ROCKAWAY MARK: Interview (May 2024)

A sit-down chat with Mark Wilson, the ‘curator’ of Rockaway Park in Somerset.

Halfway between Glastonbury and Bristol, down a single-track lane leading out of Temple Cloud, around a sharp bend and up a steep hill, lies Rockaway Park. A former scrap yard that looks like a settlement in a Mad Max movie. It is an art space that features a live music shed, a recording studio, a vegan café and several artist studios. Everywhere you look there is art. From little things made out of nuts and bolts, to sculptures made out of vans and pink elephants riding on rockets. Oh, and a church.

We have visited the site many times over the last few years. Sometimes it has been for gigs by the likes of Zion Train, Culture Shock and Dissident Noize Factory, or Vegan Sunday Lunch with acoustic music provided by the likes of Eff Off or Mercurius Rising. Sometimes it has just been for an art market. Today we are here for what will hopefully be the first of many Zine Fairs.

Confessions of an Ex Zine Editor stall

The weather has been reasonably dry, so we can park in a field owned by a neighbouring farm. If the ground is wet you have to park off site and walk up that bloody hill.

We wander around the zine fair, chat with some of the stall holders, buy some zines and listen to a few talks. After a vegan lunch we pop in the recording studio where some freeform noise making thing with synths is going on.

Eventually we grab Mark Wilson, the driving force behind this whole project. As the seventies clicked over into the eighties, Mark was the guitarist with Anarcho-Punk legends, The Mob. They split up in 1983 but reformed in 2011 to play Mark’s birthday party. A single ‘Rise Up’ followed in 2013 and a few gigs were played.

Mark takes us off to sit in the back of an old Bedford bus that not moved for many years and we hit the record button.

Right, well, what you’ve got here is quite unusual, so it’s not replicating anything else. What was the journey that gave you the idea to create this space?

MARK: Well, I realised a few weeks ago, because Grant Showbiz was here, playing with Blue Midnight. I met Grant when he was on tour with Here and Now, or Planet Gong, right back in 1977 or 78 or something. And they came to play in Yeovil. It said Floating Anarchy Tour on the poster, and being young punks we thought it must be something to do with anarchy, we must go along, you know, it must be punk band, it must be something to do with punk.

I obviously didn’t know what punk was, because it had only just started. And it was a free gig, and they had to pass the hat round at the end, and everyone put their money in. We thought, this is fucking brilliant, you know, I really like this.

And we went off with Here and Now on tour, and it sort of informed most of my life ever since, really. So I went from that, and I didn’t really realise this until recently, but this is sort of a return to that situation, in a way. And I sort of felt like, if we throw it out to the world, and ask the world to provide, hopefully they will.

I never really liked the sort of buying and selling of stuff – I’m going off on a weird tangent here.

Yeah, it’s like, you probably know Here and Now and that, so you can keep up a bit? Yeah, anyway, so seeing Grant again, this has always been important to us. You put stuff on for free, you try and get people to come in, and you try and make it pay, somehow make sense in the real world, because the real world doesn’t make any fucking sense at all.

Everyone keeps doing it, even though it makes no fucking sense at all. We must keep up the same system that we’ve continued forevermore.

And yeah, so anyway, leading on from that, obviously we met Here and Now, we (The Mob) went on tour with them. Because of that, we met Crass, we ended up doing records with Crass, we’d done records before, but one way or another. It was always on a DIY level and we formed our own record label (All the Mad Men), and everything we ever did, we did ourselves.

And then at some point in time, I ended up living in a teepee. I started having kids and things, and thinking, ‘I’m going to have to shake up a bit, I’m going to have to make some money, I can’t just carry on like this, because the kids are going to need somewhere to live and stuff’. So I started taking vans apart, because that was what I knew, from travelling with vans, and later with trucks and stuff. Anyway, it was what I knew, and I started taking vans apart, because I’m a bit of a workaholic, and never wanted to really sit down for very long.

