was just so right with the landscape that had been here before any of us…and this time I got involved.
That festival got evicted, the land belonged to the Water Board…having arrived with my rucksack and small tent I teamed up with Copper Paul from Bath, who had a van. We were going to make a tipi. We went to Cheap Charlies in Newtown and bought some army marquee walls for canvas, we went up in the forestry and bought some poles off some guys with chainsaws. We were skinning the bark off the poles when several bus loads of police turned up and evicted us. The unity that had brought the festival from Stonehenge carried through. A site about 10 miles away had been scouted and the whole festival moved down there, Pontrhydygroes. Paul had a large van, we packed our makings of a tipi on, took some women and children and loads of people’s belongings and drove slowly past this long column of walkers, new age refugees from a fucked up society heading for the next camp.
At Pontrhydygroes we pitched a tent that vaguely resembled a tipi and asked someone to keep an eye on it while we went back to Bath. I had to sign on and Paul had some business to attend to…he never made it back but I did…and found we had pitched next to the Yellow Tipi people…they were a free food kitchen…the tipi had an open door policy…no-one actually owned it…I was about to get involved in tipis and the people who lived in them…
In the spring of 1979 I was living in a squat in Rochester Road, Kentish Town, north London. A large four story terrace house, it mainly had people from the free festival circuit staying in it, people who had been connected to the Yellow Tipi which had been a free food kitchen during 1976 and ’77. One evening in the large communal front room a conversation was taking place that I had a distinct interest in. A deal was going down in a nearby pub and it involved an unwanted tipi that was causing a problem. I walked round the corner to the pub, a typical large Victorian London pub, ran by a Turkish landlord who catered to the local working population. It was busy with early evening trade. Opposite the long bar, with tables and chairs grouped in front of it, was a small stage with a girl going through a striptease routine on it, and at a table off to the side of the stage were the three people I was looking for. Nick Jelinek, John Elric and Sinister Dave, I joined them and got the story as to why there was an unwanted tipi.
In the morning, with their girlfriends they were flying to Tenerife. Part of the money for the trip was coming from the sale of a VW camper van. They were seeing the guy who was buying the van in a couple of hours but first they needed to get rid of all the canvas in the back. They were not just going to throw it away because it was a tipi…they had tried to sell it but no-one was interested. What was it doing there, I wanted to know, thinking it must belong to somebody. They didn’t know, Nick had bought the van sometime previously and the canvas had been in the back then, he’d just been climbing over it and thinking he must do something about it. They were keen for me to take an interest…I was keenly interested.
So to a backdrop of loud music and girls on the stage I bought them all a pint and they agreed to drop the canvas off round at the squat. It was bundled into the hallway next to Dirty Harry’s BSA that he was always working on and it was such a large heap that people had to squeeze past it going in or out. Rochester Rd had a large grass square running down the middle of the road opposite our house. In the morning I dragged the canvas over there and laid it out to see what I’d got. It was massive, it was in very bad repair, it didn’t have its inner lining and very obviously it didn’t have its poles, but it did have its door and looking at it laid out on the grass I realised I knew which tipi this was….this was the 26ft Green and White tipi that had been made by friends of mine in a squatted hospital, the Elizabeth Garrett in Belsize Park…then I remembered Elric had been saying it’s the Green and White in the pub the night before, but I hadn’t made the connection. Now with it laid out in the spring sunshine I realised what I had got. This tipi had been lovingly and painstakingly made over the course of a winter up in the hospital, the last I had heard of it was when it left for Cornwall. That was at least a year previously…what on earth had happened to it…I hadn’t got a clue and neither had anyone in the squat.
There was a lot of work to be done if this thing was going to be usable, but equally important was its future, how was it going to get poles and how was I going to move it around? I had been moving round the country by hitch hiking, National Express coaches and the trains, a tipi needed a vehicle. In the way that organic growth tends to find a way to move forward, a plan developed. Alan Cartwright, known to many as Ambulance Al, had begun using the squat as a base. He had a 2.2 BMC diesel engined ex-post office van…he was building up enough equipment to be able to go round the free festivals as a mobile welder and mechanic. This van was capable of carrying the poles for a 26ft tipi, and the canvas in the back. The plan was that Al would run his mechanics workshop and I would run the tipi as a food kitchen…between us we should generate enough money and energy to be out on the road doing the festivals for the whole of 1979…it was obvious and we set about making it happen.
