Stonehenge – Thursday 20th June
The Stonehenge Artist and I decide we don’t want to repeat last year’s Solstice experience, queuing and parking in the special solstice field. In fact we don’t want to spend the whole night at Stonehenge. This year we’re going to join the gathering at the beginning of the evening for the ceremonies saying goodbye to the penultimate longest day, if indeed there are any.
So, we park a couple of miles from Stonehenge and walk across the spectacular surrounding landscape, through woods, along byways and past ancient barrows on a lovely balmy early eve.
Unusually for us, we’re very early. When we arrive, the monument isn’t yet open for the celebrations but the place is buzzing as people make final preparations for the night ahead.
The regular visitor car park is completely barricaded in – Operational HQ for the evening.
In front of the metal barriers leading to the monument field, a group of mainly Asian young men in orange hi-viz vests are being briefed by the head of security. “Tonight, we are here in a customer service capacity”, he tells them, “Respect is important. We address people as Sir and Madam”, he continues.
Police in stab vests walk up and past the barriers along with colleagues dressed in civvies.
A BBC truck drives through ‘security’ and into the car park enclosure.
Sited at the side of the road are three containers kitted out with wooden bunk bed frames and folding chairs.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the public address system starts, “Due to unforeseen circumstances we must ask you to leave the area as quickly as possible. Please follow the instructions of…” A group of dogs inside the HQ enclosure begin to bark. They must be part of the police unit here.
The Tannoy starts again, repeating the evacuation message. Just testing then.
A dozen police in helmets and yellow hi-viz walk across to the security check point everyone will pass through on their way in.
There’s a new flurry of activity and tables are erected in front of the containers. And then we see the signs. This is the left luggage and lost property station. These are not bunk beds but shelves for outsized rucksacks and camping gear that people won’t be able to take in with them. They’d be good for a lie down though.
A couple of police walk by with dogs, happy looking spaniels, sniffer dogs. I know they try to prevent serious drugs being brought in here, but from our experience last year, most people who indulge in this way consume before they get to the check points.
We’re not the only ones to have walked here and as we wait, others progress along the roads and byways pointing towards Stonehenge. A mixture of Druid folk and the colourful alternatively dressed, casual walkers and family groups, grungy people and excited travellers from the States and the Czech republic, all come to this most special of British events.
A family of white haired, groomed and scrubbed slender folk dressed completely in white clothes, white jeans, white t-shirts and white hoodies with sparkly wings printed down the back, cluster near the entrance. They sound Italian, or maybe Eastern European and look like they might ‘do’ something. Maybe a speciality act? A circus act? I’m hoping they might perform some spectacular stunt in the stone circle.
At 7pm we’re allowed in, walking down the narrow aisles created by the metal barriers and our bags are checked by the recently briefed young men. Mine is checked twice! We’re among the first hundred to enter the field and already a young man is talking to the police while a happy spaniel jumps up and paws the inside of his jacket.
I’m struck by the amount of families with young children here. Parents gamely push buggies across the grass. Other people rush to the monument and take photos in amongst the sarsens. The photos are mainly of themselves in amongst the stones. What would be the point of the stones without them?
People do headstands and handstands, stretch between parallel uprights and hold babies above their heads under the trilithon forms.
The ‘white’ family, rather disappointingly, also just pose for photos next to the stones. No handstands, nothing.
A steady stream of revellers trickles into the field.
A group of little girls, about ten of them, joyously hold hands in a long line and circle the stones. Then they sit in a circle just outside of the stones and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ as a square cake topped with candles is delivered to the birthday girl. This is so sweet. It’s a lovely warm evening and this is exactly the type of celebration that feels right for this place. It’s just very honest. These children will remember this occasion forever, a coming-of-age ritual for the young women of the tribe. Perfect.
We meet one of the English Heritage management team who greets us warmly but admits to a rising feeling of discomfort on this his first Solstice experience. The urge to litter pick is a constant and watching people scrambling up the stones to stand on them feels wrong.
I have some sympathy with this. The custodians here spend most of the year protecting the site, protecting the small special microclimate that exists within it. Protecting the lichen and the surface of the ancient sarsens, the nesting birds, the Neolithic features of the ground around and the grass walkways. To them, this place is worth protecting, it’s special, and because of this many of them stay away on solstice eve. Some of the custodians do attend the evening, happy that the monument is returned to what might be its original purpose for this one night of the year. But however they feel, they will all spend the next week clearing the evidence of tonight’s activities, and time and nature will have to do the rest.
There isn’t a Druid ceremony early on though people start to gather in the stone circle as though they expect someone to lead. No one does.
I spot Arthur and some of his war-band gathering by the Heel Stone. They wear their distinctive white tabards with red lions on the front.
Lines of people are streaming from the special car park across the fields towards the checkpoints. The numbers are swelling.
A group of young men carrying tinnies excitedly pace past us. They’re wired, expectant and obviously in party mode.
In a short while the drums will start up and people will bounce around the stones in the centre of this site.
The families begin to leave. It’s about 8.30pm and buggies are being pushed towards the exits where incomers are being searched and sniffed in ever growing numbers.
It hasn’t rained, as weather predictions suggested it might, and it continues to be a lovely evening.
Mark and I decide to walk back to the truck, leaving the rave to unfold in our absence.
As we return along the byways, the sun drops to the horizon forming a perfect arc at the apex of a gently waving furrow of still green wheat.