“At 4.52am on the 21st June, the sun will rise behind the Heel Stone on the east side of Britain’s best-known ancient monument to the accompaniment of drums, bells, whistles, rattles – anything that will make a noise – and the cheering from a crowd of up to 35,000 revellers.
Celebration or lamentation?
Stonehenge was constructed by people who had knowledge of Cosmology. At the Midsummer Solstice, the sun rises behind the large stone on the east side of the monument, at Midwinter Solstice the setting sun shines through the giant ‘Trilithon’ on the west side of the circle. There would have been two solstice gatherings a year.
After June 21st, of course, the daylight hours begin to reduce and after December 21st the days begin to lengthen. So which one is the celebration? In the northern hemisphere, many cultures celebrate during the period around the shortest day. The dark days of winter will begin to stretch out again and, anyway, when it’s cold and dark what’s better than having a big party to cheer yourselves up? I look at the Summer Solstice as the opportunity to give the sun a good send-off, and in these latitudes, the conditions are far kinder for an all-night party than they are in December!
Who celebrates and why?
When you attend the solstice celebrations it becomes quite obvious that there are people from all walks of life, from all faiths and none and of many nationalities. Some come out of curiosity, some come because of a sense of ‘place’ and a sense of history. Some come because it gives them the opportunity to be right among the stones and not watching from behind a cordon. Everyone wants to feel a sense of connection with something truly ancient and something imperceptible which we feel we might have lost through the passage of time. If you’re going to feel that connection, having a party at one of the world’s oldest party venues has to be the way.
Given the archaeological evidence and the origins of some of the finds in burials, people travelled to Stonehenge from as far away as Eastern Europe, it was internationally known four millennia ago, so a fascination for overseas visitors is a long-established tradition (even if they don’t know that).
Should I attend?
If you like being part of a crowd of people who spend the night smiling and being pleasant to each other and temporarily shedding their inhibitions, if you don’t mind being hugged by total strangers, then go. There’s a fear that in years to come this might begin to feel like a ‘corporate event’. Let’s hope not.”
Ian Newman is a Blue Badge Guide who lives near Stonehenge and a short distance from the historic cities of Salisbury and Bath. He has been organising walking tours in the South West for 25 years. Find out more about visiting Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice.