Where ancient and modern meet
The history of alternative gatherings at Stonehenge has long been culturally and politically fraught. Festivals began at summer solstice at the site over 25 years ago, but were suppressed at the notorious Battle of the Beanfield in 1985, after which, direct access to the stones was cut off at summer solstice and at all other times.
However, the desire for an annual gathering never disappeared, and during the late nineties, sustained negotiation between Druids, pagans, festivalgoers, English Heritage, and the National Trust facilitated a remarkable compromise. From 2000, the stones have become directly accessible again for anyone who wants to go on the night of the summer solstice.
One of the key aspects of Stonehenge is that astronomical alignments have been deliberately and accurately built into the design of the monument itself. One of these alignments is on the summer solstice sunrise. Watched from the center of the circle, the sun rises in the north east, just left of the Heel Stone (an important freestanding monolith on the edge of the monument). On a clear day, as the sun rises in the sky, it shines down the avenue leading into Stonehenge and casts a shadow of the Heel Stone into the centre of the monument before rising to reach its highest point in the sky by noon.
The summer solstice is not the only alignment at Stonehenge, and debate continues about the range, accuracy and importance of the extent of complex astronomical knowledge built into the monument. But whatever the finer technical points of these debates may be, the central fact is that the builders and users of Stonehenge were concerned, obsessed even, with astronomy and they knew the movements of the planets and heavens and their relationship with earth very well.
In our post-industrial age, we believe all too often that we have gone beyond nature; we have mastered it for our own ends. We experience it only as a backdrop—convenient or otherwise—to our busy, machine-dependent lives. Yet, like our ancestors, in reality we, too, are born into it, dependent on it, and subject to its forces. By celebrating at Stonehenge we, too, momentarily can find the connection we have to nature, and to a realization of how much we are a part of it. In so doing, we reforge a connection with those human beings living all those years ago who left us such a remarkable testament to what they held dear, as well as with the awesome turning of the cycles of the world.
Winter solstice alignments at Stonehenge - read more.