Whatever Happened to New Age Travellers?
‘Some subcultures are simply more readily adaptable, more attractive, than others’
‘Some subcultures are simply more readily adaptable, more attractive, than others’
The hope that any youth subculture of the last 60 years might have escaped the maw of hipster recuperation today seems unlikely. It’s become axiomatic that every look, sound and pose that pop ever invented has been revived, emptied out and sold back. To walk through Bushwick in Brooklyn or Dalston in London, is to walk through a pop culture re-enactment museum, like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, only with younger staff and artisanal coffee. Punk, new wave, rockabilly, goth, techno, industrial, hip-hop. Folkies, hippies, skaters, new romantics, teds, club kids, indie kids, b-boys, ska girls, skinheads, casuals, greasers, mods. Internet technology has enabled full-spectrum access to archival images and sounds of the postwar era, allowing pop’s founding texts to be reprinted ad nauseam.
A dim memory surfaced recently. I was in the car with my family one summer in the mid-1980s, on holiday in Dorset, driving past a long caravan of hippies in painted buses and mud-splattered vans. This image sparked a line of thought about illegal outdoor ‘free parties’ in Britain during the early 1990s, organized by shadowy collectives with names such as Spiral Tribe, Bedlam and Exodus. I recalled an encampment of buses close to where I grew up; teenagers from school would score weed from the people living up there. On the news: run-ins at Stonehenge between the police and what was called the ‘peace convoy’; 20,000 people descending on Castlemorton Common, Worcestershire, in 1992, for the biggest illegal outdoor rave ever held in Britain. The Face ran a photo-essay featuring teepees, grimy buses, sound-systems and white people with matted dreadlocks. I remembered other events and names: the anti-Criminal Justice Bill marches in London in 1994; the Dongas Tribe motorway protesters at Twyford Down; ‘Swampy’ the eco-activist who became a household name. By the end of the 1990s, much of this had disappeared from sight. Dropped from the psychic landscape of British pop, undetected by the radar of retromania: whatever happened to New Age travellers?
Their origins lie in the squats and free festivals of the 1970s. With the motto ‘Bring what you expect to find’, the first of the free festivals was held at Windsor Great Park in 1972. Organizers Ubi Dwyer and Sid Rawle squatted royal land for three consecutive summers, inspired by beliefs about common property forged in London’s alternative communes. Tolerated for the first two years, the festival was shut down by police in 1974 after numbers had grown from an initial 700 to over 8,000. That same summer saw the first Stonehenge Free Festival, initiated by Wally Hope, in fields adjacent to the iconic megaliths and held at summer solstice every year until 1984. (Wally Hope was the pseudonym of Philip Russell, who died in mysterious circumstances following an arrest for possession of lsd in 1975. His ashes were ceremoniously taken to every Stonehenge Festival after his death.) Early Stonehenge headliners included psychedelic prog rockers Hawkwind and Gong, who emerged from the 1960s Canterbury scene. Later years saw reggae stars such as Sugar Minott, anarcho punks Crass and post-punk band The Raincoats. Even pop acts such as Dexys Midnight Runners and Thompson Twins played there. Initially attracting practicing neo-druids alongside the hippies, factions from the anarcho-punk scenes and like- minded underground tribes became drawn to the Stonehenge celebration. Similar events sprouted across the country, and those who didn’t wish to return to their city lives started to spend summers travelling from festival-to-festival in a rag-tag train of vehicles that became known as ‘the convoy’.
In the mid-1970s, changes in uk squatting laws had an impact upon urban alternative communities. Evicted squatters and those disillusioned with city life took to the road, living in buses and caravans all year round. Nomadic life suggested idealistic models of co-operative living, and travelling tapped into a tradition of revolutionary utopianism in British culture; one born of romantic longing for a pre-industrial Albion in which the radical was fused with the rural. In his book Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (2010), Rob Young describes this as ‘a mindset that always finds its identity in the grain of the past’. ‘The British road’, he writes, ‘is a road to the interior of the imagination rather than a physical coverage of distance.’
