It did not take much convincing for Mick and the rest of my new friends at the Stonehenge B&B to convince me that I needed to attend a winter solstice at Stonehenge. Being on the night of 20 December, it meant that I would lose any chance of making it back home to New Zealand for Christmas, but that was a sacrifice I found myself willing to make for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Not only that but my informant had given me a tip-off that a special druidic ceremony would be taking place on 18 December, conducted at Stonehenge by the Dorset Druid Grove. He had permission to bring a guest, but alas I had just missed out and so I’d only be able to watch jealously from the sidelines.
Nevertheless I turned up early in the morning armed with Mick’s camera, ready to photograph the occasion. I got in free with my heritage card once again and bussed directly to the stones. The morning was damp and foggy, and every surface was absolutely covered in a thin film of spider web. By terrifying coincidence, it turned out that a spider hatch was under way. I would spend the rest of the morning swatting tiny spiders away from my body.
I admired the monument as the mist cleared and the spiders crawled up my legs, waiting for the magic to begin. I waited…and waited. I was beginning to think I’d somehow missed the ceremony by the time the bus load of druids had arrived. The drum beat started and the stately procession slowly approached the henge.
They circled the monument before entering the huge outer ring of stones to begin their sacred business. Seeing a crowd of people dwarfed by the stones, it finally began to come home to me just how extraordinarily huge are the building blocks of this structure.
They were there for quite a long time – apparently they have to pay a pretty penny for access to Stonehenge so while they’re there they make the most of it. There was even a spooky-looking initiation ceremony with blindfolds and everything.
Eventually it was all over, and the procession left the henge, handing out mistletoe to the sight-seers.
Once the show was over I too departed quickly to find somewhere out of the cold (and spiders) for a hot drink.
Two days later it was time to leave the B&B and find myself a spot on the long dirt byway that constitutes the nearest vehicle access to Stonehenge. This was where the night’s party would take place, until the monument was opened to the public just prior to sunrise. There wasn’t much going on just yet, so I decided to have a wander around the landscape.
I was particularly interested to see the Cursus Barrows, a row of eighteen barrows situated just north-west of Stonehenge. The late afternoon light provided the perfect moment to capture them.
After I’d circumnavigated the 1200m row of barrows I returned to the drove and made my way into a field on the opposite side, claiming a spot near the fence which marked the nearest place the general public could approach Stonehenge without buying an entry ticket. Another group of druids were having their sundown ceremony nearby, standing in a ring and wishing peace to every corner of the compass.
So now I’d seen two ways in which the pagan community deals with access to a site that they consider highly sacred. Some might pay for the coveted access, and some will perform their ceremonies outside the pay boundary. From what I gathered, none are particularly happy about the current situation, believing the site should be open to all. Mick had regaled me with stories of past solstices, in which druids and pagans had clashed with security in attempts to reclaim access to the sacred henge. Although it is open to the public for the solstice sunrise, it is sunset which is actually the more important moment for these groups.
Just as the ceremony was ending, I managed to finally achieve something that I’d been trying to do since I first came to Wiltshire. After two failures, I was at last able to capture a beautiful image of the monument at sunset. Best yet, it wasn’t just any sunset – it was the sunset the henge was probably built for!
Now that the sun had set, it was time for the traditional civil disobedience. Sadly it seemed much more sedate than in solstices past, with only about three people hopping the fence. One man had a long debate with security, while another skipped around the stones, touching each in turn.
Show over, I retired to the drove to find a good party. Since I’d come alone, my strategy was to find a good-looking bonfire and muscle in. It was a somewhat difficult task for one as socially awkward as I, so I wandered quite a long way before finding a friendly-enough looking group.
I ended up with a group of students and another random, a Spaniard named Javi who had hitch-hiked in on a whim with nothing but a backpack. Since I was to sleep in my car, I was able to offer him the little tent I’d used in France along with a sleeping bag and ground mat – for which he was profoundly grateful!
We shared our stories and banana splits until late, when I retired to my vehicle for a few hours of sleep before the big moment. I awoke just in time to join the horde as the barriers were opened, and together we flowed toward the stones. It had bucketed down in the early hours of the morning, and I was pleased to discover that Javi had managed to keep nice and dry in the largely-untested tent.
The crowd of 5000 murmured softly and shuffled its feet in the dark shadows of the stones as we waited for the solstice sunrise. But the weather once again refused to cooperate, and the thick cloud hanging over the horizon hid the sun. Without fanfare, the day slowly dawned. Driven from their accustomed perches, a flock of angry crows swirled above us.
Nevertheless, the stones were open, and it was time to make the most of the few hours of free access granted to us all. There was singing, dancing, drumming and music. There were hugs and gifts of fruit.
I took the chance to finally touch the stones, running my hands over the great sarsens and the smaller bluestones, all in turn. And eventually the cloud did clear, allowing me to get a shot of the sun framed by the appropriate trilithon – just a couple of hours later than it was supposed to be!
After a few hours of cavorting amongst the stones, National Trust began to shut things down. Evicted from the sacred place, I retreated to find a warm English breakfast and pot of tea.
I don’t regret giving up a New Zealand Christmas for this party of a lifetime. I met good friends, got my sunset photograph, and had a hands-on experience with one of the world’s most famous monuments. Now I can return home secure in the knowledge that I made the most of my northern hemisphere holiday.