Saturday, June 21, 2008

Solstice at the 'Henge

My coworker Simon suggested a trip to Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice, which is cool because it's a massive gathering of some 25,000 neo-Pagans, hippies, New Age travelers, partygoers and people looking for a good time, punks, Goths, and people who just want to see what's going on. It's also one of the four days each year when the National Trust allows people to walk up to the stones, touch them, stand among them and experience them as people used to do. It's often taken for granted but until early last century Stonehenge was actually in danger of collapsing and being damaged; previous landowners used to let tourists chip pieces off rocks and some of the lintels had collapsed.

When you go as a tourist today you're confined to a paved, circular track that sits about a hundred feet away from the circle. In other words, you never get close enough to actually get a real sense of why Stonehenge is so significant. It's one thing to hear a guided tour tell you about it from a hundred feet away; it's quite another to stand between massive stone pillars with a stone lintel over your head and try to fathom why neolithic people would have dragged the things 40 miles at a time when there were no such thing as iron weapons and armor. Why? How? The thing is no one knows. It's still not entirely certain why Stonehenge was built. It seems to have been a sacred site used for a variety of reasons and by a variety of people, but why was it created originally? We don't know.

We set out from work at 4:00 on Friday, narrowly missing an all-office meeting, and took the train out to Salisbury where we caught the bus service to Stonehenge. We arrived at the monument around 8:30 and still had a couple of hours of daylight to get oriented. The center of the stones was the center of the action, with people gathered dancing, drumming, playing music, smoking and hanging out all around. The rain was intermittent but picked up towards the end of the night, but even the minor misery of the rain and cold didn't really dampen our spirits.

The night passed with dancing, walking around, talking, drinking and just enjoying the overall energy of the gathering. I'm certainly no pagan or even a religious person, but there is definitely a feeling of energetic togetherness when so many people are gathered and engaged in an activity like that. I will also admit that the stones themselves surprised me; they felt far warmer than I expected. The odd part? They were warm in patches. Other parts felt exactly like cold stones you'd expect to find in the middle of a rain-swept plain.

I honestly can't remember the last time I pulled an all-nighter, but I came through this one with flying colors (and slept the entire train ride back to London, then crashed when we got to the flat.) But it was an incredible experience. I'm still trying to sort what to make of it, but there is something remarkable about a lot of people getting together for a party like that, drinking, smoking, having fun and not hurting themselves or anyone else. That was what surprised me the most: no instances of violence or anything I would have associated with a bunch of people getting together and turning the censors off. In fact, I saw total strangers taking care of other people who needed an extra shoulder or two on the walk back to the bus.

If you're interested, here's my Twitter stream from the evening, as I was live-tweeting the entire thing.
    On train to Waterloo. Can't wait for a warm shower and sleep. about 10 hours ago from txt

    And there's sunrise but you wouldn't know it. about 12 hours ago from txt

    @simoncollister has disappeared into the stones, I'm enjoying sunrise just outside them. about 12 hours ago from txt in reply to simoncollister

    No sun but daylight. Rain picking up now. about 13 hours ago from txt

    Less than an hour till sunrise, packing up camp and heading into the middle of the Henge. about 13 hours ago from txt

    Getting awfully tired, an hour forty five to go. about 14 hours ago from txt

    Rain has turned from minor annoyance to cold wet miserable. about 14 hours ago from txt

    Two and a half hours and I'm struggling to stay awake. about 14 hours ago from txt

    3 hours to sunrise and someone just shot off a flare gun. about 15 hours ago from txt

    Thousands here now. Its a maze to get to our blanket. about 17 hours ago from txt

    Five hours to sunrise and doing great, about 17 hours ago from txt

    The rain keeps coming and going. Still haven't put my sweater on. Strong smell of skunk in the air. about 18 hours ago from txt

    The daylight has finally disappeared. The drums are getting louder. about 19 hours ago from txt

    Found a spot for the night not five feet from stone lintels. Only 7 hours to sunrise. about 19 hours ago from txt

    Its hard not to get caught up in the celebrating, I've got a huge smile on my face. about 19 hours ago from txt

    Standing in the center of the stones. It might just be me but they feel... warm. about 19 hours ago from txt

    Past securiry about to be in the stones. Hear pipes and drums. Light rain. about 19 hours ago from txt

    Hiking across Salisbury plain with hundreds if not thousands of others. Have my first sight of the stones. about 20 hours ago from txt

    On the bus on the way to the Henge, my fellow travellers include goths, hippies and @simoncollister about 20 hours ago from txt

    Noshing Thai before going to the Henge. about 22 hours ago from txt

    The AC on this train seems to be broken. :( about 23 hours ago from txt

    On a train to Salisbury to go to Stonehenge for the Solstice. Will be up all night! about 24 hours ago from txt
I think I may have to go back next year, or find another Solstice celebration. It was a great time.

Update: Simonski has an incredible picture from the event on his Flickr.

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