Mushroom Magic at Crazy Creek
The Welsh Psilocybin Festivals 1976-82
This article is taken from Acid Drops: Adventures in Psychedelia by the LSD and counterculture historian Andy Roberts.
From the late 1960s onwards, Britain was host to a series of open air festivals each summer, organised by the counter-culture and bearing the name ‘Free Festivals’. From the 1970’s Phun City, through the multi-day events of the Windsor, Trentishoe, Stonehenge and countless other ones of the 1970s, psychedelic drugs, primarily LSD, were widely and openly used. It is my contention that these free festivals were events in which members of Britain’s counter-culture (heads, hippies, freaks etc.) could come together and take psychedelics in a safe, mutually supportive environment.
The media and police were very much aware of the focus on psychedelic drugs at Free Festivals. But organisers of the events generally played down this aspect to ‘straight’ society, fearing even more harassment than they already suffered if the truth were openly revealed. But if the use of psychedelics at most free festivals was kept as far away as possible from the public, media and powers that be, the same cannot be said of the Welsh Psilocybin festivals. The clue was in the name!
Psychedelic fungi have been used in religious and cultural ceremonies for millennia by indigenous societies across the globe and continue to be used in the present day. Britain has several genera of psychoactive fungi but other than the little used Amanita Muscaria, it is primarily the species Psilocybe semilanceata that was used by the free festival movement, and which was the focus of the Welsh Psilocybin festivals.
Evidence suggests that recreational use of P. semilanceata, better known as the ‘liberty cap’ or more popularly ‘magic mushrooms’, dates to the late 1950s in Britain, when it was used occasionally by the Beatniks. However, its use among the hippie underground was limited and until the mid-1970s use of any psychoactive fungi among the counter-culture also appeared to be limited. Just why this situation changed is unclear. Several factors seem to have conspired to bring P. semilanceata into broader usage.
It is possible that widespread experimentation with all types of psychedelic drugs, coupled with an interest in drug use by indigenous peoples led the British counter-culture to pursue its native fungi for their own access to altered states. Books by Carlos Castaneda, purporting to be the experiences of an initiation into mid-American shamanism had featured psychoactive fungi, and were popular among British hippies.
Another factor in the usage of magic mushrooms was Operation Julie, the smashing by the British government of Richard Kemp and Andy Munro’s LSD labs, and the requirement to find alternate sources for the psychedelic experience. Another, much more practical, reason was the cost. P. semilanceata was free at the point of picking and if one had access to productive fields it was easily possible to pick thousands of the tiny mushrooms, enough to last a year with enough to sell or give to friends.
As with many aspects of the British counter-culture, we may never know the real origins of the widespread usage of psychoactive fungi, and I thoroughly recommend Andy Letcher’s excellent book Shroom, for a well-researched and level headed examination of the rise and rise of magic mushrooms. By the mid-1970s references to mushrooms were creeping into the counter-culture’s iconography. You have to be diligent to find these references, but as an example several of the promotional flyers for the 1974 and 1975 Windsor free festivals featured a variety of mushrooms. However P. semilanceata, somewhat oddly, is not among them.
This is perhaps indicative of their still limited use as well as of a general, growing and broadening awareness of the magic mushroom as a consciousness changer. In 1976 Alan Beam wrote: ”In Albion Free State there are 1,001 ways to stay high - ‘jam open the doors of perception’ with chanting, fucking, dancing, dreaming, visions, magic mushrooms, yoga and a lifetime’s full of other possibilities.” And in 1977 the cat was well and truly out of the bag with the publication of Richard Cooper’s A Guide to British Psilocybin Mushrooms.
But back to the Welsh Psilocybin festivals. P. semilanceata grows in profusion in most areas of Wales from late July onwards, with the peak of the season (dependent on the weather), being in September and October, and ending with the first frosts. P. semilanceata can easily be found in most upland areas of Britain on liminal farm land. Why one particular area should have been chosen above another for the Psilocybin festivals is unclear but seems to have come about by a happy accident.
