The Castlemorton Common Festival kicked off on this day in 1992… and rave culture would never be the same again
“We are learning about these people. They are now a major phenomenon in this country and each year they get bigger and better organised. Somebody up the line, right at the top, is going to have to make some hard decisions on just what the hell we are going to do about it.”
On this day (22 May) in 1992, some 20,000 ravers and new age hippies descended on Castlemorton Common, in Worcestershire, England, for a week-long free festival featuring sound systems from the likes of Circus Warp, Spiral Tribe and the DiY Sound System.
It was a party that would have longstanding consequences, leading to the introduction of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which infamously prohibited parties that played music including ‘sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’.
On 31 May 1992, two days after the rave concluded, James Dalrymple of The Times sought to put into words what had just occurred.
As you might expect from such a lofty publication, the ravers don’t come out of it too favourably. At one point, those present are accused of cooking and eating a horse…
Here’s the article in full, so you can make up your own mind:
Torrential rain poured down on the great unwashed of Castlemorton Common at dawn on Friday. And the shellshocked people who lived peacefully on the perimeter of one of England’s last few undiscovered beauty spots smiled for the first time in nine long days.
A four-year-old girl, naked from the waist down, stood in the rain and giggled as it ran in white streaks down her face. Dirty faces are the badge of Britain’s tribes of the dispossessed. Both children and adults bear the shiny, dark patina of skin that is rarely washed.
“Dirt isn’t a problem,” said the child’s mother, a tall, gangly woman with thin legs and army boots and wearing an undertaker’s top hat. “Don’t look at the dirt on her face. Just look at her eyes and her smile. She can read and write a bit already and she’s having a good life. But you media buggers will have the health snoopers here just because she doesn’t have a bath.”
The revving of ancient engines some in vehicles more than 40 years old roared out over the common as the last of the travellers prepared to pull out after a week of mayhem. Standing at a garden fence an elderly farmer, his face grey and drawn with fury and fatigue, watched the half-naked child with contempt.
“They talk about being free spirits and that they should be given their rights,” he said, his voice a low snarl. “But they came here and destroyed our freedom and our rights. There are some old ladies living here who I don’t think will live through the summer because of the fear they suffered.
“They’re just useless bastards, the lot of them, and they belong in a zoo.” Before the invasion this farmer would have described himself as a reasonable man.
The travellers said they had come in peace but, as usual, they had left behind feelings of blind hatred and the end of tolerance.
Meanwhile, in nearby Malvern, the full majesty of the law had finally got itself in gear, nine days after the first cry for help, and a sheriff ordered them from the site. But he was already almost too late only a few hundred so-called New Age travellers were still there. Circling the encampment were about 500 policemen, ready for the big push that never came.
The tension was almost tangible in the stormy, thunder-laden air. The police were angry at their own impotence throughout a week that dominated the headlines, their quarry was contemptuous. Once again the forces of fear and loathing had come face to face with the children of freedom. And once again the result had been chaos, anger and the likelihood of violence on the part of previously peaceful citizens.
Year after year, for the last decade, the same scenario has been played throughout the summer in southern England. With each confrontation the nation becomes more aware of a new and rapidly growing phenomenon in our midst the highly organised and mobile community of thousands of young drop-outs who have chosen to live wild in the heart of a rigidl structured society.
What happened nine days ago on the rolling heathland beneath the Malvern Hills in Gloucestershire has become a matter for government concern. For the police it is an enormous logistical problem and once again an entire force, West Mercia, was caught totally unprepared for the arrival of the numerical equivalent of two motorised army divisions, complete with flying flags and beating drums, and followed by packs of dogs.
Within 10 hours, moving continuously through a small village, they had established a mini-city with full catering facilities, a large-scale drug distribution system, their own internal police force, and a full programme of music and drama productions that lasted five days around the clock.
They had efficient heating, power and light within hours of arrival; and by blocking all the local roads they had turned a mile-square corner of England into an impenetrable fortress.
It is now clear that the Malvern spectacular had been well planned. Earlier speculation that the travellers and their camp followers, from the drug supply industry and weekend ravers, had been cleverly moved on y police forces in Wiltshire and Gwent was wrong.
For more than two weeks the travellers’ advance scouts had been surveying Castlemorton Common. Residents in the scores of cottages scattered along its edges had seen them holding meetings, and warnings had been given.
The date was fixed, a known Druid festival, and the location had always been the target. It was here, centuries ago, that Caratacus, one of Britain’s old warlords, had gone in a last-stand bloodbath against the Romans. And the new tribes of England love their old legends.
But how did they manage to assemble more than 2,500 kindred spirits on one remote spot on the map? Who exactly are these strange people and where do they come from?
The answers are as varied as the travellers themselves. Among them are at least a dozen former businessmen, a handful of honours graduates and thousands of young refugees from the squats and begging pitches of every large British city.
What is clear is that they are an important force in the land. They have built a community of extended families, living in small and large groupings throughout southern England, with heavy concentrations in the West Country.
Social security experts estimate there are now in excess of 15,000 of them and they maintain a transportation system that is often an engineering marvel. One slightly-built woman owns and services a 10-ton breakdown rig that was built more than 40 years ago. She also lives in it with her two small children.
The travellers live on their wits and their superb exploitation of state benefits and the law of trespass. Nobody knows more about the complexities of the NFO (No Fixed Abode) Giro system than the children of the New Age tribes.
“You can live on Pounds 67 a fortnight,” said Lucy, a drop-out graduate from Edinburgh. “But we don’t live totally on state befits. We are self-sufficient. We run our own businesses, catering to each other at these festivals. We make things and we sell them. And besides, money is only important to people who have got it.
“We look after each other when we are sick or broke, and there’s always money for food. Our only problem is other people and their attitude towards us. We live in a community that boasts of freedom, yet crucifies those who choose real freedom.
“We know about hatred, we are used to it. We see it every day, simply because people will not try to understand we are serious about our way of life and give us toleration and respect.”
But did Lucy and her fellow travellers show tolerance and respect to the people of Castlemorton?
“They are clever liars,” said Ivan Randall, a farmer. “They frightened dozens of old people to the point of collapse, they smashed a teenager’s car and they destroyed the health of all of us with 24-hour noise that was deafening.
“They defecated and urinated in our gardens, they tore down our fences and they burnt down young trees and saplings. They staggered around night and day full of drugs and cider and they left their children running about in rags with the dogs while they slept off their binges.
“Then, when the media arrived and the damage was done, they pick up a few scraps of litter for the photographers and claim they are clean and peaceful people. How are we expected to react? What about our freedom?”
The people of Castlemorton even thought of forming an armed vigilante group. When the police dissuaded them they confessed they had been temporarily deranged by the fear. But, despite the enormous stress and alarm that they must have felt for nine days and nights, there were some who showed some sympathy for the travellers.
Irene Weaver, a 74-year-old widow whose cottage was perhaps the closest to the centre of the festival, made a close study of the almost pagan frenzy that was going on yards from her balcony. She did not have much choice, of course.
“I couldn’t sleep for many nights,” she said, “so there was nothing else to do but watch them. I saw many different kinds of people, some of them very bad indeed and a few that I could quite have liked. The drug boys were big and tough. They were selling the stuff openly in baskets, they had big flash cars and dogs.
“Then there were the ravers, they just seemed to be dancing their lives away and every morning they had fallen down exhausted. But the travellers were different. They were dirty all right, and they wore rags, but they were polite to me and they never caused me any damage. I suppose they have a lifestyle of their own and they are serious about it.
“Last week is an experience I hope I never have to live through again. I am a charitable woman, but no society can tolerate what these people do. The government and the police must make sure that this kind of invasion is stopped.”
