THE first report into the economic benefits of the Glastonbury Festival - commissioned by Mendip District Council and published in 2008 - revealed that the 2007 event boosted the local economy by around £73 million.

With more than 170,000 people pouring into the county for the event, which runs across the last weekend of June, it is little wonder they bring with them money which they spend in Somerset.

So it is continually surprising, perusing the archives of the County Gazette, Bridgwater Mercury and our other titles, just how the festival - and those who attend it - have been viewed in the past.

In June 1987, Ken Bird wrote in the County Gazette about "50 hippies" who were camping out on land at Athelney, near Taunton.

County NFU secretary at the time, Anthony Gibson, seemed almost surprised when he told the paper how "most of them seemed fairly reasonable".

"They agreed not to go back on the land but we are keeping a close eye on the situation," he added.

It was noted then that the group was "thought to be awaiting the Pilton pop festival, near Glastonbury, later this month".

June, bringing with it the Summer Solstice as well as Glastonbury, is a big month for the economy in Somerset and it is ironic that many of these so-called 'hippies' in fact, rather than being much trouble for Somerset landowners, have brought millions to the county over many years.

And it's lucky they appear to have thick skin, for in May 1987 - the year before the incident at Athelney - the Somerset arm of the NFU set up an actual 'hippy alert' system, which saw landowners unite to operate a network warning system in a bid to prevent travellers setting up any camp on their land.

Potential damage to land was - and is - a cause of concern for farmers and should not be condoned.

In 1987, Bridgwater NFU secretary, Ken Doig, said groups could damage land "for years to come", meaning farmers lost money.

"A farmer cannot insure against invasion by hippies," Mr Doig added.

Mr Gibson, in a column in the County Gazette, debated how the law should deal with "scruffy" members of a "hippy convoy" which had caused problems in Somerset - and even suggested confrontations with the police were an "extra dash of excitement" for them.

"I fear that the "hippie" problem is here to stay," he said.

"As a lifestyle, it has obvious attractions for those unable to carve a niche for themselves in conventional society.

"Periodical confrontations with farmers or police add an extra dash of excitement."

I'm not sure that's how the 'hippies' themselves would see it.

And the 'bad press' received by 'travellers', 'hippies', 'gypsies', or whatever the press decided to label any particular group, is often cited by them as a reason for any problems encountered in communities.


Members of the 'hippy convoy' in 1989

In June 1989, police massed at Hinkley Point in anticipation of a mass protest over the proposed development of a third nuclear power station at the site.

Then, the development of Hinkley C was by no means assured and police were concerned protestors may blockade the site.

They feared hundreds would join the demonstration as they made their way home from that year's Pilton Festival, which that year featured the likes of Elvis Costello, Donovan and The Pixies on the bill.

Around 50 protestors turned out to voice their opposition to the plan, prompting police Sgt Chris Ware to call it, perhaps surprisingly, "a bit of a damp squib".

Elsewhere that week, following the end of the festival, police from the Devon and Cornwall and Avon and Somerset forces followed numerous 'hippy' convoys leaving the event, for fear they would, well, we don't know what...

One watching police officer told the County Gazette of June 30 1989: "We've had no complaints - we're just here to see what happens."

Interestingly, when reporters spoke to 'hippies' being monitored by the police and others, they were equally unaware of any problems.

"None of us are going to Hinkley Point, we don't know anything about any blockade," said Gus, a 25-year-old traveller.

"We're not doing anything illegal or of any interest to the police - they are just wasting their time watching us."

Mag, who it was noted by the reporter was "a slightly-built Irish girl with dreadlocked hair and a large dog", was equally nonplussed by the police presence.

"The police have tailed us all the way from Pilton because we're hippies," she said.

"All we want to do is get to a nice beach somewhere for a swim in the sun, then we're going to the Tree Fayre near Liskeard in Cornwall."

The group had reached Exebridge on the Somerset Devon border and as they prepared to leave, a nearby worker looking on summed up the situation.

"They're no trouble," he said. "I say good luck to them if they want to live like that."

The following month, July 1989, the County Gazette reported on a group of "hippy travellers" who were set to be evicted from Lower Holway Farm in Taunton.

The report states how residents are "wary" of the group and fear they pose a "health threat".

One resident said: "We are not saying they will deliberately damage our health or our property, but we don't know who they are and the stories you hear about other travellers don't exactly put your mind at rest."

A chat with one of the group soon put people's minds at rest.

"We have had a man up here from the council and he didn't think our camp poses a health hazard," he said.

"We are only waiting for a farrier to arrive to shoe some of our horses and then we will be on our way again.

"The biggest problem we face is people being afraid to come and talk to us because of the bad press we have been given.

"But there shouldn't be this communication problem. If the residents want to discuss problems they can come up and see us and have a chat and a mug of tea."

But it didn't stop there.

In the early nineties, the County Gazette - as part of a 'special feature' - ran a two-page piece from a legal assistant at the NFU entitled 'NEW AGE TRAVELLERS: A guide to keeping them out'.

The piece opened by reiterating that the summer period - complete with the solstice and Glastonbury - was often associated with "problems and damage" caused by "hippies, tinkers, new age travellers and gypsies (travellers)".

It is careful to note that "directing spraying machines or muck spreaders at anyone would certainly put you on the wrong side of the law".

Well, thank goodness for that.


The special report on 'new age travellers'

While some landowners no doubt endured serious problems at the hands of irresponsible people using their land unlawfully, reading the historical perception of groups defined so loosely as 'travellers', 'hippies' and others, would be the basis for a very interesting study, particularly in light of how the Summer Solstice and the Glastonbury Festival have developed into huge money spinners for Somerset - and no doubt, some of the county's farmers.

It is an interesting relationship that deserves to be explored. Perhaps there's a book in it somewhere...


The Glastonbury Festival boosts the Somerset economy by millions