The Welsh Psilocybin festivals are widely referred to as taking place at Devil’s Bridge or Pontrhydygroes, about 20 miles from Aberystwyth in mid-Wales. The events actually took place in the picturesque valley of the Afon Ystwyth, on a dried out stream bed between the old Grogwynion lead mine workings and the sawmills. Devil’s Bridge is several miles away, on the A4120, but the village may have become synonymous with the festivals because its name adds a faintly mysterious air to the events and because the tiny hamlet with its dramatic gorge and forest scenery would have been a memorable road turn-off point for most people travelling to the festivals.
The first Psilocybin festival took place there in mid-July, 1976. According to people who were there, the event came about after the police evicted people from the free festival being held on the moors at the head of the Elan Valley, about fifteen miles away. Janet Thompson remembered,
“On the 13th at 6.30am 400 coppers had encircled the site and woke everyone up and evicted us, it was a bit of a shock, most people were still in bed. I think they had bussed in coppers from all over Wales. Everyone got themselves together and moved off 'up the road' to another site which became the first mushroom festival at Pontrhydygroes.”
The diaspora from the Elan Valley eviction created the first mushroom festival by default, although due to the time of year it is unlikely there was a large mushroom harvest. A Ceredigion District Council (CDC) document refers to a large gathering of hippies being moved on from the Elan Valley that “…regrouped and squatted for several weeks on the flood plain of the River Ystwyth”. The camp was set up near a disused lead mine at Blaen-Y-Ddol. It was an idyllic site; isolated but not too far from main roads or towns, with wood, water and, of course, psilocybin mushrooms.
No event appears to have taken place in 1977, but in 1978 about 300 hippies turned up and held a small festival in the location used for the 1976 gathering. By 1979, however, the festival had come of age and was being widely referred to as the Psilocybin Fayre. Badges were produced bearing the words Psilocybin Fayre, surrounding the colourful image of a dancing elemental spirit copied from one of Janet Shankman’s paintings on the sleeve of the Incredible String Band’s I Looked Up album.
The 1979 festival attracted over 2,000 people and ran from the 6-13th of September. The location of the event had moved approximately one mile downstream and west of the previous festivals to a larger area. Liberty ‘trippers’ flock to fungus festival screamed the headline on the front page of the Cambrian News. Those present dubbed the site ‘The Free State of Albion’ or, more colloquially, ‘Crazy Creek’, and went about their annual mushroom business. Asked by a journalist why he was attending the festival, one attendee claimed it was to, “Worship Eris, the goddess of Discordia”, noting that “It was the time of the full moon, which represented the end of the summer and the beginning of autumn.” The accompanying photo showed one festival goer clutching a large handful of the fungi.
Jennifer Marigold Wood attended the 1979 festival and, being used to festivals which offered a wide array of entertainments, remembers being disappointed to find “There was no entertainment, just people and drugs”. This observation reinforced the idea that the early Psilocybin festivals were primarily about the gathering and taking of P. semilanceata and the coming together of the British hippie traveller community, rather than commercialism and performance. And it wasn’t just P. semilanceata which was being collected.
Wood recalls, “Someone had been in the woods collecting fly agaric mushrooms and they duly fried them over the fire and shared them out with the caveat ‘they can be poisonous sometimes.” Wood ate some but doesn’t recall any effect. However, in describing a walk she took later that day, it is possible the subtle effects of Amanita kicked in later, as she remembers “I was not on anything but I felt so high and so much a part of everything in the universe. It was the most wonderful feeling and has stayed with me ever since.”
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The Dyfed-Powys police fielded a high profile presence and randomly targeted festival goers, mainly on the road as they arrived at the site. The robust stop and search tactic was undertaken because the police believed a reasonable percentage of those attending would be carrying illegal drugs and that a proportion of the drivers and vehicles would be unlicensed or un-roadworthy vehicles. Hundreds were stopped and searched and 90 people later appeared in court on a variety of drug charges, mainly involving cannabis. Despite this, one of the festival organisers was gracious enough to say, “…to be fair to the police they’ve caused no trouble at all on the festival site itself.”
