A home-loving, home-owning, slipper-wearing grandfather – rapidly closing in on my 50th birthday. That’s me. But it wasn’t always me. Because for a while, I was a New Age Traveller.
Any reader of a daily newspaper in the mid-1980s, will be familiar with the term ‘New Age Traveller’. In common with many groupings, that was actually a name imposed by the media, rather than anything the participants themselves would recognise. ‘Peace Convoy’ was more acceptable, but whatever the title, the reference was to an expanding band of travelling people who weren’t from the Irish Traveller or Gypsy communities, but saw the road as their home.
As far back as the mid-seventies, adherents to the counter culture had drifted from the UK’s cities, to live and move on buses and vans. Spending summers at a host of free festivals, and winters in woods and clearings (and to be honest, back in the warm cities), it was all a loose attempt to form an alternative lifestyle, at least somewhat free of ‘The Man’ and his demands.
This movement escalated and coalesced in the 1980s. At the time, the urban environment was particularly bleak, with unemployment running high, and money gravitating to metropolitan elites, as heavy industry folded. The appetite for protest was strong, too. From the picket-lines at collieries, to student marches through London, those with negligible prospects drew some encouragement and empowerment from the camaraderie of the raised voice and hoisted banner.
The birth of this ‘Peace Convoy’ can be traced directly to one such protest, at the fences of Greenham Common – an American weapons installation in rural Berkshire. Following the Stonehenge Free Festival in 1984 (the final one, as it turned out), groups of vehicles set out from Salisbury Plain to give support to the women’s peace camp at Greenham; then retained their formation as a mobile community of like-minded anarchists, pacifists, outsiders and idealists.
Of course, they didn’t have a destination – that was the point. Being in constant transit, ensured the community’s members were hard to trace or track. And a nightly circle of coaches and trucks created a miniature rolling festival.
In 1984, I was living in a squatted flat just off the Old Kent Road in South London, and working as a DJ in one or two of the capital’s less upmarket clubs. Which was when I began to meet people who had spent time with the Convoy, and who couldn’t speak highly enough of the co-operative and relaxed spirit of the thing. I was enjoying playing records too much to be drawn, but I do recall being fascinated by the concept. It was another ten months or so before I found myself, quite by accident, in their midst.
“There was no way another Stonehenge Festival was going to happen on Maggie’s watch.”
Everyone I knew loved the Stonehenge Festival. Even if they hadn’t been to it, just the thought that a completely free, month-long, self-governing party happened annually in Wiltshire, met with the approval of all. I’d been there in ’84 and found it quite extraordinary (my account of that occasion can be read here).
So when May ’85 came around, there was animated talk of an exodus from Southwark to Sarum. It wasn’t to be. As we laid our plans, so the Thatcher government and the chief constables of the South West plotted. Whether it was the association with ‘hippies’, or a general dislike of anti-establishment gatherings, there was no way another Stonehenge Festival was going to happen on Maggie’s watch. And it didn’t. As the Peace Convoy headed up the A303 towards the prehistoric site, they were intercepted by a mass of riot police, diverted into a beanfield and savagely attacked. Men, women and children were shown the same violence as the vehicles themselves. Ironically, it was local, aristocratic landowner Lord Cardigan, who provided sanctuary.
Those vehicles which had not be irreparably damaged or impounded, left the area the next day to make camp on Westbury Hill, above the famous white horse carving. Meanwhile, in south London, news of these alarming developments exercised us. As there was to be no bash at Stonehenge (other than at the end of a truncheon), we’d take the train to Westbury and show solidarity with the shell-shocked travellers.
We weren’t alone. The westbound train collected scatterings of alternative types, before delivering us at the foot of the hill. Greeted by an undercover cop, asking if we’d brought any ‘drugs’ with us (this is more surprising in retrospect, but a man in a flack-jacket with a clip-on earring and polished shoes, genuinely approached and asked that question), we marched determinedly upwards to the open plain, where fifty or so vehicles stood. That night was one of the most remarkable of my life.
Although the afternoon had been bright and sunlit, the evening saw the weather close in on Westbury. By nightfall, a heavy, wind-driven drizzle cloaked the camp. Then the helicopters arrived. The police’s undercover operation may have been found wanting, but the heavy-mob were right on their mettle. Two choppers hovered low over the hilltop, sweeping searchlights through the rain and across us all. Thanks to some potent herbal refreshment, I found myself starring in my own hellish version of ‘Apocalypse Now’, sheltering under a stranger’s tarpaulin porch. We chatted and smoked and watched the rain and the lights. We wandered across the field to listen to the more dedicated members of Hawkwind jamming in the back of furniture lorry. We chatted and smoked some more.
