Though some say Stonehenge is overrated, I found a way to visit the iconic site in a unique way to get a glimpse of the past.
On one of my trips to London, I was looking for something new to see on the weekend and realized that I had missed the iconic Stonehenge. Several friends told me to skip it, since you can only view it from a distance behind a rope barrier and called the site “overrated”. However, it’s one many of the Wonders of the World list, so I went ahead and began some research and quickly realized that we would be there on the Autumnal Equinox. BINGO!
So.. what was special about this is that English Heritage which manages this site, allows “Managed Open Access” on 4 days per year (solstices & equinoxes) for the Druid ceremonies. When Stonehenge was first opened to the public, it was possible to walk among the stones – even climb on them. By 1977, there was serious erosion and the stones were roped off and viewing was only available for a distance. Apparently about a dozen years ago, there would be violent clashes as the Druids felt it their Pagan right to celebrate the equinoxes in the roped off circle. But this has all been ironed out and the ceremonies now occur 4 times per year inside the circle and are rather peaceful.
Our small group decided to take an organized tour. We had a busy week in London and did not have time or the desire to rent a car (and drive on the other side of the road) to get out to Stonehenge by 6am ish for the Sunrise and trains would be tricky with the early start time. Our tour bus picked us up at an exhausting 4am outside our hotel, so we all slept on the way there.
As we arrived at Stonehenge in the dark and fog, we were escorted inside the gates and walked directly to the stones. There were about 1,000 people there, many of them Druids in their Pagan dress gathering for the Sunrise.
A quick history
Stonehenge monument was built in 3,000 to 2,000 BC. It is made up of the remains of a prehistoric ring of standing stones in the middle of a dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze age monuments, including burial mounds.
There are still numerous documentaries and it seems like new discoveries every year detailing who built it, how and why. What can be said is that our ancestors thousands of years ago needed a way to measure time to control many of their human activities such as the mating of animals, the sowing of crops and the metering of winter reserves between harvests. So to start, Stonehenge is a big watch marking the movement of the sun and the 4 seasons. Stonehenge is carefully aligned on a sight-line that points to the winter solstice sunset (opposed to New Grange, which points to the winter solstice sunrise, and the Goseck circle, which is aligned to both the sunset and sunrise).
- On the first day of spring (the vernal equinox – March 21), and the first day of fall (the autumnal equinox – September 21) the sun will rise directly east and set directly west.
- On the first day of summer (the summer solstice – June 21), the sun will rise directly over the Heel Stone.
- On the first day of winter (the winter solstice – December 21), the sun will set directly opposite the Heel Stone.
- The dates are sometimes 1 day off due to our human calendar
It is thought that the Winter Solstice was actually more important to the people who constructed Stonehenge than the Summer Solstice. The Winter Solstice was a time when most cattle were slaughtered (so they would not have to be fed during the winter) and the majority of wine and beer was finally fermented. The Winter solstice is also considered the turning of the year from decreasing daylight to increasing daylight.
Each year, thousands of visitors come to Stonehenge on the equinoxes. Britain has over 100,000 practicing pagans. The Winter and Summer solstice celebrations are larger with up to 20,000 people. The Autumn one that we attended had a few hundred people.
As we entered Stonehenge, a circle of people had formed within the circle including tourists & Druids. Senior Druid King Arthur Pendragon lead the ceremony. We did not stay for the entire ceremony, but they basically blessed everything, were thankful for everything and prayed for any conflict to be resolved. Good enough for me – I can support that!
We wandered from the periphery of the ceremony & walked outside the circle of stone to get a view from all angles.
I saw a photographer with tripod out in the distance. As I approached I said, “You look like you know the good angles for the Stonhenge sunrise”. He replied in a heavy British accent “If I bloody well knew what I was doing I wouldn’t have drug myself out of bed when everyone’s dancing on the stones”. We had a good chuckle!
As the sun emerged above the horizon, rays of sun burst through the different “windows” of Stonehenge. The entire field was silent in appreciation for the beautiful sight.
After the sun rises, King Arthur then goes down to the heel stone and performs “handfasting” ceremonies – the pagan equivalent of weddings. Husband and wife vow that they will stay together “for a year and a day, eternity and beyond or for however long love will last”.
Beyond that tourists meandered. The Druids stood guard on their stones. And some hangers on took it as a chance to run around barefoot in Tigger costumes and wildly dance in the dew fields. Interesting characters & people watching if nothing else. The site has several guards keeping people off the stones and managing any non-welcome extracurricular activities, so it was all rather safe. One of my favorite pictures of the day… the interesting characters hugging the rock – ROCK HUGGERS.
I always try to experience sites in some context of its actual history be it a ceremony or reenactment as it puts context to the site and helps you better understand its place in history.
I think sunrises and sunsets are magical every day, but seeing them at this site which celebrates the suns passing was special. I thought back to people who depended on these events to ensure their survival and we today are so lucky to just be able to celebrate the beauty.
Different people had different purposes for being there be it Druid, Traveler, Tourist, Photographer etc, but in the moment the sun rose and the crowd became silent, the brightening sky coming across the stones was the moment.
Tips & Information
- English Heritage: Click here
- Managed Open Access Bulletin: Click Here – This is for Winter 2014, but will give you the basic ground rules.
- English Heritage Teacher Resources: Click Here
- Stonehenge was a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 and is legally protected as a scheduled ancient monument.
- Dress for warmth & damp weather for the English countryside…. it was cold. September 21 in London is rather pleasant wearing a light jacket thanks to the warmth of the concrete buildings greenhouse effect. Out in the countryside, it is a lot more chilly. I thankfully always carry gloves and a beanie in my Mary Poppins bag and dug them out quickly. The grass had a light dewy frost also that went right through our shoes, so I would recommend something waterproof. And when all else fails, where your bear rug (See Below)
- The snack bar opened by the time we were getting ready to leave. They have some very good & hot chocolate to warm up!