The Sun Stones: The Story of the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge

20 12 2020

It was dark, darker than Glynneth could remember. In all of her eleven years she hadn’t known a night like it. It seemed to go on forever. She pondered this as she sat hunched nursing the small fire, huddled in her hand-me-down cloak that always dragged in the mud when she collected kindling or got caught on brambles during the berry moon. With a stick she nudged the unburnt section of log closer to the flames. The embers stirred, glowing and spitting sparks up into the vast night sky, where the gods sat gathered around their own fires.

As a sudden icy gust whipped the flames, Glynneth shuddered and tried to shut out its freezing touch, as cold as her baby brother’s toes as he wriggled into the bed they were humiliatingly forced to share, top-to-toe, within the family hut. He always tried to snuggle close, to steal her warmth – and no matter how she shoved him back she’d always awake to find him curled around her like a dog. Yet even their hound stank less than him at times.

Still, they were family. And as her mother always told her – they had to look after each other. It was a big, hard world out there – and nobody beyond your tribe would give a cowpat about you.

They all irritated her at times, but life was so frail – like the flames she nursed on the longest night of the year – as they all knew. Everyday they were reminded by their father how lucky they were to survive; how lucky they were to still have their mother who recovered from bringing them into this world. There were many families in the tribe who weren’t so lucky.

Yet ‘lucky’ was relative – as their father also reminded them. As it meant more mouths to feed, more chores to do. They all had to pull their weight.

And so Glynneth found herself tending one of the watch-fires burning that night. She could see them like a constellation, glowing in the dark across the stark winter landscape – grass and scrub glittering with a hard frost. And dominating the plain – the Sun Stones. Their negative presence – a deeper darkness against the night – unmistakable.

There, the priests gathered to perform their secret rites. She could hear the throb of their deer-skin drums. They would be at it all night, building to a crescendo by dawn.

Before sunrise she and the other watchers would take a burning brand and process into the stern presence of the stones, crossing over the white ring of chalk into the sacred place. There they would dowse their flames in the frost and greet the rekindled sun.

This is the first time Glynneth has been allowed to tend a watch-fire by herself. It was drummed into her what a great responsibility it was, lighting the way – collectively creating an avenue of golden light to guide the power of the reborn sun into the crucible of the stones, channelling its life-saving energy into the land. Once again tribes from far and wide had gathered.

Once again Glynneth was unnerved by their strange accents and impenetrable tongues. But for the first time she had noticed a boy from one of the seafaring tribes who had travelled down from some remote island in the unimaginable north – a boy with an unruly shock of black hair from beneath which glinted eyes of sky smiling at her as he too prepared his watchfire in the gathering gloom of the previous afternoon. She could not see him now, beyond the small star of his fire, but the memory of that smile made her cheeks burn.

Was he looking across to her fire at that moment? And what was he thinking? What strange land had he come from? And would his lips taste of the sea? She blushed at the thought, and quickly doused such nonsense. She had a job to do!

Impatiently, she poked at the fire – wishing the endless night would end, and she could join in the great dance that always followed the sun’s rebirth. Maybe then she would start to feel warm again.

And maybe she would even bump into the boy.

Every year new fires were made from the stray embers of the old – friendships, marriages, alliances … interlocking like the sun stones, becoming stronger together. Over the next three days there would be much feasting and oath-taking. News of the year would be shared – wry assessments of good or bad seasons, skirmishes and feuds, over a few too many horns of mead or ale. And with sore heads, full bellies, and promises pledged, the tribes would make their farewells and begin their long trek home, scattering to the obscurest groves, vales, and coves of the land.

And with each new sunrise, the sun will linger a little bit longer in the sky and life will slowly return to the slumbering earth.

Glynneth rubbed her arms and exhaled a frozen cloud of breath. That time could not come soon enough, but for now … she could swear that the sky was starting to get a fraction brighter. Now she was able to start making out the lay of the land – the long line of the Avenue, sweeping down to the slowly winding river. The watchfires still glowed, but it would not be long before their light would be overwhelmed by the rekindled sun. She could see the figures huddled over them, blowing on hands, or stretching and stamping feet.

And opposite her, on the other side of the flickering divide of parallel fires, the eyes of a dark boy from a distant isle shone.

Dr Kevan Manwaring is an author, lecturer, and specialist tour-guide. His books include The Long Woman (a novel which features Stonehenge and Avebury), Lost Islands, Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels, Desiring Dragons, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, and Herepath: a Wiltshire songline. He is a keen walker and loves exploring the ancient landscape of the Marlborough Downs (where he lives) and beyond.  www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk

Stonehenge Winter Solstice Links:
The Rebirth of the Sun: the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge – STONEHENGE NEWS BLOG
Watch the winter solstice LIVEfrom Stonehenge, wherever you are in the world! ENGLISH HERITAGE FACEBOOK
Winter Solstice: Wild tales of slaughtered bulls, human sacrifice and much merriment – THE SCOTSMAN
Winter solstice: Why do pagans celebrate the shortest day of the year? THE TELEGRAPH
Solstice at Stonehenge. From Past to Present. – STONEHENGE NEWS BLOG
What has Stonehenge got to do with the winter solstice? – METRO NEWS
Celebrate Winter Solstice at Stonehenge – HOLIDAY EXTRAS
Solstice and Equinox Experience Tours – SOLSTICE EVENTS UK
The Stonehenge Sostice Pilgrims – STONEHENGE NEWS BLOG
Stonehenge, the Winter Solstice, and the Druids – INTERESTRING ENGINEERING
Respecting the Stones.  Managed Open Access –STONEHENGE NEWS BLOG
Stonehenge Winter Solstice Tours – STONEHENGE GUIDED TOURS

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