A daily routine developed, we were having beautiful spring sunshine. I had got some proper leather workers sewing needles and a large roll of strong thread. Each morning I would drag the canvas over to the grass and set about stitching up the rips and tears. I had to cut the bottom 18 inches off as it had rotted all around the edge. In theory this bottom edge of a tipi should not touch the ground, it is pitched in such a way that the canvas stops a few inches above the ground, there is then an inner lining which does go to the ground, the outside air goes in and up between the two layers of canvas, the inner lining goes to shoulder height, as the outside air come into the tipi it is caught by the heat from the fire and taken upwards, with the smoke from the fire and out through the smoke flaps at the top. A properly erected tipi is one big chimney. It looked like this tipi had been pitched for a long time with its outer canvas down to the ground and as a consequence it had rotted badly. But it trimmed back okay and it gave me some bits of canvas for patching.
But not enough. I needed more canvas. Al thought we ought to have a sweat lodge to go with the tipi, so we would need canvas for that. We had a plan. A couple of streets away was a derelict synagogue, it had a large hole in its roof and covering that hole was a large, new green canvas tarpaulin. Now at this time we weren’t particularly aware of the Israeli genocide of the Palestinians and in no way was this politically motivated. We scouted the place out, going in off the street through a hole in the corrugated iron fence. Inside nearly all of the parquet flooring had been taken up, parts of the roof were leaking and daylight shone through, where it was dry there was bedding and belongings, it was being used as a doss house by someone, empty beer cans and whisky bottles littered the floor. The next day we set off from the squat with a pram and a couple of knives. On the way round to the synagogue we met a guy we knew who asked us “are you coming to the Pineapple for a pint?” We should have gone really, but we left the pram by the hole in the fence, went in and climbed up on the roof.
We had only just got into position to start cutting the tarp securing ropes away when two police cars arrived at high speed and half a dozen coppers were stood looking up at us. There was no way out of this, the cops were in the street, on the other side was a long drop down a brick embankment to all the railway lines coming north out of Kings Cross…so we climbed down. A detective sergeant with a strong Scottish accent grabbed me firmly by the arm, “were you going to take that tarpaulin?”, there seemed no point in denying it, and pointing to the pram “is that the getaway vehicle?” at which point the cops began laughing and the mood lightened, but we were nicked and it was serious shit. We got taken to Chalk Farm police station, had our details taken and put in the cells. For some reason I got a cell to myself and Al got put in the communal cell, where each time there was a new arrival the cop on the door would light someone’s cigarette, which was then passed around. I went without a smoke. In the morning we were taken to Bow Street magistrates court and charged with theft, or attempted theft. We pleaded guilty, the magistrate asked us why, we said cos the cops said we were, he said “do you think you are?” We said no, we thought it was a derelict building that had been abandoned and we could help ourselves. He said “case adjourned” and we were back on the street with a promise of another hearing in due course.
I did get enough bits of canvas to complete the repairs to the outer cover and planned on getting canvas for the inner lining and hopefully a sweat lodge before we hit the festivals. Al collected what he needed to run his mobile workshop, April was turning to May and we planned to go to Talley Valley in mid Wales to get a set of tipi poles before going to Stonehenge festival in June.
