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Jim Rayner of website www.stonehengepilgrim.org.uk and the author of ‘A Pilgrim’s Guide to Stonehenge’ shares his thoughts on how, where and when the solstice should be celebrated at Stonehenge.
Stonehenge – Opening up monument field and restoring the sun gap
English Heritage (EH) and the National Trust (NT) have promised to open up monument field and reconnect Stonehenge with The Avenue by finally removing the old A344 northern stock boundary fence. Yet, no further details about exactly when this is going to happen have been released. EH may well argue that this is because the newly seeded grass areas (along the line of the old road and old visitor centre car park) need further time to establish. EH may also state that the fences need to remain whilst any changes to the shuttle bus turning circle are being constructed (the planning decision is due in mid-July 2016). For further details about this and the ‘permissible route’ for walkers and cyclists along the line of the old A344 please see www.sarsen.org . and in particular http://www.sarsen.org/2016/05/summer-2016-planned-improvement-to.html. If this proves too difficult, then new line of access could be established around the edge of the current fences to the east and along the line of the long abandoned track way running across the avenue.
The creation of a larger monument field is integral to developing the summer and winter solstices celebrations as more ‘authentic gatherings’. During the summer solstice celebrations people are especially bunched-up against the old A344 fence and the centre of the circle is overcrowded. The best view of Stonehenge is from the avenue and this location is paramount to witnessing the midwinter sunset and possibly the midsummer shadow cast by the Heel Stone right into the heart of the monument. It would also help if EH and the NT started negotiations with Ministry of Defence about removing a small section of mainly coniferous trees on the horizon in order to recreate a ‘sun gap’ for the summer solstice sunrise. This and the removal of the old A344 fence would provide the extra space needed and a visual focal point for managed open access to develop in a more positive direction for all concerned.
English Heritage is saying that people have been celebrating summer solstice at Stonehenge for “thousands of years“. But where’s their evidence? Winter solstice, yes, they have shown loads of evidence for that, but not summer. So it’s strange they are making unsubstantiated claims about the cultural importance of the summer considering they are keen to reduce numbers in the summer. Anyway, here’s the authentic solstice view that none of the attendees will see this summer, it’s by our member Jimit and it showes the winter solstice sunset, viewed from outside the stones on the original ceremonial approach ….
How convenient by the ancients, making the big moment sunset instead of sunrise. No-one has to stand around waiting all night and, because it’s mostly not dark, it involves a lot less security and infrastructure. The Australians can confirm that’s the case. Here’s their winter solstice sunset celebration at “The Henge”, Bywong. No expense, no security, no infrastructure, no stone climbing, no litter, no damage, no moaning!
As the Canberra times reported: “Out at Bywong they steered clear of any of the pagan rituals seen at some genuinely ancient sites around the world, and instead enjoyed a barbecue, hot chocolate, mulled wine and a fun family atmosphere”. Imagine that! Hot chocolate, mulled wine and a fun family atmosphere!
So who stole OUR solstice?
Some people opposed the imposition of parking charges at Summer solstice and say the whole cost of staging the event should be borne by English Heritage. They call EH “greedy” for thinking otherwise and accuse them of treating Stonehenge like a “cash cow”. Up to now we’ve been broadly on EH’s side on this – they are short of money (which has implications for the welfare of hundreds of heritage sites, not just Stonehenge) and the cost of financing the annual solstice party is a great burden – so why shouldn’t the attendees contribute? (A few dozen Druids maybe not, but thousands of party-goers, yes.)
However, the question arises: is there a limit to the amount of money that EH should extract from Stonehenge without becoming vulnerable to the accusation they are using the monument disrespectfully as a cash cow? It is prompted by this, their current planning application for improved parking: “If approved, it is hoped that these changes, plus an improved drop off/pick layout at the Stones, will create a more flexible service, providing up to 900 visitor journeys in each direction every hour at peak times – compared to the current maximum of 600”.
That implies that at peak times there will be 900 people processing round the stones every hour, an increase of 50%. Will that be just too many? Will the Stonehenge visitor experience be eroded to an unacceptable extent? If 900 is considered seemly, what if parking could be extended further, would 1,900 be OK? As guardians, shouldn’t EH announce what they think is a reasonable limit lest the jibes about Stonehenge being like Disneyland come true by incremental steps?
Many people opposed to parking charges and sobriety at Stonehenge have said they’ll go to Avebury instead. This seems to have prompted the National Trust to take action: “A new plan has been drawn up by the Trust, which owns the stone circle in the Wiltshire village, to clamp down on the growing numbers of people staying outside the village and blocking the Ridgeway, which runs along the hillside just to the east of the village. The crackdown will also see more enforcement of tighter new parking restrictions.”
