Rock Soup

The following story is a retelling of an old fairy tale, which was about a group of Russian soldiers who arrive at a village with no food, and started to make a soup. They started with a stone in a cauldron of water. After cooking it for some time, they tasted it, and declared that it needed a little salt. They asked if any of the starving peasants had any salt, and someone said “I have some.” Gradually a soup was made which fed the whole village and the soldiers too… This version is based on a true story and probably the original nursery tale was too.

The story happened in a wood, not far from Amesbury, at the time of the summer solstice 1988. I’d been travelling with a group of protesters since the May Bank Holiday, marching from a free festival in Wick, near Bristol. Our mission was to raise awareness of the Stonehenge Free Festival, which the authorities had been trying to stop for the last number of years.

Over the last few weeks our group of thirty or so people, along with a few rescue dogs, some drums, with our banners and black flags, had walked the highways and byways of Avon Somerset, Wiltshire, and finally we arrived in Hampshire.

We usually had a police presence of some sort, too. It was a game of cat and mouse. The police wanted to stop us, but we were doing nothing wrong. We were simply walking, and camping on various grass verges, commonages, etc.

On the day of this story, we had finally arrived at our destination: Stonehenge. A massive police presence was blocking the area, although there were biased about exactly who they were preventing from entry into to cordon they had created around the stones. An old lady walking her poodle might slip through unheeded. A group of Japanese tourists was sure to be waved through, but unsavoury types such as ourselves were not allowed anywhere near the land which had been freely given to the people of England, (and not just the M.O.D).

We pointed out that their blockade of the public highway was illegal, and due to the fact that we had a number of press, photographers and even a camera crew with us, they were forced to let us continue our march; though only with certain conditions.

By this point, our small group had grown quite considerably, and it was now a couple of hundred people strong. It was therefore deemed to be a risk to public order, and we could not enter the police cordoned area without breaking up into smaller groups. After some discussion we agreed to groups of no more than twenty at a time, with a minute space between each group setting off.

The Police commissioner smiled with relief, thinking he had won, but it was an easy problem to solve.

Our original group of thirty split up, each leading a group of twenty protesters down the road toward Stonehenge. The first group set off at a slow ramble, as if they had all the time in the world. The next group followed, and so it continued. By the time it got to the last group, however, the pace was much quicker.

With each passing mile, the distance between the groups lessened, until eventually, we arrived at the stones with no space at all between the first and last group. We had become one again, much to the annoyance of the Police Commissioner.

Sadly, we were not allowed to stop, and were marched all the way through the cordoned off area and out the other side. They finally stopped escorting us at the roundabout outside of Amesbury. From there we continued on our own into the town. Here, we would meet up with the vehicles that were carrying our gear, and organise the next part of our plan.

We marched through the town and stopped at the supermarket car park. The place was crammed full of weekend hippies, anarchists, and every other type of colourful freaks, all waiting to hear news of the location of this year’s free festival.

Here, we met up with some of the horse-drawn travellers that we had shared camps with a number of times during the preceding six weeks march. Together, we discussed the site we had selected, and how we were going to get to it. With the help of ordinance survey maps, we agreed a route and then split up to pass the word around to everyone else in the car park.

Over the preceding weeks, we had made the job of the police very difficult. People had been camping all across the countryside, in every layby and commonage, and as the solstice came nearer the pressure increased as more and more people gathered. The police did their best to evict people, in many cases breaking the law themselves in order to achieve their goals. The problem with their plan however, was there was just too many of us. It had become un-policeable. In the end, I am sure that they were happy to have us all in one place, where they could keep an eye on us, and this is exactly what happened.

We had found a large wood, a few miles west of Amesbury, and this was to be our proposed new festival site. It was still within walking distance of the stones. If we were not going to be allowed to have a festival at Stonehenge, we were going to have one nearby, and planned to still go to the stones on the morning of the solstice.

With the horses at the head of our procession, followed by our black flags and drums, we left the car park and headed out of Amesbury. As we left, more and more people emerged from shops and alleyways. It was like rats leaving a sinking ship. Looking back down the long straight road out of the town, we could see thousands of people marching out of the town, many more than we had come with. The whole road was taken up for as far as we could see. It was an awesome sight to behold.

We marched onward, along walkways, bridleways, a disused railway line, even across an army barracks. They didn’t like that much, but when we pointed out that we were walking on a public right of way, they could do nothing to prevent us. Eventually, we arrived at the woods, and started to set up camp.

After six weeks of marching together, camping in a different place each night, our small band of protesters had become quite good at setting up camp. Within an hour, we had a large communal bender set up out of canvas and hazel poles, firewood collected, and a good fire blazing. We were about to start making some food for ourselves when we noticed the amount of weekend campers who had arrived at the festival site. Many came with only the clothes on their backs. Some of them had been clever enough to bring a tent, (we referred to them as nylon nightmares as they were far inferior to our benders) but little else.

Some asked whether they could use our fire to cook their pot noodles, or heat up their tins of beans, as they had not brought any cooking gear with them. It was then that we had an idea.

Sending scouts out to scour the site, we went around and cadged any spare food we could find. “Hi there. We’re setting up a free food tent over there. Have you got anything that you can donate … A few carrots, a bit of rice, anything?”

Bit by bit, the donations came in and we soon had the makings of a decent stew. We set to work cooking it in the big cast iron cauldrons we had lugged with us from Bristol.

“FREE FOOD,” we shouted. “FREE FOOD! Donations welcome!”

“Free food?” people would ask, unsure if they had heard it right.

“That’s right. Here, grab a bowl of stew.”

“It’s free?”

“Yep, but we accept donations. Have you got anything to contribute?”

The answers varied from “No, sorry,” to “I have a tin of baked beans in my rucksack, if that’ll help.”

Some offered us cans of beer. They’d brought no food with them to the festival, but had the forethought to bring a weekends supply of alcohol.

A few replied with, “I’ve got no food, sorry, but I’ll pay you for a bowl of stew.”

“Listen mate. Thanks, but your money’s no good around here. I’ll tell you what though. If you go into town tomorrow, buy some food and bring it back. Okay?”

They came in their droves, and no one went away with an empty belly. During the rest of the day, and all through the weekend, we were busy cooking stews and making japatis like they were going out of fashion, but we still had time to party too, and it was good to be doing something positive.

Some years later, I was reading bedtime stories to my children and came across the story of the Rock Soup. I told them about my own Rock Soup story, and how we had fed hundreds of people with next to nothing. It gave them a new perspective to the old tale.

I’m pretty sure that the Russian soldiers and their starving peasants had a similar experience to us. I wonder if this was how the story in the bible about the loaves and fishes came into being. Perhaps all that Jesus and his disciple did was facilitate, and the crowd shared what fish and bread they had amongst them, rather than keeping it all to themselves.

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