IT HAS gone down in history as one of the greatest pop festivals of all time...

For three heady days during late August 1970, more than half a million hippies descended on Afton Down near Freshwater on the Isle of Wight to listen to the likes of guitar legend Jimi Hendrix and superband The Who perform.

So great were the numbers in that scorching August that Island food stores were overwhelmed, transport services were stretched to breaking point and scores of hippies ended up marooned on the Island - unable to afford their fares home.

The festival began as a paid for event. But due to the great bowl of Afton Down forming a natural amphitheatre, hundreds of thousands of hippies soon found that they could listen to the music for free.

The organisers bowed to the inevitable and declared the Island festival a "free" festival - losing many thousands of pounds in the process.

The great festival - coming as it did just one year after America's equally famous "Woodstock" has acquired cult status among afficionados.

But actually, it was the third rock festival to take place on the Island during the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s.

The baby boomer generation were flexing their collective muscles both politically and musically.

It was a heady time to be young when anything seemed possible.

The first festival on the Island was staged in 1968 at Ford Farm near Godshill and was minuscule in comparison with later shows.

About 10,000 people attended but only one international act of renown - namely Jefferson Airplane featured in the line-up although British rockers The Move who later split to form the Electric Light Orchestra and Roy Wood's Wizard were also there.

By 1969, the festival became much more ambitious. Legendary guitarist, Bob Dylan was part of the line-up which also featured The Who - one of the acts which 35 years later will be headlining the 2004 festival - and the famous "Band".

Joe Cocker, who also starred at Woodstock as well as Free, Julie Felix, The Moody Blues, and Neil Innes' famous Bonzo Dog Dooh Dah Band completed the line-up. They were to have a monster hit with Urban Spaceman.

Around 150,000 people turned up to the event, which must have persuaded promoters, The Foulk Brothers, that they were on to a winner. For the 1970 concert, they booked a huge range of acts featuring the top names in music at that time.

Hendrix, was to tragically die just days after his performance but the festival featured another figure destined to gain postumous cult status as a casualty of the excesses of the 60s - Jim Morrison of The Doors.

Joni Big Yellow Taxi Mitchell put on a bravura performance in spite of the fact that a hippie invaded the stage during her act.

Miles Davis, one of the giants of jazz, was also at 1970s event providing a bewildering display of jazz funk and fusion music which left some hippies confused and some begging for more.

As always, The Who who were rebooked for the 1970 show were titanic.

And in spite of the fact that their hyperactive drummer, Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle have both since died, they promise to be a huge feature in 2004s festival. In 1970, ferries between Ryde and Portsmouth were carrying back about 2,000 people an hour after the festival eventually petered out.

An emergency social welfare committee was set up on the Island after many hippies refused to go home and continued camping among the acres of litter and other debris left on Afton Down.

Speaking at the time, the Island's Conservative MP Mark Woodnutt said the law had been brought into contempt during the festival.

He said: "I am not a prude and I do not mind nude bathing on the beach at the right place at the right time, but I do not like fornicating on the beach which is what we have been seeing."

Mr Woodnutt's efforts eventually led to the passing of The Isle of Wight Act which barred any gathering of more than 5,000 people from the Island unless they were granted a special licence.

It was only in 2002 that the Island's Wight Leisure managed to reintroduce the Isle of Wight Festival which has developed a growing reputation as the first "must see" music festival on a summer calendar which includes Glastonbury.

About 30,000 people are expected at this year's show - which also features pop veteran David Bowie as well as a host of famous names and talent from the Island.

One thing is certain though. Although the range of talent on display this year will be outstanding, the audience figures will never be allowed to match those of 34 years ago.

However much Islanders are thankful that the festival is back, few will complain about that.