Fancy spending a night under the stars – literally under the stars with at least enough people to fill the London O2 Arena to capacity? You won’t be allowed to take a tent or sleeping bag, just a poncho.
The Modern History of the Solstice at Stonehenge
The first modern Solstice festival at Stonehenge occurred in 1905 with more and more people gathering every year. Currently the average attendance, give or take a few thousand is 20,000 for a weekday Solstice and 35,000 people for a weekend Solstice.
The Conservative government prohibited public access in the 1970’s and in the 1980’s, attempting to visit Stonehenge on a Solstice used to go something a little like this.
Fortunately, access was reinstated in 2000 and the author of this article has previously covered this event here.
Travelling to Stonehenge
Plenty of parking is provided, but the roads quickly get congested on the evening of the 20th June. Given the natural and Earth orientated theme of the festival, it makes more sense to share & use public transport.
A £10 return bus can be boarded from Salisbury railway station, with buses running to Stonehenge every 10 minutes from 18:30 on the 20th until – 01:15 on the 21st. The 20 minute journey is a great time to beg and borrow forgotten items from other friendly passengers.
Sometimes people can travel long distances to Stonehenge and the weather can change dramatically in the hours it takes to get there. If it takes a turn for the worse then the buses transform into moving fashion houses with all kinds of bin-bag au couture rolling down the aisles and off the steps. Fashion accessories can come in a wide variety of flowers or beer cans.
Skipping & jumping over the cow poo & mole holes, there’s a good 30 minute walk across fields from the bus stop – but it’s all downhill. The excitement from a great night helps to propel people back up the following morning.
The organisers provide storage for large items. Some travel onto the Glastonbury festival after the Solstice, storing their rucksacks and tents in a shipping container near the entrance to Stonehenge. Bag searches and ankles sniffs by the Police and their dogs are standard upon entry to the site, which opens from 19:00.
Taking the first bus beats the crowds. An early arrival gives enough time to wander around the stones, sitting and taking in the site without vying for position.
Who Celebrates The Solstice At Stonehenge?
Plenty of people can be seen achieving a lifelong goal or their annual tradition through touching the stones or resting their heads on them with their eyes closed – some choose to sit at the base of the stones and meditate.
An early arrival also means a prime position can be secured in time for watching the Morris dancing (from the Widders of Chepstow) and ceremonies by the Druid and Pagan leaders from around 20:45. These events continue until sunset at 21:33.
Some people go to worship and take the ceremonies very seriously – decked out in full cloaks with staffs, plenty of flowers and precious stones. Some go along from an as yet undefined affinity towards the Earth religions – tentatively wearing floral headbands or posies, some from sheer curiosity and some people are just tourists popping up for the night from London. Some people also go for the opportunity of having their biggest party of the year.
Paganism was finally recognised as a religion at the end of 2010. Part of the reason for this stems from its growing popularity and will result in establishing it as a norm along with other mainstream religions. This publicity will naturally attract a lot more curious people, but also people who hate any kind of recognised / organised spiritual worship.
This year there were two guys who got a bit over excited at the whole thing. As seen in the footage above, they invited themselves into the circle of the leaders early on in the ceremonies. They then tried to ensure that they were at the centre of proceedings for the next hour – resulting in threats by the leaders of removal from the stones.
Yes they were disruptive and possibly a bit inebriated, but rather than wanting to disrupt proceedings out of malice, they did actually seem to be taking part and enjoying the evening. It’s a sign of success that such an event attracts so many different people.
It’s doubtful that the message of peace so eagerly promoted throughout the evening would be true if attendees were vetted for their suitability……
What Happens Throughout The Night?
Following the ceremonies, people settle down with their chosen activities and entertainment for the night. There’s plenty of drumming, singing, dancing, circus skills, poetry, orations, chatting and drinking to take part in.
There were pockets of activities all over the site, but the drummers tended to stick to the centre circle. The further away a visitor got from the circle, the more likely it was to be occupied be people just chatting. An adventure into the unlit areas of Stonehenge would certainly mean tripping over couples enjoying a bit of physical entertainment. If people wanted to avoid the crowds, then the unlit areas were definitely the place to be.
The drummers kept going all night long. The drumming groups were fluid and open to anyone that wanted to join in. All attendees should bring along their own instrument. It didn’t matter if any single person had no rhythm – being part of a group helped them to find the rhythm. It really is a great sound when there are countless drummers jamming together. It gives a heartbeat to Stonehenge.