In the aftermath of the 1979 festival Ceredigion District Council vowed the event would not take place again. CDC’s concerns revolved more around the potential for fires and their discriminatory perceptions of hippies, than any substantive evidence that the festival had caused problems. As the Psilocybe mushroom was still legal to use in 1979, albeit with a slightly more dubious legal position around its dried or prepared usage, there was little reference by the Council as to why the event took place. In fact, the Council’s Public Health Department were very impressed with how much help had been given to leave the site as clean as it was before the event, “During an inspection on the day the site was vacated, little refuse was left and considering that some 2,000 people had been through the place, it was remarkably clean.” He added, seemingly in support of free festivals generally, “If this fair is to be held again in the future, every effort should be made by the organisers to be on site at least two days before the commencing date, to arrange for toilets, water and rubbish disposal”.
In late February 1980 a special Council meeting was held at Aberystwyth Town Hall to discuss the now annual festival. Officers from C.D.C., Dyfed Fire Service, Dyfed Powys Police, the Forestry Commission and the Welsh Water Authority attended, along with representatives from Gwnnws Isaf and Llanafan Community Councils. Local landowners and the public were in attendance too, and all were determined, once and for all, to bring an end to the freaks’ festival of fungus.
A report entitled ‘Problems resulting from Hippie ‘Festivals’ in the Ystwyth River’ Valley was circulated at the meeting. This document focused on three main issues regarding the festivals; pollution, fire danger and threats to properties in the area. Once again there was no mention of the focus of the festival—psychoactive fungi. This may have been because of the Psilocybe mushroom’s quasi-legal status, but it is the author’s belief that objections to the festival were more about the lifestyle of those who attended.
Mid-Wales was, in the 1970s and 80s, extremely conservative with religious beliefs still playing a strong part in the overall culture of the area and in the lives of many who lived there. The hardcore hippie traveller’s lifestyle was anathema to the hard working country folk, and Wales’ regional and local newspapers regularly featured stories concerning the hippie influx. Rarely a week went by without the Cambrian News reporting on a commune, a drug bust or some other aspect of hippie life that many readers would find distasteful and completely alien to their traditional work and chapel centred existence.
This unspoken prejudice was amplified in the report with its assertion that,
“The small scattered local population is quite at the mercy of a lawless, nameless and at the very least truculent and unsavoury army of occupation… It becomes noisy, filthy, repulsive—something between a fairground and a rubbish dump… We are polite because they seem slightly subnormal, and because we are afraid.”
This discriminatory rant at the counter-culture’s expense was balanced slightly by a suggestion that existing sites with facilities, such as those used by fairs and Eisteddfods, could be rented to free festival organisers. But CDC was frustrated with its inability to identify organisers or leaders. They simply didn’t grasp the loose anarchic ‘bring what you expect to find’ ethos that underpinned the free festival movement. CDC Officers, steeped in decades of stultifying local government rules and regulations could not comprehend there was no formal structure behind the free festival movement. The following sentence exemplifies the problem CDC faced and their inability to grasp the facts, “Hippie festivals are not spontaneous, they are organised. There must be a corresponding organisation to deal with them?”
The meeting concluded with the agreement that the local authority was impotent to deal with the festival, and new legislation was required. Various measures were mooted to prevent or disrupt the 1980 festival including police action, and driving the hippies away by partially flooding the site. Other suggestions to prevent the mushroom munching hordes included asking local traders to actively discourage the hippies, which nowadays would be a flagrant breach of discrimination legislation.
One suggested solution, to make a Direction under Article 4 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1977 to require planning permission for camp sites occupied for more than 28 days, was taken seriously. Seriously to the point of paranoia, with one internal Council communication requesting,
“I am sure that you realise the importance of keeping these discussions as confidential as possible. If the hippies get to know that public bodies had met to discuss this matter they might feel encouraged by such a move and might therefore interpret it as some form of acceptance on our part.”
