Nearly two months ago, I happened to be in the UK for the summer solstice. English Heritage allows access into the inner stone circle four times a year. (Most of the rest of the time, including my visit in April, visitors must stay behind a rope.)
The first hint that it’s a huge event comes when you get near Stonehenge and notice all the signs for the solstice car park. I was one of the first cars into the car park, as you can see from the long line of cars extending into the distance here.
At 8 pm, access to the stone circle itself opened. There were several people in various costumes and garb. One of my favorites was this wizard hat.
Unlike my previous visit, the crowd was able to get up close to the stones, which is an electric feeling. The audio tour describes all the mysteries of the site, but you don’t really appreciate how massive the stones are until you start walking among them.
There is a small gateway composed of a pair of small pillars sticking up. Many people walked through the gateway.
Even though the terms of access to the site asked visitors not to touch the stones, it was an irresistable temptation for many people.
As many of the earlier visitors were walking in, a group called the Stonehenge Druids formed a procession and was playing bagpipes. Although I entered the site about the same time as the Druids, the physical exertion of producing music from the bagpipes meant they were walking much slower. The bagpipe players had some of the best cloaks at the celebration.
Around sunset, the Stonehenge Druids ran a short ritual, drawing a huge crowd into the center circle. A drum circle formed in the center afterwards, and the crowd settled in for the night. The weather was cold and rainy, and the ground was quite wet. At one point, I retreated to the car in the car park to take a nap. (As an aside, the absolute worst way ever to deal with jet lag is to stay up all night a few days after you arrive in the country.)
About 3 am, a few torches appeared in the distance near the Heel Stone. I didn’t expect much to come of it, since fire had also been forbidden. I wish I had headed towards the torches a bit faster, since the early-morning ritual was a well-done high-energy performance. It started with a group of dancers around a huge skull object.
Many of the participants in this late-night/early-morning ritual had fantastic costumes. My favorite was a torch-holder who had a moon-shaped mask. From the back, the moon face grinned. From the front, his face was painted to look like a skull. (In this picture, you can clearly see that the rain has picked up.)
As the crowd got into the ritual, somebody fired a green laser into the night sky.
The final act of the 3 am ritual was a belly dancer, who unfortunately concentrated on the other side of the cordoned-off area. (For a laugh, note that the man in the high-visibility vest is holding the crowd back. Follow his eyes towards the dancer.)
As the sun rose, the sky was still cloudy. Sunrise was indistinct, and hardly noticeable through the thick clouds. The crowd once again gathered in the center circle. At the small scale of this photo, it’s hard to see just how tightly packed the crowd is.
After the light had risen higher up in the sky, the 20,000 attendees filed back out to the car park. I went back to my hotel and slept for a few hours before moving on to my next airport. For the next week of the trip, my sleep pattern was disrupted. If I were to attend a Stonehenge open site again, I would try and arrive in the country a bit earlier.