Stonehenge Summer Solstice June 2012
Husband, Mark Anstee has been attached to Stonehenge as an artist since 2007. He’s had periods of intense engagement with the site for very short periods of time and, as his passion for the site has grown, this has proven to be very frustrating. He simply needs more time in situ. So at the end of May 2012 we rent a cottage just south of Stonehenge to allow him to develop a body of work through a more rigorous observation of the site.
One of his aims is to learn the stone circle through a process of intense and repeated drawing over one year. We’ve decided that an appropriate period is between the Summer Solstices 2012 and 2013.
I’ve never attended a Summer Solstice. I’ve heard the stories of hippies clashing with police over the years. I’ve seen photos of Druid circles inside the stones doing what they do, and I’ve seen crowds cheering on TV as the sun rises above the stones announcing the longest day of the year. But I don’t really know what to expect.
Since the country has gone berserk on baking and bunting for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, we decide to adopt the model for our solstice celebration. We set to baking: Solstice Pie, Stonehenge Fairy Cakes, and Gingerbread Trilathons. Mark paints us a Stonehenge Solstice T-shirt each and we make strings of bunting for ‘the truck’, Mark’s ancient Mitsubishi he uses as a mobile studio.
The finished article resembles a Mumbai taxi, but as we set off for Stonehenge, fellow revellers en route wave and hoot as we pass by. There’s no denying that bunting makes people smile.
We’re quite smug that we’re organised enough to arrive at the special solstice car park just before it opens, but on approaching it, we see diversion signs in the road and police cars blocking our way. A friendly policeman informs us that we have to drive to the back of the queue, the long way round. After 3-4 miles, we find it and park up next to an army camp. People variously start pic-nic-ing on the verge, peeing in the bushes and starting up their car stereo systems. A sparkly elderly gent in a Vauxhall estate pauses next to us on the road to tell us our decorated van looks ‘very cool’ and wishes us a happy solstice. A soldier wearing a pack runs past. He looks knackered.
At 7.25 we start the journey to the parking field. We pass litter along the way, beer cans and bottles, plastic bags, food containers. A car in front flicks a cigarette butt onto the road. It’s our first feeling of ‘irk’. It could be a very long night. We get over a hill and see the car park for the first time. Queues of cars snake slowly across a mown field. Traffic is crawling towards it from three directions. It suddenly seems a vast operation. Turning into the A344 we get into a double lane. A man leans out of a yellow school bus and shouts to Mark, “ I used to have one of those”. Through the car windows we can see people singing along to their own private sound systems. We overtake the yellow bus then he catches us up again. “Mine was older than that,” he shouts as they drive by. The field entrance is flanked by police. Certain cars have been pulled over and are being searched. The smell of newly mown grass is heady.
We park up. It starts to rain, only lightly, but rain nevertheless. A couple of large lasses, tattooed and garlanded pass in front of us. Next to us, a couple get out of their smart grey car and start rowing about him smoking and her hating the smell of his breath. The rain stops.
A designer traveller type guy, looking very cool, comes and asks really politely if we have a knife he might borrow. He and his mates need to cut some lemons and they’ve neglected to bring a knife. They’ve identified us a vehicle that could possibly have one. How right they are! We share an ironic joke about ‘G&Ts’ and he tells us that the real party takes place here in the car park. They don’t even bother to go up to the stones. They’re old hands.
We open the back of the truck and lay out our solstice bakings on the picnic blanket. People stop to chat and admire the installation. An attractive clubby couple tell us that they made a smiley cake for a birthday picnic they went to. People are well up for the whole WI spirit of celebration. It’s fun. Bunting and edible Trilathons make people smile, but we’re hungry, it’s teatime, and we eat the art.
Hi-viz jackets flank the barrier to the long mown walkway leading to the monument field. Dozens of young people are standing around hurriedly drinking their supplies for the evening. They’ve been denied access because their chosen party poison comes in a glass container or more than 4 cans. They’ve bought it – they’re going to drink it. Along the path way the consequences of this policy are evident. The swift intoxication will perhaps numb them to the impending rain. There’s a second security barrier to get through before the monument field; bag searches, sniffer dogs and amnesty drug bins.
Up by the Henge, people are scattered around and about the stones. It’s an eclectic mix. Ladies in long velvet, garlands of bright plastics and crystal topped sticks; children of all ages racing about the field, Druids in white robes and cowboy hats and JJB sportsters mingle. Black-faced Morris dancers, tall feathers in their top hats, purple and silver tattered costumes above their anklets of bells, hang out amidst tourists. A lone man dressed as a banana speaks to someone on his mobile. And while one man meditates, kneeling, closed eyed before smoking joss sticks, another, ten feet away, is watching an episode of ‘Bewitched’ on his lap top.
