20,000 people celebrated the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge gathering on 20th June 2010. From dusk till dawn with the sun setting at 21:26 on Sunday and rising at 04:52 on Monday, a vast array of people danced and sang throughout the night.

It was my second time at Stonehenge. I attended last year when the Solstice fell from Saturday – Sunday. In 2009, the weekend timings attracted 36,500 people resulting in a very crowded site. Aside from visiting the inner circle upon arrival, I couldn’t get inside the stones again that year. But this year people could move around as they wished – I even managed to be in the centre when the Druid ceremonies were performed as the sun dipped below the horizon. You can see my friend and I in our red velvet and purple silk cloaks on the BBC News website. It’s the 5th picture in the collection & we’re standing being King Arthur Pendragon – we’re famous!!

Pre-dating the Pyramids in Egypt (2500BC), the foundations of Stonehenge are a man made circular earth bank within a ditch dating back to around 3100 BC. Whatever the exact dates are for the origin of Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument is old enough to have earned my respect a long time ago.

Its original use is still under debate, but sitting among a landscape filled with hundreds of ancient burial mounds clearly visible on aerial maps, there are a number of areas just inside the earth bank known as Aubrey Holes. These 56 holes used to hold wooden posts but are now filled with cremated human remains. Aubrey Hole 32 held the oldest collection dating from 2995 BC. More remains have been found in the ditch dating to around 2455 BC, with a total of 49 cremation burials (from 52 that were excavated in 1911) being re-buried in 1935. Half of these came from the Aubrey Holes and half from the ditch. Further excavations have taken place in 1950 and 2005.

Using radiocarbon dating, the long span of dates indicates that this was a cemetery which grew over many centuries. Stonehenge contains up to 240 burials placed over a 500 year period, suggesting those that were buried had a special status as members of an elite dynasty of rulers.

Around the same time that the Pyramids in Egypt were being built around 2500 BC, the first stones were also erected at Stonehenge – these bluestones were transported 150 miles from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire, West Wales. The outer circle was composed of 30 much larger, upright ‘sarsen’ stones with a similar number of lintels from the nearby Marlborough Downs. This circle of stones enclosed five sarsen trilithons (pairs of uprights with a lintel across each), arranged in a horseshoe shape, with the open end towards midsummer sunrise acting as an astronomical clock.

Many groups including those of Pagans and Druids have claimed and used Stonehenge for their rituals over the years, with a significant increase in popularity from the 1870’s. There were a series of free festivals held every year from 1972 – 1984 with a record number of 30,000 people attending in 1984. In 1985 the festival was banned by the Thatcher government and access to the Stones for religious reasons was prohibited, but people still tried to get to Stonehenge with the Battle of Beanfield occurring. The trouble at Stonehenge in the 1980’s is covered in a previous post here

Access to the stones themselves started again in 1999 as a ticket-only event. Last time the Solstice occurred over a weekend in 2003, a similarly sized group of 30,000 people attended. The 2004 gathering was smaller with around 20,000 people in attendance.

After the ceremonies at sunset, many people bring their own guitars and percussion instruments. I danced throughout the night resting at times to buy refreshments from one of the mobile food vans on site selling Chinese food, pizzas or vegetarian burgers as well as tea and coffee (which were essential for keeping warm and staying awake). There were plenty of porta-loos onsite to visit afterwards too. When I wasn’t dancing or drinking, I’d be sitting down listening to the political activists talk or making friends from the very very friendly crowd. Access to Stonehenge isn’t a problem if you have mobility issues.

Luckily it hasn’t rained on either of the two years on which I have visited, but I always go prepared – just in case! It is worth bearing in mind that there are significant restrictions on what you can take into Stonehenge on the Solstice. Restrictions include no pets, no large bags, no large amounts of alcohol (up to a bottle of wine per person), no naked flames, no glass (as many people walk around barefoot), no camping and any under 16’s must be accompanied by an adult. It might sound harsh & boring, but these restrictions do help to make spending your Solstice at Stonehenge such a wonderful time. I only got offered Ecstasy from someone’s sock once (which I declined), and there were only 34 arrests for minor drug related offences from a crowd of 20,000 people. If you ever feel unsafe there are always Police or security staff within shouting distance.

In conclusion, it’s an event for everyone. From teenagers to adults, from single attendees to groups, I’d encourage everyone to visit on the Summer Solstice. Who knows what special powers you might gain from seeing the sunrise from within the stone circle?

Footage of Solstice eve sunset at Stonehenge, 2009
Footage of Solstice Druid ceremony at Stonehenge, 2009
Footage of Solstice Druid Mantra ceremony at Stonehenge, 2009
Footage of Solstice Druid blessing at Stonehenge, 2009
Footage of the end of the Solstice Druid ceremony at Stonehenge, 2009
Footage of record breaking crowds at Stonehenge, 2009
Footage of the start of the nights festivities at Stonehenge, 2009
Footage of dawn at Stonehenge, 2009
Leaving Stonehenge, 2009