2015 Summer Solstice
21st June 2015 - Tens of thousands of people descended on Stonehenge this morning to mark the year's Summer Solstice.
Some 23,000 attended the neolithic site in Wiltshire, with others - including hippies and pagans - visiting the nearby Avebury stone circle.
The figure was down on the estimated 36,000 who attended last year and the 30,000 expected, to witness the sun rising on the longest day of the year.
Stonehenge’s solstice is now sold as a ‘holiday experience’
“The summer will come / Back to the stones” sang Roy Harper, about the ritual at Stonehenge, perhaps the oldest on Earth, to greet the summer solstice. But Harper’s song was also about the crushing of that rite at its most famous place of observance, the Battle of the Beanfield in 1985, when police assailed those gathered, burning and beating.
Years of Stonehenge festivals – never mind five millennia of observing solstice here – reached an end. But during the three decades since, paganism has become one of Europe’s fastest-growing religions, and the ancient celebration of dawn of the longest day has crept back to Stonehenge after tentative legalisation of further gatherings in 1999, and what English Heritage, guardian of the monument, now calls “managed open access” to the stones.
They remain the wonder they have always been – rhyolite, tuff, dolerite, calcareous ash and 17 or so other rock types – for about 4,600 years. But Stonehenge ain’t Stonehenge, solstice ain’t solstice, no more.
Ah, those were the days: in the late 70s and early 80s: when Hawkwind played among the stones and dancer Kris Tait – a former teacher from Newcastle who is now married to bandleader Dave Brock – ventured among the crowd to find vestal virgins for the rite (“Some of the boyfriends got a bit pissed off,” she recalls).
For this morning’s gathering, English Heritage insists among its “conditions of entry” that “in the interests of safety, sleeping bags or duvets will not be allowed on site. Sleeping bags on the ground can create a trip hazard.”
“It’s only a trip hazard if you can find any decent acid these days,” jibes Julian Gower, Glastonbury-based creator of the Moon Diary, and longtime expert on matters Solstice. The site’s new managers, however, warn that “illegal drugs are still illegal”, and “police will be on site during the access period” (7pm on Saturday night until 8am on solstice morning).
English Heritage’s new and brazen visitor centre, a field away, was careful to close at 3pm on Saturday, in preparation for the un-tripping crowds. This is the plaza and gift emporium in whose name Stonehenge was for years surrounded by the bedlam of construction and bathed in floodlights, and a road to Devizes forever cut, thereby adding to the already congested traffic that heaves past the stones down the A303 trunk road.
It was “The Stonehenge Environmental Improvements Project”, as billboards called it, packaging Stonehenge into what English Heritage’s chief executive, Simon Thurley, calls “a holiday experience”, patrolled by 24-hour guards in hi-vis vests, prowling across any attempt at photography, let alone meditation, at the timeless stones.
More permanent lights hung in the sky during Saturday’s short night, as they do every night, now draping Stonehenge in a permanent, sulphur-sickly pallor, so that having been shrouded by darkness across the plain for thousands of years, the stones are now forever stripped of nocturnal mystery. This is the perma-glow of “Solstice Park”, a few meadows to the east: a vast sprawl of distribution sheds, industrial parks and a service station – which was this weekend a revolving door of those arriving for, and those in flight from, the ritual.
On Solstice Services forecourt on Friday night, the Harvester “family pub” was full of lanyards worn by suited men leaving work around the development which recently advertised “a million square feet” of industrial space to let.
“Imperium at Solstice Park”, it was called, proudly advertising itself as “one of the largest mixed-use business parks in central Southern England” , with the result that, after 4,600 years, Stonehenge’s new neighbour now has “potential to accommodate up to 1 million+ sq ft in a single building” with “131,630 people of employment age within a 30-minute drive”, where “Average wage rates are up to 16% cheaper than nearby major towns”.
At Pizza Hut next door to Harvester, the Yardley family, who found Stonehenge “quite nice”, were jovially anxious to get home to Guildford “before the crusties arrive!” And they were beginning to do so, although two Solstice visitors from Gothenburg in Sweden, Anders and Carin Ellstrom, found the Stonehenge Inn on a roundabout just north of the stones to be not what they had expected: lads with very short hair making derogatory remarks about devotees of the Sun gods.
The reason: Stonehenge is squeezed between Solstice Park and the barracks and headquarters of the Royal Artillery at Larkhill, at the gates of which a heavy gun points its barrel towards the stones. Pagan pilgrims this weekend going for a drive over the plain from Stonehenge will find warnings at each lay-by: “Danger, Tank Crossing”.
“Do you know a nice old pub, maybe quiet and friendly?” asked Anders with, perhaps, venerable old beams in mind; I directed him, without any specific advice, towards Amesbury.
The Swedes were staying at a Solstice campsite five miles away, in which “all our Pods, Motorhomes and hardstanding pitches have now sold out”, and where “pizza, pork and chicken” have been available since Thursday.
Also there, renting a “Glamping Pod”, are Steve and Marianne from Leek, Staffordshire, determined to savour what promised to be a real sunrise this morning, rather than shades of grey in a quickening eastern English sky. “I like it,” said Marianne of their igloo-ish unit of wood and metal; she was looking forward to the communal camp fire on Friday night, but disappointed that individual fires were prohibited. “Staff,” said the site manual, “will be patrolling for any unsafe activities.”
English Heritage urged visitors not to add to this weekend’s traffic, but come by bus. This would also, it failed to add, avoid many pilgrims returning to their cars after sunrise only to find them removed by police as they were two years ago, necessitating a trip to Salisbury and a three-figure recovery fine to enhance the special day.
But English Heritage has a point. Sprawling Solstice Park’s detailed description of its “strategic distribution location” makes no mention of Stonehenge, but stresses proximity to airports and motorways, so that to handle the increasing volume of traffic grinding past the ancient stones, the Highways Agency now plans to widen the A303 and build a tunnel right by poor Stonehenge. All this despite copious archeological evidence that Stonehenge is part of an expansive complex.
Activists who love the stones protest in vain against this vandalism, just as the Stonehenge Campaign tries to negotiate something more like the Solstice festivals of yore. Sid Hope explains: “For many years, people from all parts of society would gather to mark the summer solstice in step with our ancestors. We are campaigning for a festival site near Stonehenge that would benefit Stonehenge and those who revere it as sacred.”
Last year attracted “loads of people”, says the campaign, “but only one drummer. So please bring more drums, and get into the stones early for a live acoustic rave, as we’ve been doing for 5,000 years!”
Dave Brock of Hawkwind now lives farther west down the A303. “Stonehenge is an object that changed my life. It’ll never be like that again,” he recalls of the festivals at which he played, “but we have our memories. Before the gigs, the archaeologist Julian Richards took us on a tour down this giant avenue of burial chambers and mounds – so exciting.
“You’d expect English Heritage to want to expand the site into this great history, rather than turn Stonehenge into a kind of prison compound, and a building that looks like a load of old scaffolding. When Solstice Park started they had this tribal sun for a logo, as though it might be something quite groovy, not just another huge bloody industrial park right next to the stones.”
Back at Solstice Park, the Abrams family from America – who had carefully worked Solstice into their touring plans – were buying dinner in Kentucky Fried Chicken, having checked into the on-site Holiday Inn Express. “We’re really excited to be here,” said Jake, aged 52. “It’s always been my dream.” He had a romantic view of the stones as his screensaver – omitting the new surroundings. Indeed, “I hadn’t expected Stonehenge to be all so … er … like home,” added his partner, Martha – from the outskirts of Los Angeles.