The Stonehenge Summer Solstice celebrations, the re-enactment of a ceremony reaching far back into our past, have only recently become popular with large numbers of people and, even now, the atmosphere is far more of a celebration of life than a conventional festival. Its popularity has developed to such an extent, though, that nowadays around 30,000 people can be expected to watch the sun rise over the Heel Stone at about 4.45 am on June 21st each year.
What and Where Is It?
Stonehenge, that gigantic prehistoric calendar that has intrigued and amazed Britons for centuries, is to be found on Salisbury Plain, some two miles west of Amesbury, Wiltshire, at the junction of the A303 and the A344/A360. It is surrounded by 1500 acres of open land. The nearest railway station is at the beautiful cathedral city of Salisbury, just over nine miles away, from where there are Stonehenge Tour buses available to take you to the site.
The Summer Solstice has long been connected with the Druid religion – they have been celebrating at Stonehenge for 800 years. However, the stones considerably pre-date druidism – no stage of the building being later than about 1200 BC. All that historians really know about the monument is that it was started as a Neolithic construction and has been built and re-built several times; some of the stones being transported by sea from Wales. It is, however, clearly some kind of astronomical computer – midwinter moonrise, as well as midsummer sunrise, falls inside the horseshoe of stones.
By 1900, visitors were causing considerable damage to the stones – indeed two actually were knocked over that year and so, for the first time, the site was fenced in. It was then given to the nation in 1918 and placed under the control of English Heritage in 1984.
It is English Heritage who now allow what they term ‘managed open access’ to Stonehenge for the summer solstice – the only time of the year that visitors can get truly close to the monument.
From the evening before there is likely to be casual musical entertainment from salsa bands and drummers – no amplification is permitted –and there will probably be several food and drink vans on the site. However, the rules strictly forbid camping, dogs (except for guide dogs), fires, fireworks, glass bottles – and definitely no climbing on the stones. English Heritage have a photograph dated 1966 which, quite scarily, shows whole groups of people dancing on top of the stones at that year’s solstice.
Contemporary celebrations are undoubtedly exciting – lots of whooping, cheering, horn blowing and drumming – but are, despite the noise, essentially peaceful occasions, celebrating life. There have been large numbers of police at times, but little trouble and the few arrests have generally been for minor drugs offences. Many of the flamboyantly dressed revellers squeezed among the stones will be on their way to Glastonbury for the festival there and treat the Stonehenge Summer Solstice celebrations as an annual prelude to the event.
Practical Stonehenge Information
The English Heritage website dedicated to Stonehenge gives more information, although not about the summer solstice celebrations themselves. There is not at this time a site dedicated solely to the Summer Solstice festival, although information and photographs can be found on the New Age site. Although an entrance fee to the Stonehenge site is normally applied, the festival has, in recent years, been free of charge.