The need for secrecy, lest news of this impending change in legislation get back to the counter-culture, was repeated three times in the report, highlighting a touching naivety in the Council’s belief that those who attended free festivals cared anything at all about laws surrounding land access!
Discussions as to how to prevent the 1980 festival taking place continued throughout the spring of that year. The Welsh Water Authority (WWA) were completely against any flooding of the area due to the risk of heavy metal residues from the former lead and zinc mines in the area being washed downstream. (CDC was unimpressed, having pinned its hopes on flooding being the most practical way to deal with the ‘problem’. The delightfully named J.H. Stoner noted, complete with unintentional pun, “It seems clear that the Authority wish to wash their hands of this matter and are not prepared to co-operate in any way”.
So a change to the law it was, and on 20th June 1980, the local addendum to the Town and Country Planning Act was made law. This revised legislature forbade, without prior planning permission, any camping or the erection of moveable structures in the Gwnnws Isaf and Llanafan areas. That this legal constraint was aimed solely at the mushroom festival was made abundantly clear from the duration of the change, which ran from 20th June until 19th December 1980—essentially encompassing the main mushroom season.
In early August, Dyfed-Powys Police wrote to Ceredigion District Council to notify them that ‘leaflets’ obtained at a recent free festival held on the Welsh border were advertising the 1980 Psilocybin festival would commence on Friday 12th September. CDC and The Forestry Commission between them arranged for the access road to the festival site to be fenced off, and an eight foot deep six feet wide trench dug, to prevent vehicular access.
These efforts were to no avail, and by 8 am on Saturday 6th September the fence had gone, the trench had been backfilled, and in the words of one local complainant to the police, “the hippies were in”. Being proactive hadn’t worked and the highly organised Ceredigion District Council had been fooled yet again by a chaotic culture they clearly despised.
Once fully underway, the festival unfolded in the usual way. People went looking for mushrooms, listened to or played music and just generally hung out with their friends;
“The main event which usually happened three or four times daily was the arrival of the festival kettle—a blackened industrial sized affair, filled with magic mushrooms. The custom was to throw a few more shrooms inside, make as much tea as you all required, then carry it over to the next camp…”.
Children were present, as they were at all free festivals, and the Daily Mirror reported with delicious horror that “…many took their children on a four-mile trek to gather dangerous ‘liberty cap’ mushrooms that give LSD-type hallucinations.”
Although largely psychologically harmless, if not prepared correctly, taken on an empty stomach or confused with other fungi, taking psychedelic mushrooms could lead to problems. A roughly handwritten ‘bulletin board’ on the festival site warned, “Before you take your mushrooms check with someone who knows because we do not want more people with bad guts in the first aid tent.”.
Despite Ceredigion Council’s negative attitude towards the festival and its attendees, many journalists who visited the site were broadly supportive of the event, and the culture that had created it. A report in The Observer noted,
“Inside the festival there is a gentle carnival atmosphere. Food and mushrooms are shared… The festival is possibly the only meeting place of the hard core of ‘new Gypsies’ who travel with horse and cart and erect covered wagon-shaped tents, called ‘benders’, from bent over saplings…. Many at the festival feel that the magic mushroom could lead to the return of the hippies as an important movement”.
This last sentence bore out the increasing confidence felt by the hard core of the free festival travellers. In the early 1980s free festivals had spread and evolved to the point where the committed hippie traveller could be on the road and at a festival more or less continuously from May to October. Thousands of people were now on the road and genuine alternative hippie traveller culture existed with its own fixed calendric celebrations of which the Welsh Psilocybin Festivals were a welcome addition at the end of the festival season.
Free Festival veteran Bev Richardson was in attendance in 1980 and reflected, “A lot of people come here to pick mushrooms to sell… The market for them isn’t in this country but on the continent in Holland and Germany. I suppose you could call it a hippie cottage industry.”
Although gathering, taking, or indeed selling, Psilocybe mushrooms was not illegal in the late 1970s, the heavy police presence presaged the future for the free festival community. Returning from one mushroom hunt, Keith Mitchell was strip searched by the police operating the road blocks in and out of the site. They found his mushrooms in a tobacco tin, naively enquiring, “Do you smoke those with the stuff boyo?”.
