Hundreds of druids and pagans descend on Stonehenge to celebrate the Autumn Equinox

24 09 2017

Hundreds of pagans and druids descended on Stonehenge on the 23rd September to celebrate the equinox as autumn began.

Visitors headed to the famous 5,000-year-old site in Wiltshire in the dark to ensure they got to see the sun rise.

And they made the most of one of only four public annual events that allows people to get so close to the stones.

Photographs showed attendees singing and wearing a variety of extravagant outfits as onlookers watched on.

 

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Stone Circle (“Special”) Access

20 08 2017

Before 1978 you were free to walk around inside the stone circle at Stonehenge once you’d paid your admission fee. The lack of any guards overnight meant people also hopped the fence once the site had closed.

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Stonehenge at dawn.  A special access ‘inner circle’ visit at sunrise.

Finally, in response to the over 800,000 annual visitors, access was restricted. An article entitled “Heritage Under Siege” in New Scientist (Sept 27th, 1979) reports the Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings as saying:

“The whole problem of Stonehenge is numbers … all through the year. What menaces Stonehenge are the millions of feet (and hands) of the ordinary visitors.”

… and continues:

“An archaeologist calculated that if each visitor walked around the central area just twice during his or her visit, the effect would be the same as having one man standing on each square foot inside the ring and jumping up and down on that spot 62 times every day throughout the year.”

After March 1978, everyone was banned from inside the circle – including archaeologists and other researchers, much to their annoyance. Department of the Environment officials said that the plans to allow out-of-hours access to “those with a special interest” had to be abandoned because the custodians were unwilling to work overtime. And so it remained for a long time.

Eventually things changed and these days it’s possible to book to go inside the stone circle on what is called a “Stone Circle Access” or “Special Access” visit. These are one-hour long slots before and after the monument is open to the public during the day, and a maximum of 30 people are allowed inside at a time.

You can book as an individual, or via a tour company who may (or may not) provide a well-informed guide to show you some of the hidden features that you might otherwise miss.

Once inside, if the light’s right you can pick out some of the hundreds of examples of wrencarved initials and names on the stones. One of them might even be that of Christopher Wren – a local lad who made good and went on to design the new St. Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire of London in 1666.

One thing that a lot of people fail to notice is the sound of the place – there’s a definite sense of entering into an enclosed, peaceful space a soon as you come in through the primary entrance beneath the central lintel of the three on the northeast side of the circle.

It’s only when you’re up really close to the monument that the epic scale of the stones really strikes you – the tallest one is over 7m from grass to top, and there’s a further 2.5m in the ground. Weighing in at over 40 tons it’s a beautifully shaped monolith that was part of the tallest trilithon on the site. Sadly its partner upright fell and broke long ago, leaving the lintel they both supported lying on its side in the southwest part of the central area.

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The bluestones, though much smaller than the sarsens, are still impressive rocks – the tallest one stands leaning in front of the highest sarsen stone and has a wide groove worked all the way down one edge. No-one knows why.

There are a few rules – no standing on the stones, no touching them, no smoking – but apart from that you’re free to wander around and properly appreciate both the enormity of the large sarsen blocks, the elegance of the bluestone pillars and the ingenuity of the builders who created the monument over 4,500 years ago.

If you have the chance, by far the best way to see Stonehenge is through a Stone Circle Access visit.  

Stonehenge Guided Tours pioneered these Stonehenge access tours and offer frequent scheduled coach tours at sunrise and sunset. They can often arrange private custom inner circle tours with expert guides.  The Stonehenge Travel Company are based in nearby Salisbury and are considered the local Stonehenge experts.
Article by guest blogger and local Stonehenge historian Simon Banton

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Stonehenge Summer Solstice 2017: Crowds gather on the longest (and hottest) day of the year

21 06 2017

About 13,000 people watched the sunrise at Stonehenge on Wednesday morning, on the longest day of the year.

The sun rose at the historic monument in Wiltshire at 04:52 BST.

English Heritage opens the site up every year for the solstice, giving people a rare chance to get up close to the monument.

sunrisest

Read this story on the BBC Wiltshire website

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Summer Solstice at Stonehenge. From Past to Present.

4 06 2017

Although there was historically a Summer Fayre at Stonehenge held on traditional midsummer’s day of the 24th of June, it was only comparatively recently that the association between Stonehenge and the Summer Solstice Sunrise was realised.

Before Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, the summer solstice had slipped out of sync with the old Julian calendar by 11 days. This meant that the Sun didn’t appear to rise from the Heelstone on 24th June. People somehow knew that they should be at Stonehenge on “midsummer’s day”, but the reason had long been forgotten.

Indeed, it was only in 1771 that the first link between the Heelstone and the Summer Solstice Sunrise was mentioned by Dr. John Smith, even though William Stukeley had identified that the Avenue lead off towards the solstice sunrise point some 30 years earlier. Smith churlishly didn’t even acknowledge Stukeley’s work in his book.