Al and I were making preparations to leave London for Wales when a small tsunami of events began to arrive. Dirty Harry McFarlane, usually to be found working on his BSA motorbike in the hallway or sat in the living room holding forth on the miseries of his job, which seemed to involve digging a large hole in somebodies back garden… well, Harry had a girlfriend called Ginet. Ginet worked behind one of the bars in the Music Machine, Camden Town. This place had been a music hall in Victorian times, it had a large stage and dance floor and three large curving balconies…it now catered for the punks. Several nights a week there were punk bands on, and, as an employee Ginet had access to free tickets, masses of them. She would leave piles of them on the living room table, Al, myself and
Anyway, the upshot of this was that some nights quite a crowd would go back to the squat, it could get noisy…and one night it got very noisy culminating in a loud crash as someone went through the large bay window in the living room, somehow cleared the gap that went down to the basement and landed in a tangled heap of blood and broken glass on the pavement. The police raided later the following day and the squat got shut down. Al and I moved to a smaller squat in Finsbury Park. Al had got a few more jobs to do before we were ready for the road, no room here for me to do any work on the tipi, which was pretty much sorted by now anyway, so hung around attempting to be a helpful extra pair of hands. We went out to West London and bought an ex-army trailer which became a massive tool box and work bench…and there was a Montessa 2-stroke off road motorbike which lifted easily into the back of the van and was a runaround for when we were parked up. So Al was out on the Montessa, with a girl on the back, when a car came out of a side turning and he ploughed straight into a keep left bollard in the middle of the road…and broke his leg.
Preparations went into slow-mo…Al hobbled around on crutches…weeks went by…spring turned to early summer…May was threatening to turn into June…the plaster had come off, the bandaging and re-bandaging had become common place…Al reckoned he could work the clutch peddle for long enough to get us on the motorway and then he wouldn’t have to change gear anymore until Bristol and late one afternoon we set off for Gunnersbury and the M4 west. Due to the nature of the British free festival circuit in the 1970s we knew people dotted around all over the country, the bulk of the festivals took place from spring through to late autumn. In the winter there were some hardcore camps, people in caravans or under canvas in tipis and benders, like Talley Valley where we were headed now. But the majority of the people of the festivals retreated to council houses, flats and squats during the winter, the large camps of people living in buses and trucks all year round were only just beginning. So we stopped at a squat in Bristol and then carried on into Wales, driving at night to avoid traffic and give Al’s leg an easy time.
Both of us had been at Llethr Coch, Lampeter in 1976. This had been the pre-cursor to Talley, where Llethr Coch was a traditional 100-odd acre Welsh sheep farm, bought by a well to do hippie who didn’t live in the house, turned the barn into a tipi-making workshop and with several others lived out on the land in his tipi. Through 1976 and ’77 the idea of tipi dwelling had blossomed amongst the alternative community, the flames of this fire being fanned by Tipi Chris Waite, an authority on tipis having lived in one in America, then on the west coast of Ireland. Chris and his partner Jill felt that serious full time tipi life was exactly what this growing band of British alternative society people needed, and were doing all in their power to facilitate the movement into tipis. Al and I knew all about this, we had both done two winters in the Yellow Tipi, a 30-foot tipi that could sleep 50 at a push, was large enough to have a great roaring fire in the middle, had travelled all round the country serving as a free food kitchen and had imbued a sense of tribal community in all those that called it home. There is absolutely no substitute for sitting round a glowing hot fire eating a communal meal with a dozen or more others on a wild, wet Welsh night, the wind howling outside, the door and inner lining tucked in to stop drafts, the faces in the firelight, one of London’s top buskers* singing and playing guitar, a kettle that held a gallon brewing to make tea…Al and I had experienced the heart of this thing and we weren’t surprised that Llethr Coch had outgrown itself and moved on.
A retired Merchant Navy man called Nab lived on an upland farm between Lampeter and Llandielo, near Talley. Al had been one of the first people to meet Nab, through the usual flow of organic connections and random events of which he has the details and the finer points escape me now…but basically Al had met a chap called Ravenscroft at a festival in ’75, been told about Nab having land and being friendly, Al had gone up there in a truck towing a Showman’s wagon, got stuck in the mud, had to abandon the Showman’s in a field. It was still there when Tipi Chris and the Llethr Coch people were looking to expand, a connection was made…Chris bought some land and the longest running tipi camp in Europe, as far as we know, had begun and was more than welcoming when we turned up looking for a set of poles in early June 1979.
