No day does this seem truer than on the summer solstice. When the sun rises on the longest day of the year, the morning beams perfectly align between the stones and meet the central altar. This holy matrimony of sun and stone is welcomed by cheers and shouts of joy by thousands who have stayed up all night to celebrate midsummer, along with an anthem of white-cloaked and hooded Druids singing “Arises ‘o’ Sun!” with the dawn chorus.
Celebrating the sun as it reaches its highest point at Stonehenge is no new tradition and from the early 70s to mid 80s, it attracted a carnival of new-age travellers, neo-Druids and other alternative communities to dance among the stones at the Stonehenge Free Festival. This was, of course, shut down by the authorities in 1985, and ended with the brutal Battle of the Beanfield. Stonehenge reopened its doors to the sun worshippers, hippies and pagans in the summer of 1999 and the event now attracts over 20,000 people every year.
To witness solstice traditions at their best, arrive at Stonehenge before the sun has even set on the day before. A sunset ceremony, led by Druid purists, takes place before they get into a circle and process around the stones three times. The Druids believe that this ceremonial act acknowledges the sanctity of the site and that it introduces them to the spirits and higher beings of Stonehenge.
As the morning draws closer, worshippers will begin to set up small circles. Within these circles, they will call to the elements one at a time. To Mother Earth in the north, Air in the east, Water to the west and Fire to the south. There are speeches and announcements made to faeries and legends, before everyone turns to face the rising sun and raises their hands. This group celebration and prayer is said to summon good energy and send it out around the world.
Summer solstice celebrations are important rituals throughout England and are not unique to the country’s most famous stone circle in Wilstshire. In Cornwall, a relay of bonfires are lit across the highest points and tors of the moors, from Ding Dong in Madron to Bodmin Moor’s most northern reaches, with each ignition being a signal to light the next. In Penzance, the Golowan Festival, which is Cornish for midsummer, ends in a riot of colour and music in a cacophonous street party which rages through the town on the first Saturday after the solstice every year.
For those who want the Druid experience without the hordes, England is littered with over 1,000 stone circles, from Casterligg in the Lake District, to Swinside in Cumbria, the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire and the Duddo Stone Circle in Northumberland. Get the beautiful sunrise and celebrate the solstice far from the madding crowds. Perfect.