The Observer also acknowledged the overzealous police presence. One young drugs squad detective told the journalist he would expose his film if he took photos of uniformed policemen searching vehicles. Road blocks continued to stop and search vehicles entering and leaving the festival site, ostensibly “…to carry out crime checks because of the increased number of petty thefts in that area reported to us since the festival began”, but these searches gave the police carte blanch to look for drugs, check documents and vehicle roadworthiness, carrying out arrests if laws were found to have been broken. At least fifteen of those treated in this way made a formal complaint to Aberystwyth police.
Penny Mellor, of the government sponsored Festival Welfare Services commented that many festival goers thought the atmosphere was spoiled by,
“the high level of police activity on the approach roads to the festival. Road blocks were set up and virtually every person and vehicle going to the festival was stopped and searched during the weekend I attended. It was felt that this level of activity was sheer harassment of the festival people, on the pretence of searching for drugs, whereas the proportion of those actually found in possession of drugs was very small.”
Mellor’s observations reinforced the fact that many of those who attended were activists, doers, people acutely tuned into the burgeoning culture they were part of. Psychedelic mushrooms may have been the event’s raison d’etre, and the drug of choice, but this was no idle gathering of dole scroungers. It was a genuine representation of a new, alternative society; one at odds with the prevailing materialistic culture.
“The Psilocybin Fair was a festival of doing. Almost everyone on site was trading in some way, mainly in food and crafts. People were very ingenious at thinking up new ways of exchanging money. The trading wasn't worked out on a high profit basis, but more on people working with whatever money and resources they had to generate enough money or basic supplies to live on themselves whilst providing a service for other people at the same time. The variety of food available was very wide. There were tea and coffee, sandwich and homemade cake, soup, vegetarian stews and bean-burger stalls; in addition, some people chose to wander round the site hawking their products—like the wandering samosa seller.”
The 1980 event was also the most together of the Psilocybin festivals from an entertainment point of view. There was a generator, a small stage, and several bands and musicians, acoustic and electric, played. But the weather was miserable, and it was a poor season for psilocybin. By Friday 12th September the heavy rain and gales, coupled with the poor mushroom crop, led many to leave the site. Almost 200 remained however, with the promise of more at the coming weekend. 1980’s festival ended when the hard core of hippie travellers left the riverside site to travel south to the Meigan Fayre, in Pembrokeshire.
Despite Ceredigion District Council’s fear of fire, pollution and pillaging, the 1980 festival passed, as did previous events, with little incident. The council’s much vaunted ‘secret weapon’ of making it illegal to camp on the festival site was ignored and not enforced. And despite the police harassment, arrests were actually fewer that in 1979, with only forty people arrested and charged, mostly with minor drug offences.
1981 saw Ceredigion District Council even more determined there would not be a re-run of the perceived problems caused by earlier events. Their plans were immediately thwarted in early May of that year when, perhaps hoping to settle there until the autumn festival, twenty hippies set up camp by the River Ystwyth near Llanafan, at the ‘usual’ festival site. Local residents complained and the police began to patrol the area.
CDC were jolted into action by this early incursion of festival goers and reiterated that there would be no festival in the autumn of 1981. Ceredigion District Council’s chief executive, J. Kendall Harris, noted that a special council meeting was to be held to discuss the issue. “It is hoped that the small group who have arrived now will move on fairly quickly, but obviously officers of the council will investigate the position at once”, Mr Harris confidently asserted.
Once again there appeared to be no real foundation for this panic, to the point where Harris could only offer the somewhat vague claim that, “We have had a number of local residents informing us that they are there and that they are anxious that something might happen in view of past experiences over the past few years”. The fact that some people had been “anxious” and that “something” “might” seemed hardly substantive enough to ban the celebratory activities of a bunch of hippies, but apparently it was.
