Castlemorton, Shadybank, Hollybed and Combe Green Commons are a single unit of registered common land, to the south of Great Malvern, Worcestershire, covering 681 acres. It’s still used by commoners, who have rights to graze livestock – mainly cattle and sheep – as well as (in smaller numbers) to fish, set pigs out to forage, and to collect wood and turf for burning. The Lord of the Manor of Langdon-cum-Membris retains access rights and a right to minerals – the portion of the unit making up the steep eastern flank of Swinyard Hill, part of the Malverns, a SSSI and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – was heavily quarried until the 1970s. Castlemorton Common is also a SSSI, largely for its undisturbed, flat grassland and for the wildlife found in its ponds and streams; it also includes rare black alder pollards.
The topography is unusually diverse, reflecting the unit as an amalgamation of smaller commons. It includes ‘horns’ where the common opens out gradually between enclosed areas from a narrow entrance and is dotted ‘piecemeal’ with small enclosures.
It’s also a well-populated area – farmhouses and cottages border it throughout, or sit within inside their enclosures. Nearby are several hamlets, including the fabulously and (as will be seen) aptly-named Drugger’s End and to the northeast are the thousand-plus inhabitants of Welland. The area of the unit falling within the Malverns is owned by the Malvern Hills Conservators, and the remainder are owned jointly by three private individuals.
I had several reasons for visiting. First, one of the walks in my OS Pathfinder Guide to ‘The Malverns to Warwickshire’ took me up this central section of the Malverns, with its spectacular British Camp hillfort at Hangman’s Hill, and then through Castlemorton Common, promising views throughout. I’ll come to the Malverns themselves in a later post, but their panorama from Castlemorton is quite breathtaking, even on the gloomy day I’d chosen. Certainly, the varied shape of the common looked interesting on the OS map, and it’s always good to visit a common still in use by its commoners, a less frequent phenomenon than one might think.
However, Castlemorton has been on my radar for three decades, and here I’m going to need to head off on quite a tangent. In 1992, Castlemorton suddenly and completely accidentally entered into the cultural life of the UK, becoming synonymous with the free festival which took place there for about a week around the Late Spring Bank Holiday and attracted around 30,000 ravers from across the UK. It remains the largest free party ever held and caused a public outrage so acute that it resulted in the Criminal Justice Act 1994, curtailing rights of assembly in a quite unprecedented way. In fact, it was drafted with Castlemorton firmly in mind by including clauses closing any loopholes around the use of common land and infamously defining the music of my generation as ‘sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.’
The CJA brought to an end six years of often quite small-scale, but extravagantly drug-addled revelry across the nation’s clubs, empty warehouses, woodlands and car parks. Rave was an unlikely coming together of house, acid and techno music from the US, advances in portable lighting, sound and communications technology, Thatcherite entrepreneurial zeal, the Tory government’s road building project (in particular the M25) and the then-exceptionally expensive psychedelic ‘love’ drug MDMA (about £75 a pill in today’s money). It was also a collision between the world of the yuppie and the UK’s established subcultures – travellers, punks, hippies and their myriad hybrids – all of whom injected a radical politics into the mix in the years before the rise of the cash-hungry drug gangs and superclubs, the infiltration of cocaine and the terminal moment of the CJA. What happened in the UK on the cusp of the 90s reshaped music, fashion, drug habits and nights out, for good and for ill, on a global scale. It’s also considered by numerous social commentators to be the last mass youth cultural movement.
I was 15 when that all exploded and while I only ever dipped my toe in the water, it remains formative. I was, however, once lucky enough to go to a superlative little rave in a small marquee in woodland near my hometown after my first year of uni, run by the legendary DiY Soundsystem, who’d been major noisemakers at Castlemorton. I still listen to music from this era on a weekly, if not daily basis (I’m doing so right now), joining a long line of sad old gits listening to punk, acid rock, jazz or whatever to revisit the directionless idealism of youth. The festival happened the week before I flew off for three glorious months of travel in between the disaster which had been A-levels and the disaster which was to be university. Even so, I remembered it registering, and at some point hearing that friends of friends had gone and feeling vaguely jealous. Only vaguely, though, as Castlemorton was reputationally a traveller festival, which meant in the parlance of the times, people who lived in converted busses, smelly blokes with dogs on string, dodgy drugs like ketamine (which would take twenty years to catch on) – possibly even smack. Even so, and being a teenager with a fascination for countercultures past and present, the media furore made it sound cool.
In fact, commons have a centuries-long history of raucous celebration. Cambridge’s Stirbitch, which ran for over 700 years on Stourbridge Common, was the largest fair in the country, and infamous for its often-lethal depravity. Many commons still host fairs, as at Hampstead Heath and Stivichall Common in Coventry. They also have a long history of hosting travelling people such as peddlers and gypsies – I have seen a gypsy vardo on Tunbridge Wells Common within my own memory, while there has been a gypsy camp at Ide Common in Devon since WWII. Such occupations, even while problematic, were traditionally tolerated by landowners and local elites because they were useful. Fairs were good for business. Gypsies provided valuable labour, skills and products. It is tempting to view the Castlemorton Free Festival as a kind of psychedelic, electric pastoral, and I certainly did at the time.
Until I actually visited. Oddly enough, I had chosen the thirtieth anniversary of the festival for my visit, something my teenage self would have possibly believed to be some kind of cosmic sign. I found this out in the car park at the foot of Midsummer Hill, where a poster had been stuck up for an exhibition in a local village hall. The poster included the logo of the notorious Spiral Tribe, another bastion of the festival and a lot more confrontational in politics, music and approach than DiY. A Spiral Tribe exhibition in a village hall? Talk about cognitive dissonance.
Having looked at the map, and down at Castlemorton from the Malverns, this wasn’t some remote corner of the country, as I’d always believed. People lived here – quite a lot of them. To have 30,000 people unexptectedly dancing away to countless different sound systems blasting out techno, acid, reggae, hardcore, house and who knows what else for a whole week – it must have been a total nightmare. Just before arriving at Castlemorton, on Shadybank Common, I fell into conversation with a local farmer who added a further layer to thinking this through.
The farmer would have been in his twenties in 1992, and after a brief discussion of the ongoing instability of the climate (every climate sceptic should talk to a farmer to get a decidedly unwoke, non-snowflake account of climate breakdown), he told me how awful the festival had been for the community. The noise had been the least of it. Thousands of animals had been killed by uncontrolled dogs, and the community had been left to clear up the waste themselves without help from the council. The farmer said the timing had been particularly bad, as the ewes had been with their lambs. It’s all too easy to think of commons as essentially being empty and open for anyone to do what they want whereas in fact they’re often working environments, as at Castlemorton. And I can’t imagine 30,000 ravers plus their vehicles, plus their waste (especially human waste) would have been too great for the grassland, stream and pond ecosystems.
Except the Castlemorton Free Festival wasn’t supposed to have been at Castlemorton in the first place. It should have been the Avon Free Festival, a smaller scale illegal free party which had been happening since the 1980s and which the police had every year tried and failed to stop. In previous years, the festival had chosen less obvious, less intrusive locations, such as abandoned quarries, but in 1992 the police believed a tipoff had changed their luck and so they headed off the convoy of vans, cars, old busses and what have you. By this point, however, the convoy was too big to disperse and so the police rerouted it – to Castlemorton Common. Glorious May weather, the hedonistic atmosphere that Bank Holidays always inspire, and a wonderful marketing job for the festival done by national media meant word got around and thousands of ravers took one look at what was going on and thought – yes, I’ll have a bit of that.
And so, while it’s a strange accident that the rave era peaked and began its decline on a Worcestershire common, nevertheless it’s a part of the history of commons and can tell an important part of its more general story. Commons might often be ancient places, but through them run currents which are relevant, albeit in changed form, right through to the present: in many respects, the Police, Crime and Sentencing Act 2022 builds on the Criminal Justice Act 1994 which the Castlemorton Free Festival precipitated, further and even more controversially curtailing movement and access of gypsies and travellers, and undermining the means by which civil protest can make itself heard.