Apparently there were some guys working in the forestry not too far away, who were known to be friendly, had Pine Lodge Poles, which were the type of pine we were looking for, and would do us the 17 poles we needed for a few quid. Lodgepole Pine was the one because it grew really straight and had a good distance between branches, meaning that when it was de-barked and skinned smooth, there were not so many notches from branches to be smoothed over. The notches could cause rain water running down the poles to drip on the inside of the tipi, rather than running all the way down to the ground…you don’t want drips from your poles in Wales, bloody nightmare. So having used the Green ’n’ White tipi canvas for a bender at Talley we set off up the forestry and found the guys, did the deal and set about skinning the poles with a draw knife back at our camp on the hillside at Talley…after a winter in London and the drama of the broken leg we were in seventh heaven…
And then it had all come together…I’d got some more canvas so I could put up an inner lining…we had made pegs to secure the tipi, using pebbles bunched in the canvas and tied off rather than making loophole in the material. The best three poles for the tripod had been chosen, the worst two for the smoke flap poles cut to size, the rope for tying the poles round the apex and staking down behind the fire had been bought from the Llandielo hardware shop…we had a selection of trivets to put over the fire to put an array of large cooking pots and kettle on, we had a sack of spuds, some oats and flour…we were ready to go to Salisbury Plain, park up next to the Stones and call ourselves a mobile workshop and free food kitchen…it was the middle of June 1979.
When we left Talley for Stonehenge in mid-June 1979 we had, for the first time, a full tipi on board. Al had constructed a wooden roof rack on the top of the Morris LD van, the long poles and folded canvas securely lashed down up there. We set off along the A40 from Llandielo and after Abergavenny turned off the main road at Raglan, using country roads to get us down to Chepstow and the bridge, coming out onto the M4 motorway like brigands from the hills.
Nothing on the planet is comparable to arriving at a free festival at Stonehenge. We don’t know how long people have been gathering there and we have no idea how far into the future those Stones will continue to have people coming together at them….for 10 years the alternative free thinking youth, and some older ones of Britain and beyond gathered around the time of Summer Solstice. There was something called the ‘festival vibe’ that ran pulsing like a life-blood through the whole event…we didn’t know what it was…it was apparent in the feeling and interaction between people on the site…it could be felt and absorbed in the early morning damp June mist, looking across to the Stones lurking timelessly on the other side of the road…and it was manifest in the music which was everywhere…from Hendrix blowing across the site in the wind to the endless bands who turned up and played for free, it was at one and the same time very special and also completely just as it should be…Wally Hope, Ubi Dwyer, various personalities had instigated the beginnings of this but the flow was already there, coming out of the jazz and blues festivals of the 1960s, the Hyde park free concerts…was something in the British Isles that could really handle all getting in a field, camping out on our land and just grooving…and we knew, without any history lessons or detail, that this had been going on at Stonehenge, just outside Amesbury on the Salisbury Plains for a very long time and, if we had someone up on the stage, calling themselves Shunter Smiths Blues Band playing world class blues rock, or Misty in Roots playing proper job reggae, then we were just doing what you’re supposed to do at Stonehenge Summer Solstice.
Al and I pulled onto the field and found ourselves enough space to make a camp. When a 26-ft tipi goes up it cannot help but dominate the skyline, with several thousand people on site. It did not take long for our friends to see us and hone in, and before long we had a tribal gathering of ex-Yellow Tipi people and friends from squats and other festivals either moving and camping next to us, or being part of the daily life around the tipi. The way a food kitchen like this works is, you turn up with enough tea, milk, sugar, oats, flour, lentils and vegetables…and firewood to do a couple of days free tea and porridge for breakfast and dahl, chapattis and vegetable gloop for supper…on the second day you wander the site with a collecting bucket…this is an extraordinary occupation as you move from tent to tent, pointing out the tipi, which apart from the stage is the tallest structure on site, saying “there is free food at sunset” and asking for donations…an average collecting session would bring in £40 to £50. The third day a trip into Amesbury for more tea and milk, tobacco for those working on the cooking and checking out the veg shops, seeing what they had that was past its shelf life. Then after a week there was enough money to have a run to London, going to Community Supplies near Euston, getting a sack of rice, sacks of flour, oats and bags of lentils, hopefully enough to last the festival…while we found which towns were having market days in the local Wiltshire area and going in the afternoon, trying to find a fruit and veg wholesaler and hoping to do a deal on anything that was going to go off…this led to having gluts of stuff, like boxes of avocados going brown or soggy satsumas…new potatoes were coming in, the old ones were almost given away, and sometimes were, when the boss saw us and the van and liked our story.