By early September 1981 around fifty hippies had gathered on the festival site, the vanguard of an expected several hundred mushroom munchers. The landowner, carpenter Alan Jones, contacted his solicitors and instructed them to seek an injunction preventing the festival from going ahead. And on 2nd September Judge Michael Evans granted a possession order, meaning the hippies could legally be moved off the land.
A possession order would usually take five days to come into effect but the judge granted it immediately because he “agreed it was urgent”. Interestingly, it was revealed that Jones had been unable to take legal action against the hippies in previous years because he could not afford the solicitors fees. But this year he was financially supported by CDC! That a local Council was prepared to financially assist a landowner to prevent hippies from gathering on private land is perhaps a measure of the disproportionate panic caused by the festival.
On 3rd September the police took action, advising the sixty or so advance campers to vacate the land immediately. Bailiffs were standing by to enforce the possession order if required. A few offered token resistance by moving to the adjacent landowner’s field, but soon left when he threatened to set a bull loose. So determined was CDC to drive the hippies out of town that those travellers who had run out of fuel were given the cash sum of £25 so they could move on to the Elan Valley where a small gathering of hippies was encamped. This payment, ostensibly an act of charity, could equally be seen as a disproportionate use of public money, showing CDC’s lack of understanding, as all this did was move their perceived ‘problem’ to that of a neighbouring Council.
Those festival goers with no transport were picked up in a bus sent by the Elan Valley hippies, and the annual mushroom festival continued untroubled, albeit in reduced circumstances, in a landscape populated by even more of the bone coloured fungi. Following the eviction from Llanafan some hippies, claiming to represent the festival organisers, approached Alan Jones the landowner, to see if it was possible to rent the site; but negotiations quickly broke down.
With the evicted Psilocybin festival goers now in the Elan Valley, within the space of six years the festivals had come full circle, rising from and returning to the same location. This offshoot of the Psilocybin Festival was taking place on Welsh Water Authority land and by 8th September over 500 hippies had gathered and the festival was in full swing. But, as with the 1976 festival, they were forcibly evicted by the police and the festival ended abruptly.
The £25 cash handouts to ‘encourage’ Psilocybin festival goers to move to the Elan Valley rightly caused a political storm in CDC’s narrow corridors of power. Councillor Mike Byrne was rightly appalled that public money had been used to effectively foist CDC’s ‘problem’ on another council. In true political fudgery the Council officials who sanctioned the handout denied they knew where the hippies intended to go and just wanted to help them move on.
In the aftermath of the failed 1981 festival a suggestion was made by members of the Welsh Farmers’ Union (WFU) that landowners who had psilocybin growing on their land should spray them with ‘poison’. Deputy president R. Hughes referred to hippies as “parasites on society” who could only indulge in festivals because they were on benefits. This priceless piece of prejudice ignored the fact that many travellers made money by trading and, whether illegal or not, by selling drugs. Many of the festival goers who came from across Britain and Europe also had jobs. Once again it appeared it was the hippie culture the Welsh found distasteful simply because it differed from their own.
The 1981 Psilocybin festival was the last such to be held at Llanafan. An event was planned and anticipated in 1982, but was countered in advance by Ceredigion District Council taking out a county court order, enabling them to immediately evict anyone occupying the site. A handful of mushroom aficionados turned up and were promptly told they would be arrested if they did not move on, which they did. The Welsh mushroom festivals were over.
Their demise hardly mattered because word of psilocybin’s potent effects had spread like wildfire throughout Britain. People had no need of a specific festival at which to obtain them or to celebrate their use. Many upland areas of Britain played host to the little fungi and they were easily gathered in their thousands or could be bought very cheaply. P. semilanceata was now just another widely used psychedelic both in the home and at festivals.
In the decades following the 1970s, their use became endemic. Interest in hallucinogenic fungi flourished to the point where in the 2000s one could buy several varieties of Psilocybe mushrooms in head shops or via mail order, or even buy kits with which to grow your own. Of course this widespread case of people openly having fun with drugs was quickly noticed by the Establishment, and laws were brought into service in the early years of the 21st century that outlawed British psychedelic fungi of most kinds once and for all.
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