With wide eyes I scanned the black horizon. I picked through the shifting crowd until I found them. Tall and towering, they remained still. They stood fixed, last moved thousands of years ago. A sea of outlines circled them waiting for the sun to arrive.
Although Stonehenge is a world famous prehistoric monument and an iconic symbol of British history, I had never officially visited it. Of course I had hastily driven past on camping trips to Cornwall. Without warning it would appear across the field. I would focus on the distant domino slabs, before they vanished. I am now on a quest to discover more of my country’s highlights and Stonehenge was at the top of my list.
In case you have been living under a rock and know little about Stonehenge, it is a stone circle located in Wiltshire, England. It is estimated to have been built 4.5 thousand years ago, making it older than The Great Pyramids of Giza. There are a lot of mysteries surrounding the origins and purpose of Stonehenge. What was it used for? Why was it built there? How old is it exactly? Where did the stones come from? Many of these questions still remain unanswered.
I wanted to see Stonehenge on one of the most significant days of the year; June 21st. This is the Summer Solstice which is the celebration of the longest day of the year and the earliest sunrise. Crowds gather to witness the rising sun and the alignment of it with the stones. Most importantly English Heritage open the stone circle for all to access. To experience the stones this intimately was a unique opportunity. I could be free to roam through the stone circle, with hours of discovery before the sunrise.
I arrived at Stonehenge about 1am on June 21st. I parked and followed the direction of the distant drumming. After a half-mile walk I approached the security check, where I opened my bag and instantly regretted my modest selection of contents. Packed neatly inside was a bottle of water, a sandwich and an apple. People on either side of me were having confiscated BBQs, bottles of vodka, Chinese lanterns and even a 6 foot wooden torch. Torch man was desperately disagreeing with a 6 foot tall security man. He believed it was his right to take his ‘Lord of the Rings’ style open flamed torch into the stone circle. Other items not permitted included glass, any naked flame, fireworks, sleeping bags, tents, sound systems, drugs and dogs or any other animals.
I weaved my way through boisterous crowds, passed food trucks, lines snaking up to portaloos and a Hare Krishna gathering. I tried to make sense of the darkness, grey shapes morphed into people and then towering shadows. I realised I was now staring directly at the stones. Instantly I wanted to be closer, a curious feeling of wonder and excitement rushed through me.
The circle was an excited festival. Singing, drumming, clapping, raised arms and yelps. The darkness often brutally shocked by the flash of a camera. I brushed past people to explore further. Smoke drifted through my face. Druids blessed the stones. Faint figures threaded through the mass. A sleeping lady lay motionless in a tangle of fairy lights. Sandalwood incense transported me to India. Balloons drifted by to the sound of a tambourine. A shrill whistle was soon silenced.
Patiently watching the scene were the stones. I thought they looked like sturdy giants, the only still figures at this spectacle. I wondered what would have become of Stonehenge had it not been for Cecil Chubb, a local man who purchased the stones at an auction in 1915. He wanted to avoid them being owned by someone overseas. On October 26th 1918 he gave them to the nation with a number of conditions. They included free access by the public for a small fee, and maintenance to a good condition with no buildings to be constructed within 400 metres of the stones.
The sky began to lighten. It looked like a nearby town had turned on all its lights. A strip of pastel pink opened up, soon backed by a violet blue. I found a space outside the circle and waited. It seemed all of the expected 30,000 people were now squeezing their way in. A brash Barbie pink fused with orange paraded across the sky. Moments away from sunrise two people climbed onto the sacred heel stone, the very stone that aligns with the rising sun. An instant roar exploded from the crowd, like spectators at a football match. I heard nearby cries of “Get down!” and “Those are sacred rocks!”. One comment caused us all to laugh: “Down! You are ruining my photos!”. The trespassers disappeared and were replaced minutes later by a blazing circle of orange fire and a cheer from the crowd…Sunrise!
Thousands of years ago a small gathering may have raised their hands to worship this monumental event. Fast forward the years and instead we raise our mobile phones, cameras and selfie sticks to document every second. What would they have made of us?
Click the link below to see my Summer Solstice experience: