Mayhem at midsummer’s dawn as travellers storm Stonehenge fence

Author: John Davison, Matthew Brace and Andrew Mullins

The carefully-planned visit, the fruit of months of negotiation, was cancelled in the aftermath of yesterday’s invasion. Further confrontation would endanger the stones and visitors themselves, said English Heritage, leaving the first 150-strong group, including druids, astrologers and councillors, to abandon their visit.

Police in riot gear arrested 23 people as hundreds more ripped down the perimeter fence barring the public from the circle, the scene of violent clashes throughout the 1980s.

English Heritage said the stones had not been damaged and no one was hurt. But the risk was too great to allow further visits planned for this evening and tomorrow.

“This situation is too unpredictable to continue to bring in a group whose safety may be at risk,” a spokeswoman said. “The groups and individuals we have been dealing with have been understanding, but obviously they are disappointed.”

Police yesterday bussed in reinforcements, abandoning the low-key stance which allowed about 400 people to flood on to the site in the early hours of yesterday morning.

“We realise the stones are a tourist site of great beauty and this will obviously detract from that. But we have to take measures to prevent what happened this morning happening again,” said Superintendent Andy Hollingshead, Wiltshire Police’s divisional controller.

It is all a long way from the serene atmosphere that was supposed to have ended more than 10 years of wrangling over the occasion. Some 40 druids and 150 of their followers were to have been allowed into Stonehenge for their most important ceremony of the year, in contrast to the previous clampdowns which have seen a four-mile exclusion zone thrown around the site on midsummer night.

They were ready to go yesterday morning, but were denied access by the protesters. And the arrangement which would have allowed them along again this morning was withdrawn to allow the police room to deploy. The druids held their ceremony in an adjacent field.

As the sun rose above the last dawn clouds, it illuminated a surreal scene. Outside the genteel circle of druids and their friends a man staggered through the grass in combat trousers, screaming violently for beer and drugs. He eyed the druids and spat down his jumper. Beyond him two angry dogs were sinking their teeth into each other’s necks in an unfriendly scrap, and over a hill in another field came a stampede of cows – spooked by a police helicopter.

The Archdruid of Glastonbury and Stonehenge, Rollo Maughfling, put a brave face on things as he tried to shout above the roar. “Let’s sing and hope next time we come here it will be with a little less aggression,” he managed before being drowned out. “It’s a great shame that we were not allowed to perform our ceremony in the stones this year. We had high hopes but it went wrong and we don’t know why.”

It is a question that is baffling both the police and English Heritage, which owns the site and initiated the tortuous negotiations to allow the first mass access to the stones for some years. It is also leading to concerns that, coming after the City of London riot on Friday, we might be at the beginning of another midsummer of madness, reminiscent of the pitched battles of the 1980s.

What happened yesterday morning was that at around 2am a shout went up from among the 1,000-strong crowd gathered outside the site and about 30 protesters rushed the perimeter fence and began to tear it down. The fence buckled and a swathe of bodies trampled over it and ran into the stone circle. About six or seven climbed one of the tallest standing stones and signalled, cheered and waved a flag from the top. About 100 police moved in, including mounted officers and those in riot gear, and made numerous arrests as they cleared the area.

Clews Everard, English Heritage’s director of the site, said the trouble- makers seemed to be unconnected individuals after a fight rather than an organised group.

“There was clearly an element here who were deliberately out to cause trouble,” she said. “We planned as much as we could but some things are unavoidable.”

She added: “I don’t know where we go from here. It’s definitely back to the drawing board but we must keep the dialogue open,” she said.

The police agreed. “This was an example of selfish behaviour by a minority who believe they had the right to do exactly what they want with no thought for others or the consequences,” said Superintendent Hollingshead.

Some of those operating on the protesters’ network, however, were less surprised. A man identifying himself only as “Cockney” said that he knew some of those involved, and was sure they had been at the riot in London as well.

“They would have understood what those riot police were like and they would have had a full day’s training,” he said. “They are just individuals who have a freedom thing; they are in no way organised. There is an element of freedom missing from society, going to Stonehenge was put up on a pedestal as one of those elements.”

As the founder of a group called “Mutant Dance”, he had tried to set up a music event next to Stonehenge as a peaceful alternative, but had not been allowed.

“If you say Stonehenge is open after years of being closed off and expect people who got into rucks, bad rucks, at the Beanfield and in ’88 [previous attempts to reach the Stones at solstice] not to come back and say `OK we’re going to reclaim our stones’ you’re an idiot.”

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