Attending the winter solstice at Stonehenge is a dark and cold logistical challenge that deters less dedicated tourists and, as a result, is a more intimate and spiritual event.
The summer and winter solstices are two of only four times during the year when Stonehenge has ‘Managed Open Access’, meaning patrons can enter without paying admission and are not required to remain at a distance but can move freely within the circle and even touch the stones. Unlike the summer solstice, when Stonehenge is open all night and revelers often spend the entire night waiting for sunrise, at winter solstice, due to safety concerns, the henge is only open for a few hours on the morning of the shortest day.
In order to attend the winter solstice, therefore, it is necessary to stay nearby. Those with cars might opt for staying in Salisbury, the nearest city and a beautiful place to visit in its own right. Amesbury, a smaller but closer option, is within walking distance, and this is where my friend and I decided to stay.
At 05:30am, our alarm went off. It played a song that I cannot now remember but that I instantly disliked. It played again at 5:35 and 5:40 until we finally, grudgingly, bundled ourselves up and began to trudge out of Amesbury and into the surrounding farmland and the wet.
It was dark, very dark. It was dark as we searched for street signs using our cell phones as torches. It was dark when we sprinted across the freeway in search of a sidewalk; dark when we walked through an ankle-deep puddle; and dark when we sprinted back across the freeway just out of view of the police officers that we thought were meant to prevent us from crossing the freeway but who were really just guiding cars to parking spots along the side of the road. And it was dark when we first heard the thumping of drums and called out songs that told us the solstice-goers had already arrived.
A row of officers in bright yellow safety vests guided us up the walkway, as though ushering us past a crime scene, rather than welcoming us to a religious festival. Across the line of fencing, we could just make out the standing stones against the dark sky, and see the processional line winding its way into the stone circle.
In the car lot across from the henge, we joined a mixed group of tourists, zoom lens cameras dangling about their necks; and hippies, dreadlocked and smelling of pot; and new-age druids and witches, with robes of white or green or purple layered about them, and their staff heads carved into spirals or gazelles or some just tamed into sensible walking sticks.
The purpose of ‘Managed Open Access’ is to allow religious celebration at Stonehenge, though many of those who attend the celebrations have no religious ties to the stones and simply seek a better connection with history or a good story. While the summer solstice at Stonehenge attracts tens of thousands of visitors, winter solstice is a more temperate affair, with several hundred to a thousand guests, usually with a quieter, more spiritual, less party-focused atmosphere.
As the conga line spiraled its way into the hedge, drums were thumped, songs were called out, but the atmosphere was otherwise quiet, anticipatory, waiting for sunrise. We gathered in the center of the stones, pressing against one another in search of body warmth and maybe a little meaning as well. People reached out, hesitantly, to touch the moss and feel the crags of the stones.
At the center of the stones, a priest in a white robe and twill brimmed cap spoke a few words in a thick brogue before leading the crowd in a blessing of the four cardinal directions and a prayer for peace, both world-wide and inner. Participants offered songs and poems as well as prayers for peace.
The ceremony over, enthusiastic, amateur drummers began to beat in earnest while the most devout or well-rested took to dancing. The main body then slipped beyond the stones to wish one another a happy solstice and take quick photos of participants touching the stones and generally standing in places forbidden to visitors the rest of the year.
The sun rose.
We took photos. It was beautiful.
I suppose that’s as good a start as any to a new year.
Written by and photos by Anne Siders for EuropeUpClose.com