Monday, 18 June 2012
Why I've Never Been to Stonehenge for the Solstice
Stonehenge, the 5,000-year-old megalithic monument on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, is the most famous place in England to celebrate the Summer Solstice, but I've never been there to see the sun rise on the longest day of the year. However, that isn't for lack of intent.
I'm not saying I've never visited Stonehenge - I was taken there as a child, back before the fence was erected, when you could wander freely around the the stones. I remember finding the towering megaliths awe-inspiring but a bit scary. But I've never been there for the Solstice.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s I had friends who would go to the Stonehenge Free Festival - a festival of alternative culture and music at the ancient stone circle that culminated in a huge celebration of the Summer Solstice on 21 June.
By all accounts the Stonehenge Free Festival was amazing, but every year I found something stopped me going along. First I was simply a bit too young, then I had exams, then my first job after leaving university - managing a budding computer game department at the shop WH Smith - meant I couldn't get the time off work. (I think I got the job because back then I was the only person they interviewed who knew how to load a game on a ZX81, but that's a digression.)
One year, I decided I'd had enough. I quit my job and decided to take the summer off and have a really good time - including going to the Stonehenge Free Festival. That was the year it didn't happen. English Heritage, which manages Stonehenge, was worried about potential damage to the ancient monument by the festival and put a stop to it. A four-mile exclusion zone was set up around the stone circle.
On Saturday, 1 June, 1985, a few hardy New Age Travellers known as the The Peace Convoy tried to get to Stonehenge for what would have been the 11th Stonehenge Free Festival, but clashed with Wiltshire Police in what became known as the Battle of the Beanfield. I wasn't there; everyone knew trouble was brewing and I didn't particularly fancy getting arrested.
In 1999, after many years of negotiations between pagan groups and English Heritage, people were once again allowed to worship at Stonehenge at the Summer Solstice. That has happened every year since. This year, from 7pm on 20 June until 8am on 21 June, English Heritage will be allowing individuals and groups to conduct their own ceremonies and rituals at Stonehenge. You can find out details about access to the stones on the English Heritage website at: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/stonehenge/summer-solstice/
Yet, again, I've not been since the stones reopened. The reasons have been work, family responsibilities or commitments to other pagan Summer Solstice celebrations closer to London, where I live. This year I was determined to go. But on the very day I was looking into transport details to get there, I was offered some interesting and well-paid freelance work right over 20 June and 21 June. I was definitely in a dilemma, so I asked a few friends what they thought I should do.
One said: "Stonehenge is a bit of a mixed experience. Miss it this time, but go another year."
Another added: "It is nice to be able to walk up to the stones and touch them for once, but after about 2am you can't get near the stones for the crowds, and if you do get there it's a horrible crush, lots of people climbing all over the stones and partying... plus you can't see the sunrise for everyone holding their phones in the air to take photos of it... and police everywhere..."
Even a Wiccan high priest who I've known for ages told me: "You'll have more fun taking the money."
So, I took the advice. I'm not going. I'll celebrate the Summer Solstice privately, close to home. Then I'll treat myself to a trip to Stonehenge later in the summer - and maybe stop off in Glastonbury to spend that money I earned working over the Solstice.
But I'm still not quite sure I made the right decision. What do you think?
Links and previous related posts