Preparing the evening meal was a hive of activity, situated in front of the tipi a large fire was always smouldering throughout the day, providing a focal point for people to sit round, a large cast iron kettle providing constant hot water for tea, people without matches using an ember to light their joints, people from small nylon tents coming to heat up their cans of soup or make an instant coffee…towards evening this fire was stoked up, large cooking pots with spuds, veg and dahl were put on trivets, the grills with legs, to cook at whatever temperature they needed to be, spuds in the middle, veg simmering on the side, dahl with herbs and spices brought to the boil and left to cook slowly…and then over roaring hot flames a large sheet of quarter inch steel plate, the chapattis were going to be made…two or three washing up bowls of flour mixed with water and a little salt, kneaded into an elasticated dough, rolled out with milk bottles on a large sheet of plywood, slapped onto the hotplate, flipped within 30 seconds, brown and bubbling up within a minute, delivered hot off the plate to the long line of hippies who, by the end of the first week, were queuing into the darkness with their bowls and plates getting dahl and gloop ladled on with a chapatti or two to eat with it…for some it saved them cooking themselves, for others we were keeping them alive, the giro they arrived with having long been spent on hash or whatever…these were the people of Britain, sitting round the fire in the midsummer night, with the ancient Stones over the road, eating…we liked it.
The main Stonehenge free festival took place over the two weekends closest to June 21st…the numbers on the site really began to swell on a Friday afternoon and evening, as people finished work and came for the weekend. It is important to remember that no-one was in charge or running this massive event, it was free in the true meaning of the word…when people came onto the field through the hole in the fence they were responsible for themselves. There were various groups who dedicated themselves to making the event work, Festival Aid always had a tent where people could go with injuries or problems, St Johns Ambulance usually put in an appearance as did the Samaritans…the Samaritans always looked fairly cheerful, I don’t think the suicide rate was very high during the festival… PolyTantric stage crew worked hard at making the stage, generators and sound equipment function properly, I never knew where the funding for this came from as obviously no tickets were being sold, they did pass a bucket round the front of the stage but usually the carrier of the bucket was off their head and mostly ambled round chatting…there had to be other sources of finance…but a proper stage and monitoring desk was in place, bands came and went, there was a lot of “one, two…. one, two… sound check “ but it usually worked okay…there were the Wallys, who had camped out all year round at the Stones, after the first festival in 1974, and connected to them were the Free Stonehenge Campaign with Willy X..other people, later Nic Turner with his Pyramid stage put in an effort to make it work…but who sorted out the stand pipes with water taps and who got the Army to turn up and drill out longdrop toilets? I never knew.
