IT was nine days of peace, love, chaos and controversy when the spirit of Woodstock descended on a disused airfield near Swindon, writes BARRY LEIGHTON.

Undercover drugs squad members, in their clean white daps, mingled with naked dancers while an old RAF hut, doubling as a make-shift church, bore the slogans “Jesus Loves you” and “Are You Turned On.”

Zonked out fans were riveted as rock’n’roll’s most eccentric dandy Vivian Stanshall, ex-of the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band, gamely sang: “I’m the urban spaceman baby, I’ve got speed, I’ve got everything I need…” before falling off the stage in a drunken stupor.

Nearby villagers feared an endless barrage of metallic, bass-heavy noise from speakers stacked on three stages but the loudest racket – according to environment health readings – came from the annoying swirl of the Thames Valley Police helicopter.

And one horrified fast food trader high-tailed it back to Milton Keynes after claiming he had been repeatedly offered sex in exchange for a plastic plate of cod and chips, maybe with a sausage on the side.

“These people are depraved,” he protested to the Swindon Advertiser.

Forty years ago eyes were glued to a derelict military base at Watchfield, on the Wiltshire/Oxfordshire border, where the UK’s first Government Approved Free Rock Festival had materialised.

Those who attend today’s slickly organised, corporately conscious, security heavy pop soirees may find it hard to believe the sort of furore the phrase “rock festival” conjured in Middle England back then... especially when supplemented with the word “free.”

Such anti-establishment occurrences were largely the creation of the chemically enhanced, free thinking counter culture who just wanted to do their thing - sorry, thang. And at Watchfield they were given the chance.

A trio of annual free festivals had taken place under the noses of the Royal Family at Windsor Park, with the ’74 event erupting into running battles between festivalgoers and police that were gleefully beamed onto our TV screens and spread across our newspapers.

Keen to avert similar scenes in 1975, the Labour Government informed those busily planning a fourth Free Windsor Festival: “Listen guys, don’t go back there, we’ll find you somewhere else, somewhere nice, somewhere a little less conspicuous.”

As August approached and having examined a string of potential sites, Home Secretary Roy Jenkins purposefully stubbed a finger onto a map and declared: “There.”

The ramshackle World War Two RAF base, with its long vacant structures and acres of space, seemed ideal... and not a member of the Royal Family in sight.

So imagine, if you will, the reaction, the shock, the purple-veined pique of the good folk of Watchfield when they were told something along the lines of: “Guess what’s going to happen in that field over there in five weeks’ time…!”

Naturally, Watchfield blew its top. Their MP Airey Neave was incandescent with rage. “It’s absolutely outrageous,” he fumed.

Parish council meetings were called, an action committee was formed, and people in high places were implored to act... but to no avail.

The show – or The People’s Free Festival, to quote its official title - would go on.

Relishing the prospect of a hippy-fest on its doorstep, “your 5p Adver” came up with its own Watchfield Festival logo (bizarrely featuring Mr Soul James Brown – but very snappy, nonetheless.)

Helpless to prevent an invasion of freaks, many Watchfield folk hid in fright behind their curtains, claimed The Daily Telegraph, as “long haired, oddly attired and often barefoot” fans tramped through the village.

Fearing his hostelry would suffer a severe trashing, Jack Vincent, landlord of one of two village pubs, The Eagle, barricaded the premises against the invading hippy barbarians.

On the gig’s eve we published a fine shot of self-styled ‘king of hippies’ and co-festival organiser Sid Rawle jubilantly waving the festival licence, its ink still wet from the Home Office stamp of approval.

Sid, 29, who had just surfaced from a spot of porridge for distributing flyers for an illegal “freak’s picnic” at Windsor Park, promised 200 bands in nine days including all the usual suspects - Gong, Hawkwind, The Pink Fairies...

Around 20,000 were expected at the 250-acre site which “buzzed with activity” as it was transformed into “a blaze of colour” with flags and tents “as far as the eye could see.”

An ear-bending, early morning sound-check set swiftly irked the locals. “A dreadful racket” complained one. “It was pretty loud” conceded Sid’s missus, Marion Rawle.

A police hunt, meanwhile, was underway at the site for a 21 year-old Frenchman with rabies...

True to form, some Hell’s Angels barged in, cheerfully cycling over campers in their sleeping bags, but soon got bored and rode off, lifting the atmosphere for everyone else.

Around 4,000 hardened festivalites camped for the duration as long queues formed every morning for a dollop of a “porridge-and-gruel” for breakfast at the free food tent.

As the sun came out so did an abundance of flesh.

“Dozens of men and women were running around in the altogether,” we reported, with a hint of relish. And indeed, the Adver published probably its very first photographs of topless fillies.

A recurrent factor at “Pop City, Watchfield,” as we called it, was the cat and mouse shenanigans between those wishing to take drugs and those wishing to arrest those who took drugs.

A ‘Spot the Drug Squad’ game emerged whereby photographs of suspected undercover police – easily identifiable by clean plimsolls and neatly creased jeans – were circulated among festivalgoers.

This, inevitably, resulted in some hapless members of the public, totally unconnected with the Thames Valley Constabulary, finding themselves viciously harangued by groups of less-than-benign, cross-legged hippies after innocently wandering onto the site.

*Were you at the Watchfield People’s Festival in August, 1975? If so send us your recollections... however weird, warped or bizarre to

  • SWINDON musician Pete Cousins – aka Teddy White – performed at Watchfield as a member of a “very, very, very laconic” Gloucestershire-based band, The Boys From Bendy Bow.

    Says Pete: “Windsor was always a blast, I've had many years of wonderful weirdness there. Watchfield felt strange, probably being so close to home.

    “My only real abiding memory that is printable is the smell of the wood-smoke and the sea of flags and freak paraphernalia waving through the night.

    “I stayed on the stage and just watched the next few bands play. You could do that then.

    “I guess it was the beginning of the end for the festival proper. Stonehenge fell next, then the corporates arrived….and The Pink Fairies, Sid Rawle et al faded into history.”

  •  FOR brothers Dave and Taf Thomas, whose family home adjoined the site, it was Christmas in August. Their mum, by contrast, chaired the Stop the Festival campaign.

    Says Taf: “I opened the door to the MP (Airey Neave) and remember stumbling upstairs shouting ‘you’ll not stop it – we’re all going’ before slamming the bedroom door.

    “Then there was a parish councillor who was going to dig up the main village street to stop the hippies until someone pointed out he wouldn't be able to get to work, and nor would anyone else.

    “The only 'village elder' who approved was Mr Godfrey who owned the village shop. He did very well out of it.”

    Taf’s recollections of the festival remain hazy, to say the least, though he does recall giving cigarettes to Steve Winwood and Cream drummer Ginger Baker, and that Viv Stanshall stumbled woozily from the stage, only to be re-discovered in a state of deep inebriation at The Prince of Wales, Shrivenham

    Dave remembers: “My parents were dead against it. We had Tory MPs coming to the house to organise the anti-festival campaign.

    “I spent the nine days camped at the site. It was a bit heavy until the Hells Angels left after a day or two, then it was great.

    “We had Gong at our camp. I remember seeing Hawkwind, Byzantium and East of Eden. Then one day I saw a blue Aston Martin registration ‘SW1’ parked on the site.

    “Steve Winwood rounded up some of his friends from Traffic, along with Viv Stanshall and others and they played a blinding set on one of the little stages.”

    Viv, though, wound-up completely trolleyed, he adds.