AMESBURY, England – A few weeks ago The Wild Hunt reported on the digitalisation of Beltane and recently English Heritage, the governing body of Stonehenge, stated that celebrations for the summer solstice in COVID-ridden 2020 would also be taking place online. The monument will be closed to visitors in June, following government guidelines.
The director of Stonehenge, Nichola Tasker said:
We have consulted widely on whether we could have proceeded safely and we would have dearly liked to host the event as per usual, but sadly in the end, we feel we have no choice but to cancel. We hope that our live stream offers an alternative opportunity for people near and far to connect with this spiritual place at such a special time of year and we look forward to welcoming everyone back next year.
Stonehenge is perhaps late to the party: the Winter Solstice illumination at the Irish monument of Newgrange was first was streamed live on the internet in 2007 and has been regularly streamed ever since.
The Wild Hunt asked for opinions regarding the closure and the online streaming of the summer solstice from the U.K.’s Pagan community, and the response was overwhelmingly in favour of closing the monument and streaming the solstice online – possibly permanently!
The Pagan community in the U.K. has long been divided between those who want the monument opened up during the solstices – which it currently was prior the pandemic closure – and those who object to the often anti-social behaviour which is undertaken by a minority of those in attendance at the stones. Many U.K. Pagans say they will not set foot at the henge during these major festivals, due to crowds and behavioural problems.
We include some of the comments made by members of the community below.
Note that everyone who is quoted below is speaking as a private individual and not as part of an organisation.
“I feel Stonehenge will enjoy a break from human activity this year, and let’s hope next year as well! It will recover its natural energies… the iconography of the henge is more powerful without humans in the picture.” (Julie Payne)
“I think summer solstice at the henge is the worst thing I have ever witnessed and I only went once. There is no respect for the place, the atmosphere or other people, it’s a free for all with kids using the stones as a personal playground, a stoner’s paradise. Rubbish and crap strewn about after everyone went home – Stonehenge was a dustbin with broken glass everywhere. I hated every second of it. I went with a small group for a private ritual one October on a cast over windswept evening after everyone had gone home and it was the most magical experience I have ever had. I hate to see Stonehenge assaulted in this way every summer.” (Louisa Morgan)
“I’ve been a few times, and feel the magic and camaraderie have been increasingly polluted by increasing numbers of idiots falling into these broad categories:
A contingent of the New Age traveller movement who are out to deliberately flout every rule put in place by EH. I’ve seen people throwing their dogs over the barrier and letting them run loose, people smuggling in glass bottles… and a lot of the New Age traveller community very very full of drugs, some ready to be over friendly, some looking for a fight.
Groups of typically younger men out to get as wasted as possible on whatever, and have a rowdy party. Like lads on a night out in any city, these can be just loud, [drunk] and happy, or quick to get loud and aggressive.
I realise these are grouping people into categories, but this is what I’ve seen on the more negative side.
It really upsets me, because the people from all different groups and faiths who come to Stonehenge to experience the solstice properly (with awe, respect, and a good deal of waiting around for the sun to show) are generally respectful of others sharing it.” (Ali Maq Peregrine)
One commentator, Peter Nash, had an alarming experience at the stones:
“A pitched battle broke out between the travellers and the police I can remember this huge arc of stones and bottles over my head, and I genuinely feared for my life- never been so scared. I legged it down to the road, – someone stopped and gave me a lift to Salisbury – but never ever again will I go near there on the solstice.”
Other commentators agree:
“I would never go to the stones at Solstice, while it is a crowd like that, I have been, as a natural earth-mystery connected child and walked among the stones and touched them, as with other sites, and it stayed with me, the crowd is as unattractive and inhibiting to me as the ropes. I have attended New Grange livestream at winter solstice, it’s a good idea.” (Annie Heppenstall)
Some celebrants concurred:
“I’m an elder of the Gorsedd of Cor Gawr – holding regular free gorsedd inside the stones each solstice – usually a couple of days before. The only group EH gives private access to for free, I believe. We’ll be holding our ceremony virtually this year. Lamenting that we can’t be there. Looking forward to when we return.” (Danu Forest)
“It is wonderful news that the stones are free of this imposition. I was on the Council of British Druid Orders in the 90s that campaigned for the Stones to be open at the Solstice. I really regret this now, the way it went when access was granted.
The first one was ok, it was ticketed, free of charge but you had to apply, and limited numbers. The second year certain Druids and ‘anarchist’ fellow travellers smashed the fences down because the access system put in place with EH (anyone was free to apply, first come first served, disabled people catered for – quite democratic) was ‘fascist’ or something. There were people sitting on top of the stones, drinking. The coaches of those who applied and got tickets were turned back for health and safety. Just what you needed after being up all night to get there.
After that, they gave up and had open access, a free for all. Big ‘boomboxes’ all blasting out different music, lot of people drumming, but all playing different rhythms, plenty of ritual, but all separate groups doing separate things – so a magical and noise cacophony. No reverence of silence when the sun rose, not helped by the Special Brew Crew either! As I stopped going after that, I don’t know if it got any better.
I think what had happened was the cross-currents of the old festival people with the religious druids, seeing the Stonehenge Solstice observance differently. A clash. I wondered what effect such discordance had on the site’s own elementals, and ‘earth energy’ matrix for want of a better term, the subtle forces that made the site special to those who built the monument in first place, because it had been special before the stones were erected, as cremations show.” (Caroline Wise)
Perhaps it is not just a problem of the modern-day, however – Graham Harvey points out that “midsummer parties have been traditional at Stonehenge since at least the 15th century when a bishop of Salisbury complained about indecorous games.”
However, it seems that many pagans miss the days when the solstices were quieter, as related in this evocative account by writer Patricia Kennealy-Morrison:
“I went to Stonehenge only once, on the winter solstice of 1972. I arranged for a cab to drive me to the stones before dawn from Salisbury and to pick me up three hours later, and it was one of the most magical experiences of my life. Completely alone, up in the circle, just me, the stones, the rooks and the power sweeping toward me over the plain like a tsunami of light. I never went back, because that would have spoiled it.”