Over the busy weekends we were feeding over a hundred people a night. This involved making well over three hundred chapattis and the pots of dahl and veg gloop to go with them, kettles of tea were endless, we collected a group of characters who became our hardcore of kitchen people…and a couple of real experts when it came to going round the site with the donations collecting bucket…Smelly Kevin I had met before at Talley,
originally from Worcester and dropping out from being a squaddie in the Army, Kevin could be practical and efficient, he devised a system where we split the site into thirds and set off with buckets on the main Saturday afternoons, myself and Sinister Dave taking the other thirds….Sinister was East End London, born and bred in Surrey Docks I think he had always been slightly different and then the strong LSD of the ’70s had probably played its part, he referred to people as Earfflings…would approach a group of tents lurching a bit and leering at the people there, saying “alright Earfflings…are you going to donate..?”…when asked “what for..?”…he would say “me” or “five” or even “the free food”…I have no idea how much he kept for himself but he would always come back with a dodgy grin and give me twenty or thirty quid…I used the collecting to socialise, never seemed to cover as much ground as the others, getting waylaid with cups of tea and joints, having long chats and sitting around with people…I will never forget the 8 or 10 really tripping people camped with a Transit camper van that had, with the help of a lot of filler, been turned into something resembling an inter-galactic starship, they sounded like they came from Essex, were all in multi coloured tie-dyed clothes and sitting relaxed and happy smoking joints in the sunshine, I had a sit down and a smoke with them and they asked if I was going to get anything from the bikers….about 20 yards away, also sitting on the grass, were 20 or so very pissed off looking bikers…no bikes but it was obvious they were bikers…I wandered across, they ignored me, I said to the group in general “if anyone wants a free meal we’re cooking in that tipi at sunset” and pointed to the tipi poles standing higher than all the other tents and vehicles several hundred yards away….meanwhile absorbing the situation, seeing they were continually scanning the surroundings and coming to the conclusion these guys were on a mission, not happy festival goers, they probably had some business to attend to…there was one girl with them, well endowed in the breasts department, loads of make-up, short skirt, fishnets, leather jacket…“what sort of food?” she said…“sort of Indian” I said “it’s the easiest way for us to cook cheaply and feed a lot of people”…most of them were looking at me by now, I thought there was a chance I was going to get thumped judging by some of the expressions…“ooh, I like an Indian “said the girl..“well you are all welcome to come over later” I said…one of the guys muttered something I didn’t catch and a young biker came over and dropped some coins in the bucket…I thanked them and moved on…feeling just a little bit shaky having just moved through two extremes, from tie-dye hippies to hardcore bikers and coming away with donations from both.
So we were busy, the Solstice came and went, I joined in the theatricals taking place in the Stones on Solstice, watching babies getting blessed and hippie celebrities performing various cosmic rites in the centre of the Stone circle, with drumming and horn blowing and coppers patrolling and the general mayhem of hippies in their element…I enjoyed the feeling that further back than anyone knows something along these lines had taken place
on this very spot, it had sod all to do with the “authorities” who said they owned the Stones, and everything to do with us, the people who made the effort to get there and sit down…such a gathering is a good place to be, an acknowledgement that there is some stronger power at work in this universe, stronger than the efforts at “power” being developed just down the road at Porton Down weapons technology centre…and all the bollocks of egos and sadness and misery that comes from that abominable warfare they spend so much money and work so hard upon…of course it doesn’t look like it, a bloody great rabble of long haired wierdos taking mind expanding drugs and howling and wailing, but you have to ask why?…and the answer, whether you like it or not, is love and peace, not enhanced guided missile technology or more efficient ways of putting water in bottles and selling it to people…those random gatherings at those Stones at mid-summer were truly about people coming together in the cause of peace and harmony. Now I’m not a complete fool, I know that as the ’70s turned into the ’80s and Stonehenge became more widely known about, it was seen as a police no-go zone, attracting criminals, hard drug dealers, all sorts of unpleasant people who could disappear onto the site with possibly very bad repercussions…and without wanting to move into a simplistic cloud cuckoo land I would, nevertheless, like to point out that the fundamentals of those Stonehenge Festivals were born of a true desire for a sharing and harmonious existence on this unique planet.
While all this was going on there was a development I had been unaware of. Al had been taking time off from sorting out dead motors, soldering amplifiers and responding to a myriad of technical issues and had been spending time with Lal, long hair, flowing dresses, very pretty. I hadn’t realised to what extent he had taken a shine to her until I got back to the van one evening and Phil handed me a note…from Al… “I’m going to India with Lal, please take the van and contents and use them as you see fit. “….!!!….I hadn’t seen that coming!…” I went into a state of shock as the full implications of this responsibility sank in…Phil and I sat in the cab of the van…the throb and pulse of the evening festival site quietened as we slid shut the doors and rolled a joint…I had known Phil since the beginning, he had been in the Yellow Tipi, had been the person who gave me my first psylocybin Welsh mushrooms as I joked with him about smoking dried banana skins and then later sat in awe as the mushrooms fulfilled their purpose…Phil had seen Al leaving the site with Lal, a passport and a three piece suit in a dry cleaners bag…that sounded the right way to go to India and I could understand that… but to suddenly become the recipient of the LD van and all of Al’s equipment had me in a state of deep shock.