I ended up being very good at taking vans apart,  making connections, and we ended up with a really big business taking vans apart. I was renting a lot of space in Bristol, which was costing a fortune, this was twenty five years ago, and we were paying £1000 a week in rent. And it became obvious that I needed to buy somewhere to actually do this sensibly, you couldn’t just keep paying £1000 a week in rent. And then we found this yard (Rockaway), which as you’re well aware, is in the middle of fucking nowhere and really inappropriate for this huge business that I was running.

We were previously right next to the M4 and the M5, which was obviously very good for the business, but moved here in the middle of nowhere.

And then spent about the next ten years, sort of gradually destroying that business, it got worse and worse and worse, and things changed in the way business happened. In a way I sort of feel like I almost did it on purpose, you know, I wanted to return to what I actually cared about, and this felt like the right place to do it. Then my hand was forced by going bankrupt, having to shut it down and just kill the business.

By now I’d paid for the yard, I’d had it on a long-winded personal mortgage, which is something nobody ever heard of, the trick I learned off an old friend of mine who’s a traveller. You know, you can get a mortgage without having any paperwork, and you don’t just do it… Anyway, long story, but… Yeah, somehow I managed to buy the place, and I owned it, and the company was limited, so when the company went bust, I still owned the land. I thought, now I’ve got this beautiful place in the middle of nowhere, let’s see if we can build something entirely different, and build some sort of arts venue.

I had no idea what I was doing, but I just knew that I had to do something else, and, you know, whatever this is now, ten years later or whatever, this is what we’ve got here today. You’ve been here a few times, it just continuously evolves, and people continuously walk in with new ideas, and we do new things, and push new boundaries.

But the funny thing, why I started the story with Here and Now, is because I was still trying to pass the hat around to pay for it all, because it still makes no sense in the real world, although I think to everybody who comes here, it makes perfect sense, and it doesn’t need any explanation, but it’s a very difficult place to describe, there isn’t anywhere that I’m aware of, at least in England,  that’s even vaguely similar. It’s a very unique place, and it means the world to a lot of people, but very, very hard to describe.

So, you’re obviously mechanically minded, so all these sort of sculptures, bits of car put together to turn into a traffic warden or whatever, is that your handiwork?

MARK: Some of it’s my work, and some of it’s just encouraged by me, or I’ll have an idea and I’ll get people to come and make it. I always say I can weld, and I can do woodwork, and I can do anything, but I can’t do it very well, so I try and find the people who are good at something, and feel inspired enough to want to work with me to facilitate the actual creation of stuff. I could do it, but it would look like I did it. But if somebody else does it, it’ll look how I imagine it.

I’ve been lucky enough, through my connections with the van business and scrapyards and what have you, I’ve got good relationships with the scrapyards, so I find a lot of good things.

People ring me up and say, ‘oh, I’ve got something really unusual, blah, blah, blah’. And also, our closeness to Glastonbury Festival has meant that at the end of the festival, even back long before Rockaway, when we were just a scrapyard, at the end of the festival, people would say, do you want to take this car and keep it up yours until next year? Because, having built a big sculpture for a festival, they’ve got nowhere to put the fucking thing in between. So it’s then, you can’t really take it back to Carshalton or wherever it is you live and, you know, put it on your mum’s drive. So I’d get these phone calls.

I still get these phone calls. Somebody yesterday messaged and said, ‘do you want a five-foot-high rubber duck?’ I said, ‘well, yeah, of course I want a five-foot-high rubber duck’. I’ve fucking no idea why, but, you know, we will find a home for a five-foot-high rubber duck.

So do you take any of these sculptures out to festivals and things?

MARK: Yeah, they go. One of them, the rocket car which lives here, it’s currently gone to Shindig for next weekend and that windmill that’s just outside the window where we are now, that’s going off to Shindig next weekend. And then some of them will be at Glastonbury Festival.

At this point the interview is interrupted by Dick Lucas, south west punk legend, singer with Subhumans, Culture Shock, Citizen Fish, and a half decent artist on the side.

DICK: Michelle’s running out of chapel patches and badges. Where is she going to find some more?