The wise drummers were using sticks, while others were playing with their hands. Anyone that joined in soon realised how much fun it was and didn’t stop drumming for hours – resulting in plenty of swollen and blistered hands the next day!
A gentlemen with a trombone even managed to join in with the drumming in the centre circle, despite everyone being packed in like sardines. As he was standing, his trombone inevitably got stuck in people’s hair who were sitting on the ground.
In the early hours of the morning a group of people with a Hari Krishna altar on wheels (as seen in the footage above) paraded onto the site. There were already a lot of people with the altar, but their singing and dancing proved very popular with other attendees. A large group had soon gathered around them joining in with the dancing.
Everyone that attends the Solstice at Stonehenge should go along with an open mind and be ready to accept or at least consider whatever they see there out of respect for other people and their life choices. But it would have been interesting to see the general reaction if a group of people had attempted to drag a giant crucifix onto the site…..
Is It Safe to Spend The Night At Stonehenge?
There are only a few Police at the event – security for the most part is controlled by privately hired personnel. They wear fluorescent jackets, but are indistinguishable from many other people with fluorescent jackets. Security personnel walk slowly between all the little camps that have been set up, squinting at everyone.
Alcohol and other drugs are very popular at the Solstice, the smell of cannabis is quite pungent all over the site. From 20,000 attendees, about 20 people were arrested for minor drug offences on the night and usually taken away by four people lifting them off the ground and propelling them quickly through the crowds. It was common sight for the arrestee to be a young (18 – 21), white male. Were these the only people actually taking or dealing drugs?
A number of drugged people who had locked themselves in the portaloos and refusing to come out were also escorted away, but to the ambulances rather than the Police cars. St John’s treated around 60 people for minor injuries with 4 transported to hospital.
Not all the injuries were drug related though. The author of this article witnessed a poor girl somersaulting over the Slaughter Stone just before sunrise – bringing cries of ‘ooohhhhhhh’ from everyone around her. Surrounded by St John’s staff, she lay on the ground clutching her back for an eternity before eventually getting up and stumbling away.
There are a few fallen stones around the site that people don’t notice until they’re resting on the floor next to them. People settled on the ground also get trampled on sometimes. A torch or a lantern would be helpful for anyone planning to attend the Solstice at Stonehenge.
As for the weather? It hasn’t rained at the Stonehenge Solstice for at least two years, which can be quite a major thing if there aren’t any tents or sleeping bags. This year it was raining intermittently throughout the day, but not to such a degree that it turned the ground into a mud bath. There were a couple of showers early on in the evening and although it dampened the atmosphere it didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits.
Is It Worth Spending The Night In A Field With 20,000 People?
Sunrise apparently took place just before 5am, but it was cloudy and impossible to see where the sun actually was. The sun has given a spectacular show in 1 out of 3 previous events, and while it’s nice to see, the magical atmosphere still happens cloud or no cloud.
Most people are up and ready for the sunrise, but there are plenty of people still asleep attracting looks of sympathy from everyone walking past them. Would these people want to have been woken up for the sunrise?
Stonehenge closes at 8am and while plenty of people leave just after sunrise, plenty of people also stay until the last minute. It’s a good opportunity to grab a couple of hours sleep before trying to stay awake for the right stop on the train traveling home. People also persevered with the sun, which finally broke through the clouds 2 hours after it had risen.
Celebrating the Solstice at Stonehenge does have it negative points – there are loud, screaming, raving, drunk crowds. If these aren’t an attendee’s cup of tea, then the attendee should simply avoid these crowds.
Celebrating the Solstice at Stonehenge also has plenty of positive points. The atmosphere is positive and energetic and there are plenty of artistic activities to get involved in. It’s completely safe – any injuries are self-inflicted. There were many families in attendance with children and one family had even used the cart they brought in as a makeshift bed for one of their children. Despite the noise around him, the boy on the cart slept throughout the night in the centre circle!
If parents don’t want to take their children out of school or people don’t have much annual leave, then the next time the Solstice falls on a Saturday / Sunday is 2015. But be aware, given the growing popularity the attendance will probably be a lot higher than the 36,500 seen at the last weekend Solstice.
And who wants to wait 4 years anyway? 1 year is long enough to wait …………