The food kitchen had a life of its own and, like the rising and the setting of the sun, carried on regardless….Al and I had developed a catchphrase called “spinning the plates”, which encompassed every activity required to maintain an operating level that worked, spinning the plates was going to the water tap with two 5 gallon containers several times a day, going out on a wood run every couple of days, making sure there was enough milk, tea and sugar, discovering there was a flour mill, Pimhills I think, within a few miles of the site, because we kept running out of chapatti flour…keeping the kitchen plates spinning was fairly straight forward and there was a group of six or seven people who cheerfully involved themselves in making sure it all ran smoothly.
My attention now expanded to the truck and the equipment that came with it…. all the plates that Al had been spinning, Phil and Kevin saw no problem and for me there was an immediate event that encouraged me to take the wheel. A guy showed up saying his band were going to play out on the site by their tents, but their generator had broken down, could they borrow ours. We had a generator?? shit, i didn’t know that..!..so we found it and I lent it to him…next day he comes back, the genny had been put under a van for safety, someone had got in the van and driven away, ripping the carburetor off the machine…he’s very sorry…I stash the broken genny back in our kit….then a couple of guys from PolyTantric stage show up…these people are die hard festival organisers originating from the free concerts in Hyde Park, the Roundhouse and the Windsor Festivals, good people…they need a generator…I show them the smashed genny with the carb hanging off…“no worries man, we can fix that” and they did, borrowed the genny, fitted new mounts for the carb and used it for several days before returning it in running order.
Solstice had passed, regular festival goers with jobs and lives to go back to were leaving, the site thinned out, by the second week in July there were only the irregulars left on the field, the people who really had no stake in so called normal society, no foot on the housing ladder, no children in school, no chance of a promotion and a pay increase at work because they weren’t at work…they had crawled, walked, ran or been spat out away from “normal society” and were living on the edge, in a field in Wiltshire…. with every chance of making it to a field in Somerset… there had been a Glastonbury Festival going on while we had been at the Henge, Peter Gabriel and Steve Hillage had played there….and in this situation of two festivals at the same time a certain divide had been thrown into sharp relief…in the days leading up to Solstice we had seen tipis coming down as their owners prepared to move 50 miles down the road, from the free festival to the paying festival…we stayed put, it was a no brainer, there was something in the atmosphere, in the heart of a free festival that cannot be reproduced anywhere else, and it is priceless, money cannot create that atmosphere because it comes from people’s hearts, commerce is not involved…and whatever it is that is produced by such a gathering is really quite exceptional and the British are good at it…we had a couple of lads from Dumfries, Scotland, in the tipi, 18 or 19 years old they had turned up at the mention of free food and not gone away, to the contrary they had joined in wholeheartedly and typified a spirit that cannot be pre-arranged or organised, something we vaguely referred to as free festival spirit, something that all of us there wanted to be part of and live in.
We are only able to do this because we are on the edges of a privileged 1st world western society…in the 3rd world without income or jobs we would have nothing, be beggars…but in Britain we could gather without some money making enterprise organising it all for us…of course there was money being made on Stonehenge Festival site, there was hash and acid, hot food and beer all for sale, our kitchen ran on donations, but the essence of the festival was someone had made a hole in the fence and driven on the field, within days there were hundreds and then thousands who came in through that hole, following word of mouth or information on xeroxed flyers and notices in the alternative press…I don’t know if International Times was still going but Festival Eye was out there…people with that interest could find their way to that field…and of course they could find their way to Glastonbury and that also has a festival vibe, which is special and unique and fundamentally different from a free festival vibe…for reasons for which there are no more words, I have always been drawn to the free vibe…I think if I had to explain you wouldn’t understand.