MARK; They are in… Oh, God, I would have thought they were in the shelves behind her, but if not, just ask Marta. Pop your head in the cafe and ask Marta. She’ll know where they are. But I have a feeling that they’ll be in the shop somewhere.*

(*Trust me, there is a reason I’ve left this interruption in)

MARK: It’s not every interview when you get interrupted by Dick Subhuman, too.

Well, actually, that was one thing I was going to ask, because the last few times I’ve come down here, he’s always here.

MARK: Well, Michelle, his wife Michelle, helps us, works for us, like, for a few days a week, on our continuous quest for funding. So, she’s employed here for, you know, on a part-time basis, but she’s here a lot. And she doesn’t drive, so Dick always picks her up and drops her off, so Dick’s a regular, yeah.

He doesn’t live here or anything but he only lives in Bath, so if he’s not on tour, he’s fairly often round here.

I know there’s a recording studio. Is that used much?

MARK: Yes, well, that’s just been taken over by my son-in-law, my son-outlaw, he’s not married, but my daughter’s fella, basically, is Alex Penny, who’s one of your Welsh lads. He was in The Automatic, who did the ‘What’s That Coming Over The Hill?’ He’s just taken it over, just recently, in the last, I’d say, two months, he’s taken over the studio and he’s using it much more.

He’s busy today in there, doing some weird soundscape thing. But, yeah, he’s pushing it and making it work, and it hasn’t really worked for many, many, many years. It was one of the first spaces we made here, but it hardly ever got used until really recently, and now it’s just starting to grow.

Mark participating in a hands n soundscape thingy

I mean, the whole place is starting to grow legs a little bit more than it ever did, but, yeah, the studio’s definitely improving by the day.

I know Dave Bimble (former bass player with the Sporadics, DJ, record trader and all round music fanatic) lives here. Are there many other people actually living on site?

MARK: There’s about 30 people live on site altogether. Most of them are in some creative industry or another, so they’ll be artists or set designers, or they run areas at festivals. There’s a mixture of people that live here, but because they’re mostly in the sort of entertainment line in one way or another, you don’t see them a lot down here.

Bumble dealing in vinyl

The people that live here tend to sort of come here to have some peace and quiet, whereas we’re the exact opposite. So, yeah, I don’t know how to express that. So, there’s about 30 people that live on site, and there’s probably another 30 people who are connected who have workshops and things that come in and out.

There are about 30 workshop spaces, but there’s probably only seven or eight people at any time working in them, because people are away doing festivals or touring or whatever. We’re mostly itinerant, the people that live here are semi-itinerant.

What do the neighbours think of having this space here?

MARK: I mean, initially the neighbours hated it, because they were scared. But I think nowadays, with a vast majority of people like us, as is always the case with art spaces and stuff like that, it starts off like everybody hates you. You move in, you squat in, you’re making a mess, you’re painting the walls. In their opinion, you’ve got a load of old broken-down lorries and things.

And then the next thing, the area starts getting a bit cool, and people start selling posh coffee. And before you know where you are, the whole fucking area’s gone arty. And this is no different than anywhere else.

So you effectively gentrified the scrapyard then?

MARK: Well, we definitely gentrified the scrapyard, but also I think the surrounding area is also full of artists. I’m not taking credit for that, but it certainly hasn’t hurt that this village is full of artists.

I can’t say they all moved here because we moved here, but I’m sure it sort of helps raise the cool of an area, if you’ve got something people perceive as cool in the middle of it all. Somebody came here the other day to pick up a truck, and he met a villager who was going, I hate that fucking bastard. He gets away with everything, you know? But that is not the general opinion.

I’m on the parish council, and most people think well of us. You’re always going to piss somebody off, and it keeps them occupied, doesn’t it? Gives them something to fucking think about.


The Church of Unrest

I mention The Church of Unrest, and sit back. This is something Mark is clearly passionate about, because he goes off on a passionate rant.

MARK: Well, that’s my current pet love. It started off with an argument with the council. We’re largely left alone by the council and the authorities, I think we’re probably more trouble than we’re worth.

