The Longest Day
There are few times in your day to day life when you give any consideration for the people who have walked the path before you, stood where you stand, or have sat where you sit. The last time I gave this any real consideration was back in 1999 when I visited Pompeii. Walking down the recently unearthed streets I found myself thinking about whom may have walked or ridden down there before me, considering many of the names from history linked with the Roman Empire, and imagining that many of them may have walked the very cobbles that you stand upon; it is something else. I stood in the central forum of Pompeii, looking past the temple for the Olympian gods, gazing up toward Vesuvius towering over the city, it just made me wonder about the people who had seen that majestic view before me, and better still, they saw it before the Volcano was split in two and twice the size.
Another place that fills me with the same fascination is Stonehenge. Ever since I moved down south some ten years ago now, I have meant to spend more time there than the cursory visits that I have so far afforded it. Year after year I plan to visit for the Summer Solstice, and year after year I just never get around to it. It was only recently while chatting online to an American friend of mine, that I realised just how much she would love to visit the Henge, and it struck me that despite the fact that it is practically on my doorstep, Iíve never got around to doing something that other people can only dream about. So with that, I made sure that this Solstice would be spent at the stones.
It is thought that the first phase of Stonehenge was completed about 5000 years ago. This consisted of a circular bank and ditch, and a set of holes known as the Aubrey holes which sit just inside the circumference of the 120m diameter ditch This ditch is actually the part known as the henge; a henge being an earthwork monument built during the Neolithic.
A few hundred years later, phase two was added at the site. This consisted of wooden structures being added to the centre of the monument. Although there is much excavation evidence that shows very complicated patterns, there is no real way of knowing the layout or purpose of this phase.
About 1000 years later the builders moved in and redeveloped the site; a double circle of 80 blue stones was added during the Hengeís third phase. These 4 tonne stones, are believed to have originated from the Preseli Mountains of South Wales 240 miles away; the reason being is that the stone cannot be found anywhere else. At this point the Heal stone was added; this is the stone that marks the direction of the Midsummer sunrise. Excavations at the site show that the third phase was never completed as about 100 years later the then owner of the land decided on yet another redevelopment.
The next phase involved adding a large circle of Sarsen stones from the Marlborough Downs, 19 miles away. This circle was capped with stone lintels creating the well known circle that visitors know today. Some of these stones weigh up to 50 tonnes, and although they were transported over a much shorter distance, the feat of moving them to the site shouldnít be underestimated. Once on site these stones were all shaped for either aesthetic or for creating the joints required to keep the lintels in place.
The final phase at Stonehenge happened about 500 years later, around 1500bc. The stones were moved around to create the inside of the circle that we are familiar with today.
I was oblivious to all this information before setting off on my journey for an evening with the druids. You may be able to tell from the tone of my voice that Iím rather sceptical about many of the people who visit the site to perform their pagan rituals. Maybe this has to do with the fact that Iím not spiritual or religious in any way, but maybe itís just that I was never very good at participation events and I find the whole concept a little daft. It doesnít matter if you don a robe and stick and wander the Salisbury plains, or are a happy clapper at the local church; itís just not my scene. All I knew was that many people visited the site during the morning before the rising of the sun for the longest day, and this year I was to be one of them. The first thing that struck me is that English Heritage has a great fact sheet telling you everything you need to know about the Summer Solstice. It not only covers all the obvious dos and doníts but also everything you need to know about parking, transport, camping, wheelchair access etc. I was really impressed with the wealth of information available.
I was making the trip with Fergus, a friend of mine. It just seemed to make sense to visit the stones with someone; it wasnít like I would be able to have a quiet moment alone surrounded by the expected 25,000 visitors. So we left my house just after midnight on Monday 21st and made the 30 minute drive to the stones. As I drove up the A345 there was a strange white glow over the hills to my left, I concluded that the ceremony started earlier and that the aliens had already landed at the site and were promptly removing the druids to a place of safety. As I got closer to the stones everything was revealed; large lights had been erected all round the site for the safety of everyone involved. There was a strange Close Encounters feel about it, but nonetheless it seemed to make sense.
As I arrived at the designated car par, I was given a map of the site and a black bin bag and then allowed to find a parking spot in the field being used as a make shift car park. Already I had the feeling that somewhere our ancestors were looking on disapprovingly. Again the car park was very well organised. The car park is about a 20 minute walk from the stones and along the well trodden route I was struck by the commercialism occurring around me. It felt a little like going to a gig with portaloos, burger vans, and strip lights. And although no money actually changed hands for tickets, removing the customary touts harassing you at the gate, I half expected to get to the stones and find that Oasis or some such were headlining.
There were two real oddities that bothered me that night, one was the huge presence of the RSPCA near the burger van, I gather this was for kennels for the dogs brought by many of the travellers but I found the location a little unnerving and was therefore unable to purchase any meat products all night. The other was the preferential position of the Vegan eatery closer to the stones. I just felt that some hippy clique was going on here.
Finally we were at the stones. The hypnotic tribal beat of the drums and the sweet smell of smoke-able drugs and Eau De Hippy slowly taking you in. I have to say at this point that seeing Stonehenge at night is breathtaking, even with a cloak of 25,000 people draped over it.
We managed to walk around and through the stones and although there was no real spiritual moment for me as I touched them, I did find myself lost in that thought of all the people who had stood in that stone circle before me for some 5000 years. Call it a moment of tapping into a collective conscious, but I definitely found my self thinking about the rituals that had been performed on this site for thousands of years.
I must admit that there were moments of disappointment. I would obviously have loved to be there on my own, and I may consider paying English heritage the fee to do that one day, to sit in the middle of the stones at dawn or dusk, all on my own. But the company of 25,000 people seemed somewhat comforting. The thing that really annoyed me was the number of people who were visiting with no real care for the sanctity of the site. The large amount of litter, mainly beer cans, strewn over the floor, I just found perplexing. I didnít really mind the people who were that drunk or stoned that they had passed out on the grass, somehow that seemed fitting with the purpose of the place. After all who am I to say that 5000 years ago people didnít come here to get high while watching the sunrise for the start of the longest day?
Over the next few hours we walked around the whole site and examined it from many different angles and situations. As the sky became lighter and the lights were turned out, the summer morning mist starting to envelope the rolling hills around us made for an eerie feeling. Watching lone shadows walk out of the distance and into the man made light really compacted the alien quality of the technological setup to this very pre-technical place. Sunrise was yet to arrive but I had already loved my time there. I watched tired children sitting around with their parents waiting for something that they would no doubt remember for the rest of their lives. I caught snippets of conversations as I mingled through the dancing crowds. Discarded hippies cluttered the floor. Even the police were in good humour. I heard one policeman comment to a colleague that there was no way anyone was going to let them back into the centre circle of the stones, only for him to be told to just push in like the rest of them.
The stones took on another mystical appearance as dawn approached and the mist pressed ever closer. A slight chill descended upon us as the moment we had all been waiting for approached. 4:58am was the official moment that the sun would favour us with his presence, but due to low cloud and the mist, it was almost 5:15 before she broke through and first golden tendrils embraced the ancient monument. Again there was no spiritual moment, just a beholding of the beauty of nature itself. I donít think it really matters where you are when you witness either sunrise or sunset; it is always an inspirational moment. However, stood at this 5000 year old site surrounded by 25,000 like minded people, was quite a moment.
By 7am I was back at home. I had a few hours sleep before going to work; in future Iíll probably book the day off as I was neither use nor ornament. I managed to watch England beat Croatia at football before finally making it to bed at 10pm. Iíd slept for about 3 hours in the last 40. Monday the 21st June, really was the longest day.