The summer solstice is a special day at Stonehenge: every year on the 21st of June, the sun rises exactly above the Heel Stone, marking the end of the shortest night of the year. This occasion is also the only time the fences around the stones are removed, so that the stones can be approached freely. There is no evidence that Stonehenge was actually used for ritual purposes during the summer solstice when it was built – the winter solstice, the end of the longest night of the year, is a much more likely candidate – but modern “pagans” seem to have appropriated this rather more agreeable time of the year.
Of the thousands of people that gather at Stonehenge every year at the summer solstice, relatively few come for actual religious reasons, such as the British Order of Druids – yep, it’s a thing – and other neo-pagan types. Others just feel a less formalised spiritual bond with nature, or the past, or our ancestors, who toiled away to make this…this enormous, surreal thing. Yet others just come for a good time, and to enjoy a peaceful night with friends (and, more often than not, copious amounts of drugs). In a lot of ways, the solstice is like a free festival, with the massive stones silently but forcefully radiating their presence and permeating the goings-on.
As for myself, I occupy a middle ground of sorts. I enjoy getting carried away trying to imagine different worlds and what life might have been like, and a world in which bronze-age people build a massive ring of stones in bafflingly accurate alignment with the stars is suitably intriguing. And while I wouldn’t call myself spiritual, the way Stonehenge looms over the crowds surrounding it is pretty special. My mind is easily blown by extraordinary things – anyone who’s ever heard me talking about space or sports or Antarctica or anything outdoors-related can attest to this – and Stonehenge definitely fits the bill. Stark without being ominous, ancient without feeling old, the lichen and weathering do not detract from its timeless gravity in the way that crumbling ruins often fall short of the buildings they once were.
While the majority of people come in the same spirit, the negative aspects of festivals are unfortunately also present. Massive queues to get into the car park are the norm, and snack stalls pop up far closer to the stones than seems necessary (at least they built the visitor centre, the worst building I have ever seen, well out of sight!). There are also some floodlights which are particularly annoying to any photographers who lug their gear out here – fortunately they are switched off for sunrise, at least.
And then, of course, there are those who insist on getting far too drunk, being obnoxious and, in some cases, trying to climb the stones. Security usually manage to prevent it, but I am amazed time and again by how little respect a lot of people seem to have for just how remarkable a monument Stonehenge is.
On the plus side, it is a very small minority of people who make a nuisance of themselves, while almost everyone you encounter will be in the friendliest mood you could wish for. Instruments abound – mostly drums – and their sound reverberates through the small hours of the morning. As dissonant as the sounds are, coming as they do from all parts of the site and from musicians in varying states of inebriation, it is hard not to let the sounds blend together into one great orchestra of drums. As dawn begins to paint the eastern sky pink, the intensity of the drumming rises to almost frenetic levels as tens of thousands of faces turn to face the rising sun.
Sunrises have a special feel to them in my mind – they are often a time of peace and quiet, if not of outright solitude. This is tricky to achieve when surrounded by the masses at Stonehenge, but that solitary bliss is replaced instead by the knowledge that everyone around you has gathered for this moment, waiting for it all night and celebrating its coming. It’s a strange thought that this is a celebration whose origins are lost in prehistory, and which has probably changed beyond recognition over the millenia – but I’m pleased that it still holds some relevance to a fair few people.
The golden half-hour following sunrise was a lovely, tranquil time to be walking back across gentle meadows. Back to a waiting coach, to the car park, the train to London…back to reality. I wish there were more opportunities such as this one to imagine what it must have been like at Stonehenge 4,000 years ago, and how much has changed since then. And, in some ways, how little.