But they came along one day, the people from the rating department, the business rates department of the council, and said, we want you to pay business rates on this building. And this building, which I’m looking at it out the window now, but it’s basically just a steel shelter. And at the time it was incomplete.

And I said, ‘it’s not a building, it’s a church’. And it’s funny, five years ago yesterday, there was a wedding in that building. This English woman married a Czech guy, and they hired the whole space to have the wedding.

They’d come to stay in our Airbnb a few years ago, and a few years before that, and they were going around looking for a wedding venue. They said, oh, I wonder if Mark and Marta would let us get married at Rockaway. So they came up here, and we said, ‘yeah, we’d do that, that’d be great’. And so they got married in the chapel.

It wasn’t the chapel then, it was just a building. So when the council came and said we’ve got to pay business rates, I said, ‘It’s not a business, it’s a church. The only thing we’ve ever done in this building is have a wedding’. We’ve never done anything else. So in my opinion, it’s a holy space, and I’m not paying business rates on it.

They came back and they said you can’t have a church for the purposes of business rates without having a recognised religion. The two things go together. You’ve got to have a recognised religion, or you can’t claim exemption from the rate.

I Googled it straight away. I thought, what constitutes a recognised religion? And the first thing that came back is 60,000 people. It’s complete, absolute nonsense.

This is absolute nonsense, but it doesn’t matter. It was the first thing I saw, 60,000 people. I thought, okay, if I need 60,000 people. If I get 60,000 people giving me a tenner each, or £20 with a t-shirt option, I’ll have somewhere between 600,000 and 1.2 million, and then I can build a fucking church, because I’ll have plenty of fucking money to build it.

I also know plenty of very talented people who can do this work. So I started thinking,  we can use that money to pay these talented people to make really beautiful constructions and beautiful objects in order to represent what us, as an alternative to mainstream society.

So I thought, let’s use this money to build a monument to alternative thought and expression and to giving a shit about other things, and just to generally say ‘fuck you’ to the status quo. It got more and more and more involved, and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s our MP, he’s only three miles away, and I thought, fuck you, you fucking prick. And then the Tories brought out all these laws about trying to curtail protests and stuff, and the more it went on, I was just thinking, do you know what, I’ve had enough of you cunts, let’s make a monument to protest, to people who give a shit, to people who care about stuff. Let’s say, fuck you Suella Braverman, go fuck yourself.

I don’t want to hear this bullshit anymore, you’ve been going on and on and dividing us and fucking about. We are good people, and we’re powerful, and we’re… Anyway, I was getting obsessed with all this, and then my daughter came along and said, you know, you should stop ridiculing religion, because you’re actually a really spiritual bloke, and you’re not taking account of that, you know?

Because I’d got a bit carried away with my rebellious nature, she lent me a book on science and belief, and I started reading all this book about science and belief, and I thought, you know what, there’s a lot to be said for this. Human beings need places where they can come together and congregate, and they need to be able to communicate with nature and the natural world. As unnatural as this world is, it is our natural world, it’s the world that we would create, it’s the world we would live in, given a choice, so it’s our natural world. And it is surrounded by the natural world, so all these things start adding together. People need places of pilgrimage, and they need places where they can have communal joy and sing together.

All these things that were traditionally done by churches. I started thinking, this isn’t a fucking joke, I thought this was actually quite necessary, people need a place to focus, they need a place to care about, they need a place to meet, and I started asking everyone who came in, what they were doing here, and they’d say, ‘oh, we came to England, we’ve been at Crass’ Dial House, we’re on our way to Glastonbury, to have a look at, you know, Glastonbury Tor and all that. And Crass said, why don’t you drop in at Rockaway on your way’.

So I said, ‘basically you’re on a pilgrimage then’. They said ‘yeah, I suppose I am, yeah, you know, we’ve come from the States, but we’re driving around Europe’.

So now we get a lot of people coming through on pilgrimages, I mean, they may not be aware of that, but, you know, people have been doing this at Dial House for a long time, haven’t they, on a pilgrimage to go and see these, anyway, all these things just came together, and I thought, this isn’t a joke at all, people actually want this fucking thing to happen.