Weaver had seen something that police observers have known about in recent years. The travelling armies are not just one army, but several. There are the New Age people, serious-minded, highly structured and mostly peaceful. But as they move around in the summer they attract thousands of others: the so-called ravers with their massive sound systems who live in a drug-soaked world of their own. The ravers also call themselves tribes with names such as Circus Warp, the Brew Crew and Spiral, and they are responsible for the massive hygiene problems that turned the common into an open sewer.
“One of the first effects of Ecstasy is a sudden loosening of the bowels,” said a drug squad officer assigned to the gathering. “And the ravers don’t care where they are when they have to go. The place stank to high heaven within hours.”
This is also one way to tell a traveller from a raver. The travellers all have little spades. Even the smallest children. Day and night they could be seen walking to quiet spots with their spades over their shoulders. “We care about health and we know about hygiene,” said Luke, a former bricklayer from Bristol. “We don’t live in our own filth and our spades are obligatory.”
But around him, on the once beautiful common now scarred with fire scorch marks and piles of excrement, were their dogs. There are hundreds of them, mostly mongrels of all breeds, and they run in packs. They undoubtedly killed up to a dozen sheep.
When Luke was asked about the dogs, he shrugged and walked away. The travellers love to talk about their New Age lifestyle, how they are founding a tribe of travelling people to equal the Romanies. But when the questioning gets tough they just shrug and smile.
The third and most sinister elements in the force are the drug dealers, and these massive gatherings mean massive profits. Like pilot fish they follow the travellers and ravers, driving their powerful BMWs and Mercedes, selling everything from hashish at Pounds 10 a bag to heroin (with needles extra).
They are quiet and menacing, with up to a dozen minders, and they set up shop openly. Among the 70-odd arrests made last week, most were for drug offences and one young black from Birmingham clamed he had made Pounds 80,000 profit in three days of trading.
Strangely, the dealers are careful not to cross the travellers. During one of the noisy nights, at least two cars were burnt out and a group of drug dealers were chased from the site by more than 100 travellers. This was said to have followed a sexual assault on a young girl.
There were other rumours, too. It was said that a group of ravers cooked and ate a horse that had been injured by one of the lorries. But no evidence was produced to back this up.
The travellers have an organising committee and, if necessary, a small police force of their own. At Castlemorton the event was led by Michael, a tall, black American, and a beautiful mixed-caste girl who rode a thoroughbred horse back and forward through the dancing crowds.
“We don’t have bosses,” said one. “But we have an informal council and we know how to look after our own and throw out troublemakers.”
As the final stragglers left on Friday in convoys of up to 20 vehicles, watched by the sullen villagers, their destination was unknown. Most said they were going home to rest. Home could be a disused railway siding near Bath or an abandoned quarry in Cornwall. They live wherever the local by-laws on trespass can be safely flouted.
“We don’t all live together in some big hidden encampment,” said Lucy from Edinburgh. “We just find a place that is quiet and safe and call it home for as long as it lasts.”
Then, in this strange but highly structured and growing community of what society would call losers, the call comes for the next big gathering. Their communications are excellent, working on a mixture of word of mouth, fly sheets stuck to trees and public telephones.
The small clans will gather again on the byways of southern England. It can take them days, even weeks, to join together but, like a snowball, it finally builds up into a massive convoy that some inexperienced police forces, like West Mercia, are incapable of controlling.
That is what happened in the Malvern Hills nine days ago, as the invading army suddenly arrived, pouring down a dozen country roads and on to the natural cul-de-sac of Castlemorton Common.
The next big one, say the travellers, could be Glastonbury on midsummer’s day. But there is talk of a mega-event at Cambridge next week. Or there could be a new site at Oxford. Nobody is telling.
A police inspector, standing near the entrance to the common on Friday, admitted that his force had been outwitted and in the end was powerless to act against the invaders.
“But we are learning about these people,” he muttered. “They are now a major phenomenon in this country and each year they get bigger and better organised. Somebody up the line, right at the top, is going to have to make some hard decisions on just what the hell we are going to do about it.”
[Copyright The Times, London, May 1992. Picture taken from the @oldschoolparties Instagram account]