Thousands of people will trek to Stonehenge to celebrate Summer Solstice this year, even more than usual because it is on a weekend. Many celebrants will arrive as early as 7 p..m. on Friday, June 20, and stay overnight on their blankets (no camping equipment or chairs allowed) until the Sun makes its appearance at 4:52 the next morning. There may be no visible sunrise if it’s cloudy, as was the case last year, but you can be sure there will be plenty of people even if it rains.
You say you’ve always wanted to see Stonehenge? One of the great things about visiting at the summer solstice is that, at the solstices and equinoxes only, you can feel free to step over the invisible fence, walk around the great stones, and touch them. But naturally there are rules. English Heritage, which manages the site, insists quite properly that during the solstice it supports “all individuals and groups conducting their own forms of ceremony and celebration providing that they are mutually respectful and tolerant of one another. It is a place seen by many as a sacred site – therefore please respect it and those attending.” This means no amplified music, no hard liquor, no recreational drugs; in general nothing that may upset the atmosphere of this 4,500-year-old place of celebration by departing from what’s considered to be today’s style of civilized behavior.
We made a pre-solstice visit to Stonehenge this spring and enjoyed a cloudless day walking around (not through) this awesome place, by far the most visible of 2,300 archaeological sites on Salisbury Plain, a 300-square-mile (775 square km) plateau in the county of Wiltshire. In about half a day we drove from London to our bed and breakfast in nearby Salisbury, a handsome, unspoiled old market town with a spectacularly beautiful cathedral. After a short drive the next morning we pulled into the parking lot next to a smart new Stonehenge visitor center, with the ancient stones in view half a mile away.
This place has been photographed countless times, but it is hard to describe in words. You need to be there, and to see it. The stones are imposing for their sheer size, which challenge visitors to guess how they got there and how they were put into position, sometime around 2500 BC, at a site that had been a ceremonial meeting-place for centuries before. As you walk around the site, noting this and that from your guidebook, you may notice that the air is quiet even though hundreds of other people might be touring the place as well. A sheep bleats. A crow flutters out of a nearby copse. Perhaps a light plane flies over and disappears into the distance. It seems that people speak more quietly than usual, as if in a cathedral.
When I was a kid growing up 40 miles away in Somerset, I imagined that perhaps Stonehenge was an ancient cathedral that had at one time been roofed with timbers and covered with earth for protection against the elements. Nothing I have read supports this boyhood theory. Yet at Woodhenge, dating from 2300 BC and a scant two miles from Stonehenge, English Heritage says that its six concentric rings of timber posts “are believed to have once supported a ring-shaped building.”
Stonehenge’s granite megaliths, some of which weigh more than 30 tons, are called sarsen stones. The rock originated in the northern part of Wiltshire, from which it may have been pulled on sleds by large teams of men over a period of perhaps 12 days. All of the outer ring was at one time connected at the top by lintels of the same rock, held into place by relatively high-tech mortise and tenon features. Five sarsen trilothons — huge triads of standing stones, each capped with a horizontal lintel — stood as a “horseshoe” within the circle.
A concentric ring of smaller bluestones, an attractive variety of igneous rock, was put in place at a later date, possibly after being brought by boat as much as 150 miles (240km) from northwestern Wales to the mouth of the River Avon and thence to the vicinity of Stonehenge before being dragged up onto the plain.
The rocks were shaped with stone tools before being placed erect in the temple. They were probably put in place by pulling them to the edge of a specially excavated hole and then carefully sliding and tipping them into position. Lintels may have been raised to the top of the uprights by a simple method that anticipated the mechanical jack. It would move the lintel onto risers, one end after the other, lifting the risers with each repeated operation until the lintel reached a height from which its mortises could be slid sideways to mate with the sarsen’s tenons.
No one knows whether these explanations of the Stonehenge phenomenon are true or whether they are simply reasonable (but wrong) guesses. Nor do we know why Stonehenge was built, or for what purpose(s) it was used, neglected, and re-used. Its position gives it a marvelous view of the eastern sky and the birth of sunrises. Its alignment with the rising sun at summer solstice indicates strongly that its builders and their successors felt a powerful religious connection with the sun; and as is the case with other early peoples their knowledge of astronomy continues to bemuse us. Perhaps at various stages of Britain’s development they brought their dead to this sacred place for funerary rituals, to present to a godlike sun, to bury their cremated remains, to pray for good crops and protection from warrior tribes.
The most recent signs of occupation are from about 1500 BC. Many centuries passed before the record shows the existence of druids. Possibly the druids were here before the Romans got rid of them; it would be hard to imagine that they were unaware of the existence of Stonehenge. Centuries passed. Then John Aubrey (1626–1697) linked Stonehenge and other ancient ceremonial sites with these mysterious folk though in fact we know practically nothing about them except for a few mentions by Roman writers. In the 19th century British groups intrigued with druids and other ancient seers and soothsayers began to form, and they are still there, ready to greet the sun with a mighty white-robed roar on June 21, clouds notwithstanding.
So there will be fun at Stonehenge this year, for our favorite neolithic monument is not only a World Heritage Site. It ranks with the Alba International White Truffle Fair, Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and World Bodypainting Festival as one of the world’s Top 300 festivals listed by Fest300. And for those who are worried about rain or the prospect of spending the night with so many interesting strangers, concerned that there may be no place to recharge electronic gadgets, or imagining queuing in long lines for the porta-loo — yes there’s an alternative. Five miles away are nine acres of camping comfort with food, campfire, entertainment, loos, and even a shuttle bus (until 1 a.m.) to save you the anxiety of choosing between sore feet and fighting through an overcrowded parking area at the site headquarters. Only one worry: They may be sold out by now. Which means you could search the Web for another campground or go the comfier bed and breakfast route and maybe book a taxi.