I was telling this story to everyone, anyone who wanted to listen, and everyone kept trying to give me a tenner, and I was like, I don’t want your tenners yet, I’m not ready for this, it’s going to fuck me up, it’s going to change my life, and it’s going to be a pain in the arse. Before long it would be the only thing I ever talk about, so half of me was really reluctant to get engaged, but then the government were getting worse and worse, with their fucking rhetoric about refugees and shit, and I was getting more and more angry about it.

I don’t know if you noticed, but the windows on the church are all open, and the reason that they’re all open, is so the wind can blow through them, because the pandemic thing came along almost as soon as I started this idea. The pandemic came along, and then it became really important.

The Church of Unrest

People needed safe spaces to meet. Because it’s sort of semi-open air, I thought, this is a safe space, this is actually providing shelter, and still a forum for people to be able to communicate with each other. I made all the windows all open together. The reason for that, was to represent this fucking period of madness that we’d lived through, that had now been completely ignored by the government. Having fucked us all about, and made us all jump through hoops, and do all these weird behaviours, for two years. Then all of a sudden, it wasn’t important at all, and, get back to work, you fucking plebs.

I was thinking, ‘You don’t want us to protest, you don’t want us to ask any questions about what you did all that money’. They just, forget about it, it never happened, all these people are dead, all these people’s mental health is fucked up, but don’t worry about it, get back to work.  I was like, ‘I really don’t want to do this, I really want to make a point’. It then became about that as well.

Then other people come and say, ‘oh yeah, but you know, all that wasn’t real, it wasn’t this, all fucking this, that’. Well, I don’t really fucking care which side you were on, it still impacted you a lot, didn’t it, because you’re still fucking talking about it, so, you know, so one way or another, let’s come back together, and just acknowledge that we’ve all lived through a crazy, weird period.

Hopefully, the church gives some sort of beacon of hope too, and that appears to be how it’s been met by most people. I’ve had a few snidey comments, and I’ve had a few people online, you know, going, ‘he’s trying to get us to give him money, so he can build a place on his own land, and all this. But I think the exact opposite, is the actual case. I’m  funding, or we’re funding, something that belongs to all of us. In a way, I’m shooting myself in the foot, in that I could never sell the land, that it stands on, because it now belongs to everybody else.

I’m quite often shooting myself in the foot, but not realising that’s what I’m doing, but I’m sort of doing it deliberately. By moving a really successful business, away from the M4, that was a shot in the foot, but it resulted in this and by setting up this church, saying there you go, that’s now the people’s fucking thing, I’m shooting myself in the foot, that I could never, I can’t ever sell it, I can’t.

I can’t directly benefit from it, and I don’t want to. So it’s a, it’s a long and tangled, twisted story, and I hope it keeps going for a lot longer, and it’s largely embraced by most people.

So much of it is really just, oh, go fuck yourself, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and fucking Suella Braverman, and fucking Boris Johnson, and Donald Trump, and all these cunts, who have led our world into such an awful, awful fucking place, and, there’s some sort of hope, that we can, return from that, you know, and some of us can remember, that we’re capable of more.

I think that’s it. You’ll have a bit of trouble, transcribing that, won’t you?

Well, under normal circumstances I would have taken ages to transcribe that, but I’ve just discovered an amazing website that transcribes audio that is incredibly accurate. If I had transcribed it the traditional way – one finger typing and rewinding to catch what was said – I probably would have edited half of it out, but now I am seeing it word for word, there’s a lot of interesting stuff there and I felt I should leave it all in.

As Mark said, this place is unique in this country, and we highly recommend you visit. Check out their website to see what’s coming up.

And by coincidence, as I am sat there typing this, Jacob Rees-Mogg has just lost his seat in Parliament. Maybe the Church of Unrest has some power? And what’s more, as I type, Culture Shock are playing an impromptu gig in Rockaway as a farewell to Moggy. All praise the Church of Unrest.