And so it was, as we baked in the July heat, a group of 7 or 8 people looked at what was going to happen next…we weren’t completely alone, there was a free festival agenda and the kitchen was going to Deeply Vale up north…we needed somewhere to go in the meantime and there was a free camp at Street near Glastonbury…or so we heard…so we reckoned we’d stop there for a few days and then go north. There was enough food and diesel money to keep us going until Deeply. We packed up our camp and set off for Somerset. There had been a camp at Street before, the land belonged to Clarkes Shoes company, who it was said were Christians who were trying to be good samaritans but nevertheless, on the advice of the police, did put eviction notices on the land, but it all took a while and in the meantime a small festival that did not involve paying to go on Worthy Farm took place. In 1979 it was not quite like that, we got down to Street to find hippies wandering around all over the place, got told the land was blocked off by police and people were pulled up on some quiet back road somewhere…we drove around in circles for a while before finding twenty or so vans and cars and one or two buses all pulled up on a verge with a heavy police escort. We pulled into the line-up and parked. A discussion was taking place between hippies and a senior police officer, in the middle of the road, the policeman wanted everybody to go to Priddy Common, for some reason the hippies didn’t want to go there, a lively discussion was going on with a local farmer wanting to know “is this what we fought the war for?” when a car with bender poles tied to the top came down the road in the opposite direction to the way all the other vehicles were pointing…it was Bill Normal and Vega in this totally battered, highly illegal looking old car with long hazel poles and a mound of tarpaulin tied on the roof with ropes to the bumpers…Bill parked on the opposite verge, leaned out the window and shouted “don’t let them tell you what to do lads” a copper said “you can’t park there”…Bill said “why not it’s a free country” they tried to arrest him, a scuffle broke out, Kevin photographed it, they tried to confiscate the camera, the scuffle got bigger…but didn’t turn into a full on riot, it was very hot and there were a lot of stoned people about…I’m not sure what happened to Bill but it was agreed we would go up to Priddy and I’ve got a feeling that Bill, who was considerably older than most of us and had been a beatnik before hippies were invented, had talked his way out of it and tagged onto the end of what was now a convoy.
There were people here who had arrived on foot, carrying rucksacks…we took on passengers…another 4 or 5 to add to our 6 or 7 already on board…a 26ft tipi, which is what the Green ’n’ White was, has poles over 30ft long, with 17 of these on top, an ex-army trailer of the sort being seen towed by Landrovers behind and more than a dozen people on board, we were fully loaded…one of the Scots lads, Janos, had taken to standing in the footwell of the passenger side, with the door slid back, he was an extra pair of eyes and ears as I drove along following the vehicle in front and his mate checked out the new passengers for hash and got chillum making under way. We came to Wells and saw a car with its bonnet up outside a garage it was Gyp and Suzie, friends from Wales…in those days you would see vehicles on the road that were obviously part of the free festival circuit, inevitably battered and often carrying camping gear, they would have long-haired occupants and a piece of paper saying “tax disc in post” stuck on the windscreen…by the mid ’80s the police had come to recognise them but in the ’70s it was still possible to get around in vehicles that were a bit short of documentation…Gyp had come out of Bristol and had to stop every 20 miles to top up the radiator…we brought them up to speed on where the straggly line of vehicles that were passing, with people sitting on the roof of vans that were rammed full of people and dogs with loud music playing, were now going, as the Street site was off and together we joined back on the convoy….we came to a steep hill leading up to Priddy, I changed down through the gears, we were in 1st gear, the van slowed, Janos said he’d “lose some people” and began hustling people out the door as we crept along at walking pace…later Gyp told me it had been very entertaining from his position behind us, as hippies were ejected onto the verge and the van picked up speed and they all began running up the hill after it…but we stopped at the top, picked them up again and that was how we got from Stonehenge to Priddy Common in 1979.
* In particular, the renowned busker Mikko. For a biography and listen to Mikko’s music visit https://soundcloud.com/buskermikko
Story and Photos – Copyright Paul Fraser.
Photo of Smelly Kev – Copyright Josie Gibbons.
Special thanks also to Derek Williams who took, and allowed us to use, the pictures of the Tipi at Priddy Common.