Sociologist Kevin Hetherington, in his book New Age Travellers (2000), holds that travellers ‘adopt an identity that brings together a series of disparate “ethnic” identities that share one thing in common: their marginalized and often oppressed status within society’. Traveller culture carries references to proto-socialist movements such as the English Civil War-era Diggers and Levellers. (Young points out that, in 1975, Windsor Free Festival organizers Rawle and Dwyer both starred in Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s biopic Winstanley, about the leader of the Diggers.) Travellers also adopted aspects of gypsy life, Rastafarianism and circus communities. Their identity evolved syncretically, a bricolage of values and styles.
In 1982, the convoy drove to Greenham Common in solidarity with the women’s peace camp that had begun protesting the use of the raf airbase for storing strategic nuclear missiles. The media started to refer to the travellers as ‘the peace convoy’. Traveller communities diversified; there were those who had been on the road since the early 1970s who were now starting families. Some were radicalized believers in direct environmental and political action. Others were marginalized by economic conditions under Margaret Thatcher’s government, or were running away from bad personal situations, looking to disappear into drugs and alcohol.
Despite having roots in the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s, music was not at the heart of traveller identity. Links can be made between travellers and a wide range of musical styles – psychedelic rock, anarcho-punk, dub, folk music, ambient and techno – yet no one group ever emerged as a ‘definitive’ traveller band. They were a blank slate, onto which could be written a number of oppositional forms of music. The early 1990s saw traveller culture almost enter the mainstream with what were nicknamed ‘crusty’ bands; Back to the Planet and Ozric Tentacles, for instance, or the drearily right-on Levellers. Music produced by sound-systems associated with the travellers, such as Spiral Tribe, was largely primitivist, banging techno, though tracks such as ‘Breach the Peace’ and ‘Forward the Revolution’ were idealistically intentioned rabble-rousing.
Yet music culture brought about two of the definitive moments in the traveller story. In 1985, the peace convoy was prevented from attending the Stonehenge Free Festival and set upon by the Wiltshire Police. The incident became known as the Battle of the Beanfield. Observer journalist Nick Davies described how ‘there was glass breaking, people screaming, black smoke towering out of burning caravans and everywhere there seemed to be people being bashed and flattened and pulled by the hair […] men, women and children were led away, shivering, swearing, crying, bleeding, leaving their homes in pieces […] I felt sick enough to cry.’ Thatcher crowed that her government was ‘only too delighted to do anything we can to make life difficult for such things as hippie convoys’. In 1986, the Public Order Act was introduced, which gave police the power to break up any group of 12 or more vehicles, a law which began to atomize the travellers.
At the end of the 1980s, acid house transformed British youth culture. Illegal warehouse parties and outdoor raves across the country brought the new subculture into contact with the travelling and squat scenes. Sound-systems associated with these communities started to grow. In 1992, Spiral Tribe, Bedlam and diy found themselves at the centre of an outdoor party on Castlemorton Common, started by travellers prevented from attending the nearby Avon Free Festival. It made national news as thousands from across the country joined the week-long rave. The moral panic over Castlemorton led to the Criminal Justice Act of 1994. It toughened laws on trespass, ‘anti-social’ behaviour and, infamously, unlicensed gatherings of people listening to music ‘characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’. The travellers dropped from media sight, but continued their way of life in Britain, albeit under much tougher conditions. Today you can find third-generation traveller families. Others have upped sticks and left for more tolerant European countries.
Ideas around anti-capitalism and environmental sustainability, central tenets of traveller culture, are today part of mainstream discussion. Yet the New Age traveller aesthetic – the ‘crusty’ look – has been relegated from the pantheon of cool. Some subcultures are simply more readily adaptable, more attractive, than others. A mod-style button-down shirt looks sharper than combat fatigues, and you can wear it to the office, too. Despite warranting a key place in histories of alternative living, the defiant anti-style of the travellers’ look, their refusal to play the fashion game or to wed themselves to a particular musical sensibility, has kept them in the footnotes of pop history, rarely ranked alongside those that enjoyed identifiable icons and soundtracks.