So many people photographing, photographing, photographing. Most of the revellers in the stone circle are shit-faced. The competent drummers are heckled by the out-of-timers, but still, the rave is on and people are doing what they came to do. A young man, spectacles and a ponytail, excitedly but tenderly touches one of the smaller uprights in front of us and tells his girlfriend, “This is one of the Blue Stones”. And I’m properly glad for him. Then I’m barged by someone loud and legless and the moment is gone.
I don’t really feel the vibe here. Maybe it’s because I’m sober. But it all feels a little desperate, a bit like Brighton town centre on a Saturday night. It’s about 10.30, it’s threatening to rain, and frankly I’m a bit bored now. We decide to return to the truck for a hot drink and consider our next move.
The car-park field is in party mode. Sound systems thud out repetitive trance music. Somewhere, someone is surely dancing, but we unpack the duvet and snuggle in to wait for sunrise. Rain pounds off the roof. I lie there thinking Thank God I brought my Wellies. The sound of cars leaving the field mingles on the wind with the electronic beats. Around 3.30, the rain softens and a new activity suggests that the dawn is near. We layer up in warmies and waterproofs and head back to the monument field.
It’s not as busy as I thought it would be, but the stone circle is still crammed with manic partygoers. We walk round the outside then head for the small gathering at the Heel Stone. Maybe this is the stuff we’ve come for? The Druids are gathering, quietly, quite casually, to do…something? We form a wide circle, someone blows a horn and a singer with a banjo launches into song. Arthur Pendragon, chief Druid of these parts, splendid in white robes, staff in hand and long sword at his side, leads us in three cheers for the solstice. A young beautiful Native American woman beats her drum and sings a song for the men and women of the earth. She begins with the cry, “ Women, forgive your mother, she did her best”. A young mother clasps her daughter to her across the circle. Arthur talks of striving to be ‘a part of nature not apart from nature’ and vows to work tirelessly to bring back his ancestors, guardians of the Stones, whose bones currently lie in the archaeology department of Sheffield University, to their proper resting place.
Two couples are joined in a type of wedding ceremony. Their hands are tied together before they jump over a broomstick. We all join hands and those who know the words recite a pledge to work together, humanity in harmony, and afterwards, an open invitation to enter the circle and share a poem. Various people take the stage and, confidently, a young American woman steps forward to recite a self-penned poem about a casualty of road traffic, a small animal killed, as she was on her way to the bus stop. As she speaks, two large vehicles declaring themselves property of the Welsh Police Authorities thunder past behind the Heel Stone and drown her words to all but the front two rows. But, no matter, she’s applauded warmly when she finishes and Arthur leads us in a final three cheers, and then we’re done. We can’t see it because it’s incredibly cloudy, but the sun is obviously up.
A lot of people gather on one night in this field for all sorts of reasons. I’m glad I’ve had this end piece of the experience because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to grasp any of it. I hope I get to understand it more as the year goes on.
On the walkway back to the truck, police are searching the long grass for those who crashed out earlier in the evening. We return home and spend half of the longest day asleep.
Saturday 23rd June
It’s two days after the solstice and the Stonehenge car park is humming. For the first time, we join a queue to get into the monument. It’s busy.
Walking up the slope from the entrance tunnel we can see people inside the stone circle. Some white robes, quite a lot of cowboy type hats and people dressed like town criers – tri-corn hats and red waistcoats. Altogether, a bizarre looking collection of people: top hats and flower garlands, a Green Man mask and a tall gothic knight in studded black leather with a huge sword. I accost one of the very knowledgeable English Heritage staff and ask how people have access in the middle of the day? It being the solstice season, different Druid groups want time for ceremonies in the circle when the sun is at its fullest power – midday – so English Heritage do their best to accommodate the many different groups in the days surrounding solstice.
It’s a strange feeling seeing all those people in the centre of the stones and we’re forced to stay outside, in the prison yard. But everyone is very well behaved. No one leaps the ropes to try and join in. Apparently yesterday someone was stopped halfway across the grass towards the stones. He claimed he was wearing an invisible cloak. Seems like he was!
There’s drumming happening in the middle. That familiar carnival band beat you hear at festivals up and down the country but now an accordion starts up, and they’re not town criers, they’re Morris Men. Lots of jangling and hanky waving and some stick clashing. Then a surprisingly heartfelt and tuneful folksong, sung with harmonies and real gusto. This feels like proper Olde Englande. And I really hope at this moment, there will be Morris Men at the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Mark gets on with drawing and becomes another tourist attraction to photograph, along with the tall knight and the tattered druid folk, the Morris men and garlanded girls.
By the tourist gift shop I waylay a couple of the tri-corned Morris dancers and quiz them. They’re lovely chaps, come up from Portsmouth to accompany the local Druid Order for the ceremony. They’re linked through their celebrations of the seasons and their hats refer to the naval heritage of their town. Of course! And now they’re off to help the celebrations along at a couple of beer festivals. I wonder how accurate their stick work might be come teatime.