The National Trust slogan “for ever and for everyone” is a recent proclamation and would have been sorely tested on a May day in 1996 when thousands of visitors arrived at Ashridge.
The night the ravers came to Arcadia.
This article by Gareth Huw Davies was first published by The Daily Telegraph, May 1996.
One Saturday afternoon in Spring 1996. A forecast of rare promise. Dry with light southerly winds, 12C overnight, rising to the low 20s on Sunday. At Exodus headquarters, somewhere deep in Bedfordshire, High Command gave the order. Incombe Hole was on. By midnight a fleet of 12 ex-army trucks and Land Rovers, carrying enough audio equipment to rouse a small town, was trundling through the streets of Luton, leading, Pied Piperesque, a procession of 200 or more cars. Ten miles to the west farmer David Leach slept peacefully. Plain clothes police officers on a watching brief in the convoy had no real clue where it was heading. For the police to predict precisely where a rave will strike is akin to the Florida Met Office anticipating the landfall of the next hurricane.
Past experience suggested they would chose one of eight locations in or around Luton. Then, unexpectedly, the swelling convoy veered west, rolled through Dunstable and crossed into Buckinghamshire. At about 1.30 am the lead vehicles left the road just below Ivinghoe Beacon, bounced across two grazing fields and entered one of the deepest, quietest folds in the Chilterns. Incombe Hole is a precious place, laden with plaudits. It is in an area of outstanding natural beauty, within the National Trust’s Ashridge Estate, and part of a site of special scientific interest, one of the few surviving shreds of severely depleted chalk downland. There are few places in Southern Britain more favoured by official designation and less suited to invasion by the heavy freight of a mobile disco and 8000 exuberant dancing feet. Yet Incombe’s celebrity counted for nothing. It was simply overwhelmed by a massive force of people determined to have fun. For all the promise of robust new laws on trespass passed in 1994, nowhere in rural Britain, outside royal estates and Ministry of Defence land, would seem to be immune from lightning strike by unannounced, boldly-executed rave. By the time David Leach woke at nearby Town Farm around 6am, the rave had been underway for four hours. 600 or so cars had traversed one of his fields and were parked on a grass ley he tends on behalf of the National Trust, while 4000 energetic youngsters caroused into the warm morning in the steep-sided valley. All other considerations aside, Incombe Hole is an ideal location for a noisy party. Leach, his senses fine-tuned to alien sounds in his countryside, had heard nothing. In any event, he could have done nothing. The battle was lost well before breakfast. Faced with a massive and unexpected incursion out of a neighbouring county, Thames Valley Police were forced to capitulate. Inspector Richard Maskell estimates it would have required weeks of planning and hundreds of officers – more than were on duty in the three counties covered by the force that night – to break up the rave, once it had started. The only option was damage limitation. For the rest of the day Leach and National Trust staff stood on the road turning cars away.
During the morning the farmer paid a single visit to Incombe, where he is the trust’s “preferred grazier” – he runs his sheep only after the delicate downland plants have set seed. “The young people were as high as kites. The organisers were initially pretty aggressive. I was very humble. I asked them when they were going. They said they would leave when it was all over.
“They had answers for everything. When I told them they were on an SSSI, one of the few sites for the rare pasque flower, they said Newbury was an SSSI, and look what happened there. They were quite contemptuous. They said they were not worried about me or the law because they moved in such big numbers there was nothing the police could do.”
Leach was handed a leaflet, defiant and self justifying in tone. Exodus, described itself as “a community sound system” fulfilling a useful social purpose, clearing the towns of bored young people. “We would much prefer to agree our dance venues. but as the law stands you would be liable to prosecution even if you gave us permission.” They promised to leave the land as they found it and repair any damage. They finally left early on Sunday evening, largely keeping their promise. Leach estimates they removed about 98 per cent of the rubbish. Visible damage was confined to two fires and a heavily trampled square of grass. Sheep loose in the field where cars parked were unharmed and were back grazing the ley within two weeks. However English Nature said it was too early to detect possible damage to the site’s delicate flora. (More by luck than judgement the rave appears to have missed the pasque flowers altogether.) English Nature’s predicament is that, while it can take legal action to stop a landowner damaging an SSSI, it is usually powerless against damage by third parties. The farmer could, in theory, with the help of a fast moving solicitor, have sought an injunction while the rave was underway, although serving it on a named individual among 30 pseudonymous organisers might have been difficult.
After the Incombe rave the National Trust dug a trench at the entrance to its land deep enough to exclude a car, but not a tractor, or an ex-military vehicle. Will it be sufficient to deter a repeat visit from Exodus, who pledge to hold fortnightly raves throughout the summer? David Leach isn’t sure. “They said they would be back. They told me they liked the venue.”
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