You might imagine that waking next to a dwindling fire, into which three Hell’s Angels were tossing aerosol canisters, and urging a neat Pernod breakfast on anyone passing, would be a strong reason to flee the scene and never return. For me, it had the opposite effect. I took the first train back home and, with my similarly converted pals, pooled some cash and bought a second-hand Commer camper van from a bloke on the Aylesbury estate. Two days later, we were back with the Convoy at The Elephant Fayre in Cornwall. We were travellers.
Understandably, wariness and paranoia meant our new companions weren’t at their best. Nevertheless, we were invited to follow a break-off group to a remote Dartmoor farm, where the sympathetic owners had given permission for a small camp, in exchange for the burning of an enormous heap of unwanted branches. This was where the real possibilities of the lifestyle became apparent. Without the distractions of a nervous public, a hostile media and an over-eager constabulary, we enjoyed a week in this wild setting, sharing food, ideas, music and other resources. It was idyllic, cold, strange and inspiring. A man with a striking resemblance to Captain Beefheart and a large box of chocolate bars, explained how he’d learned to levitate. We didn’t find that particularly unlikely. Indeed, some swore they’d seen him do it in his caravan.
After a week, with the timber gone, the trucks and vans peeled away. We followed the coach of a lovely couple and their small daughter, to another informal camp near the Chedder Gorge. Thanks to the abundance of naturally occurring magic mushrooms, the next few days are hard to accurately recall – but I do know I met a senior figure from the Peace Convoy movement. He told me it was now impossible for the travellers to move together. The authorities treated anything more than three or four vehicles as a de facto threat, he explained, and would surely launch another assault. He sounded as though he was describing a war. In a way, he was.
It was also clear the constant tabloid coverage was attracting some less than peaceable sorts to the Convoy. A gang called ‘The Brew Crew’ – named for their unending consumption of Carlsberg Special Brew – had started to infiltrate the free festivals and camps, causing trouble and damaging sites. Everyone felt something bad was coming, that we were too exposed. We were. At the end of 1985’s Glastonbury Festival, a gang of travellers threatened to riot if Michael Eavis didn’t pay them to clean the site. None of them was from the Convoy we had encountered. The movement had been hijacked by semi-criminal hooligans, with undesirable agendas.
The Commer began to die at the Reading Festival (Hawkwind again), so we headed to Sheffield where a group of retiring travellers were selling their 36-seater coach. They accepted our old chariot and £300, and three hours later, we pulled into the Old Kent Road in a very large, very white bus.
Our timing wasn’t great, to be honest. A couple of years earlier, we could have taken this whale-on-four-wheels down to Wiltshire, and added it proudly to the fully massed Peace Convoy. We now knew that would never happen. Still, we spent a fortnight building bunks into the back of the coach, installing a gas range and sofa, and sealing the odd leaky window. And we did take the old girl on the road. First, rather fittingly, we went back to Westbury Hill – alone, this time. The local policeman paid us a visit, pointing out there was now an exclusion order in place. But he was a friendly soul, and merely asked us to move on by the morning, which we did. (We had a long-standing agreement that we would always co-operate with the police, and would respect the towns and villages through which we passed). Once we’d spent a couple of nights with some of the crowd from Dartmoor, our big bus turned sharp left and made for Wales.
Unfortunately, circumstances were conspiring against us. In all but name, the Convoy had dissolved; the festival calendar was also petering out, and the inevitable Autumn waited, less than a month away. One night in the Brecon Beacons, a stupid, vicious argument broke out. Not with the locals, nor with the authorities, but between the five of us. After an awkward, horribly silent night in the bunks, three of the group called it quits and hitch-hiked back to London – me included. I never saw the bus again. Within a couple of weeks, I moved to Nottingham and went back to playing records for a living.
I don’t suppose I could have hacked a winter in an unheated bus. Nor could we have sustained the travelling life without claiming ‘no-fixed-abode’ benefits – which would have utterly contradicted the notion of avoiding ‘The Man’.
But, for a while there, something really cool was afoot. Something exciting, enticing and almost within our reach. We were probably too young, too naive, too under-prepared, but for a moment, it was tremendous.
Middle-age brings a very different set of priorities, of course. In so many ways I’m a conventional cove these days. On a nightly basis, I give thanks for my snuggly quilt and comfy bed, my central heating and bubbly bath. The only hankering I have for travel, involves aeroplanes and well-appointed hotels. I have a mortgage, I pay my taxes and consume nothing stronger than tea and cigarettes. Nevertheless, for all that, I remain enormously pleased I lived as traveller when I had the chance.
Magnus Shaw – February 2015