However, as at Stonehenge the real motivation seems to be less about parking than an attempt to limit numbers and improve behaviour – “to curb the excesses of the revellers who gather there”, to make solstice “a more peaceful occasion” ….. “safe for everyone and respectful of the World Heritage Site”…. “We want the Solstice at Avebury to continue to be known for being a peaceful, respectful occasion which all those who care most about the henge and the village would want it to be”. To this end, “As part of the plan, the Police and Wiltshire Council will increase patrols on the Ridgeway – a byway east of Avebury where the number and behaviour of people gathering during Solstice has become a problem.”
No doubt the Trust will get a lot of stick (and Heaven knows, there isn’t a stick big enough on some occasions!) but it would be nice if the complainants at both Avebury and Stonehenge recognised that there IS a behaviour problem that needs addressing.
Alcohol is to be prohibited at Stonehenge solstice celebrations!
No-one can deny it contributes to the all-too-frequent damage and disrespect so this is an excellent, heritage-friendly move.
We ask only one thing of EH: please don’t negotiate or compromise by even a thimbleful. A duty to protect is a duty to protect and shouldn’t be subject to negotiation or requests to act otherwise by anyone.
There are signs that the solstice at Stonehenge is increasingly being celebrated in the way the evidence suggests is “authentic”. See this….
Amesbury Museum and Heritage Trust
At 6pm on 21st December Amesbury will be holding its 5th Annual Solstice Eve lantern procession from the Melor hall, to the Abbey for mulled wine & mince pies and then to the Mesolithic Spring, where the public will find the Solstice lantern lit by the dying embers of light at Stonehenge a little earlier in the afternoon. Do please join in this amazing experience and take part in a 5000 year old tradition.
and this …..
Stonehenge Solstice Sunset Tour
Stonehenge is carefully aligned on a sight-line that points to the winter solstice sunset. It is thought that the Winter Solstice was actually more important to the people who constructed Stonehenge than the Summer Solstice and exciting recent archaeological revelations prove this theory….. We will be there for sunset! Witness the sun setting at Stonehenge from the ceremonial Avenue….. A unique opportunity and a truly magical experience!”
What’s not to like? Right day, right time, right place instead of wrong day, wrong time, wrong place! Shouldn’t English Heritage be encouraging those thousands who claim a traditional “right” to do it all wrong to start doing it right? After all, apart from watching the wrong phenomenon at the wrong time they’re doing so from the wrong place so the effect intended by the builders is completely lost to them and they are doing it in such numbers that both damage and disrespect (and a lot of expense) have resulted previously. It’s a funny way to show they care for the monument. They really don’t have a leg to stand on.
Following the recent wide publicity we would like to make our position clear regarding solstice celebrations at Stonehenge:
We have no objections whatsoever to solstice celebrations at Stonehenge subject to the simple proviso that they don’t involve damage or disrespect to the monument by which we mean significant litter, urine, vomit, faeces or deliberate marks on the stones – or any climbing up or standing on them (both of which are not open for debate as they are illegal under the government regulations by which English Heritage is bound).
We feel those obvious parameters should have been imposed many years ago on a zero tolerance basis and we look forward to the speedy publication of measures to achieve them. We trust the reforms will be announced not debated and that they will be judged by results this summer and will be revised thereafter as necessary. To this end we call for the prompt publication of a full damage and disrespect status report for each year from 2000 to 2014 and for each year thereafter.
We suspect that most people will agree and we are heartened by this from the Free Stonehenge Facebook Group: “Just to reassure The Heritage Journal that there are in fact many Druids and Pagans in complete agreement with the Journal’s position and are steadfastly campaigning for something to be done ….” It is surely now time for English Heritage to listen to the majority of people for whom respect for the site is the priority.
(Can one say that about Solstice as well as Christmas? Oh well….)
Scrooge might well get grumpy about English Heritage’s announcement about tomorrow’s event: “The [Winter Solstice at Stonehenge] is traditionally celebrated at the sunrise closest to the time when the sun is stationary”.
Is it? Doesn’t their own latest research indicate Stonehenge was designed to view winter sunsets not sunrises – and from outside the stones not inside?! Yet tomorrow they’ll let thousands into the circle to hoot and holler at the rising sun and won’t let on to them that they think they’re in the wrong place and 16 hours too late!
Shouldn’t EH, not the attendees, specify what the authentic celebration should be? After all, it is they who commissioned the research, it is they who are discomforted by the event and it is they who would save loads of money by not having to stage a massive free shindig inside a world heritage monument in the middle of the night!
UPDATE Mon 22 Dec: Stranger and stranger (x3) ….
From the Western Daily Press this morning:
“Dozens of people turned up to the stones yesterday morning for the sunrise, but were told they had come a day too early” and
“The winter solstice sunrise is the most important moment in the pagan calendar – the moment of rebirth when the days begin to get longer again. It was the moment Stonehenge was aligned for – not the summer solstice sunrise.”
It just couldn’t be better – and is exactly as everyone would like it to be at Stonehenge!
Sadly though it must remain forever an unattainable ideal in Wiltshire – or at least, for so long as there’s an insistence on the “right” of many thousands of people to crowd inside the stone circle in unsustainable numbers thereby creating major Health & Safety and conservation issues.