These days, of course, everyone knows about it.

Heelstone SunriseFrom about 3pm on the 20th June, Stonehenge closes to regular visitors in order for preparations to begin for the largest mass pilgrimage to a solar temple in modern times.

Up to 40,000 people begin arriving across the landscape on foot, or by car and coach to the fields by the Visitor Centre (parking charges are £5 per motorbike, £15 per car, live-in vehicle or minibus up to 19 seats, £100 per coach with coach-space pre-booking essential, and there is no discount for disabled badge holders) in advance of the monument being reopened at 7pm.

This is the one time in the year when anyone can spend the night inside the stone circle, and it gets crowded very quickly with travellers, drummers, pagans, druids, cosplay wizards and faeries, as well as more “ordinary” folk. Alcohol has been banned in recent years but evidence is obvious of prior indulgence in that and other recreational substances amongst the revellers. This “managed open access” has the feeling of a massive outdoor party rather than a respectful observance but most people seem to have a good time.

The locals tend to come for the evening on the 20th before escaping ahead of full nightfall, and the atmosphere is more family-friendly between 7pm and sunset around 9.30pm.

Solstice Eve

Ahead of sunset a number of groups tend to perform “all welcome” ceremonies in the centre of the circle, including the modern Druids usually led by Archdruid Rollo Maughling, King Arthur Pendragon or Merlin of England.

As night falls the entire field around the monument fills up and people gather in groups on and under blankets (no sleeping bags permitted) and while away the hours until the much-anticipated solstice dawn on the 21st.

A number of concession stands near the field entrance serve up tea, coffee and a variety of food to keep everyone warm, and there are first aiders, security marshalls, volunteer peace stewards and a low-key police presence to ensure everyone’s safety. Portaloos are installed all around the site as well as lighting gantries which are gradually dimmed as dawn approaches. Bags are security checked at the entrances to the field to intercept glass bottles or other dangerous items, and no animals are allowed apart from the drugs sniffer dogs on the gate.

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The “managed open access” at summer solstice has been in place since 2000 and I have attended all bar two of them. In 15 years, I’ve seen a clear solstice sunrise only twice – so if you plan to come, be prepared for a cloudy morning with no sight of the Sun.

Bring waterproofs and wear many layers – it can be unexpectedly cold at 2am in the middle of a field in Wiltshire, and it frequently rains (on occasion very, very heavily) overnight. Umbrellas are forbidden but a black plastic binbag makes an acceptable, if unfashionable, substitute.

Dawn occurs at 4.52 BST, but the Sun is always a few minutes late because the trees on the horizon to the northeast delay its appearance. As the centre of the circle is by now absolutely rammed solid, the Druid ceremony usually takes place by the Heelstone after sunrise.

The monument field has to be cleared by 8am so that the site can be tidied up and put back to normal in time for it to re-open to regular visitors by about 3pm on the 21st.

The attendees drift away back towards the car park and peace, of a sort, descends.

Crowds leaving

Now the real work begins for the on-site Historic Property Stewards who care for the monument all year round, and the army of temporary contractors.

The grass in the centre of the circle is “groomed” with rakes having been trampled flat by thousands of feet for 13 hours and the whole area of the monument within the henge bank and ditch perimeter is litter-picked on hands and knees. Lost property is gathered together in case the owners come back for it – though how anyone can forget a baby buggy is hard to imagine.

The visitor barrier ropes are re-installed around the circle, the interpretation panels are re-erected, the bench seats on the path are returned and the overnight infrastructure is taken away, along with several tons of rubbish. Sprinklers are deployed to revivify the turf.

The Stonehenge Summer Solstice experience is unlike any other – for some people it’s a lifetime’s ambition, for others it’s an excuse for a party.

For Stonehenge, this year will be something like the 4,517th time it’s seen people gather at this turning point in the seasonal round – it must have some stories to tell, and Stone 28 is probably the one to tell them – you just have to listen closely.

Article by guest blogger and local Stonehenge historian Simon Banton

If you are considering visiting Stonehenge for the Solstice or Equinox celebrations you can join an organised tour and save all the hassle.  Use a reputable tour operator who respect the conditions.  Stonehenge Guided Tours are the longest established company and Solstice Events offer small group Solstice tours using only local expert guides.

Relevant links:
Stonehenge Summer Solstice Open Access Arrangements.
Respecting the Stones
English Heritage Conditions of Entry
The Salisbury Reds special solstice shuttle service
Stonehenge Summer Solstice Tours and transport from London
Stonehenge Summer Solstice Tours from Bath

Follow @St0nehenge @EH_Stonehenge @VisitStonehenge @HighwaysEngland and @Wiltshirepolice for #summersolstice updates on the night.

If you are unable to visit Stonehenge on the Solstice you can watch our LIVE PERISCOPE STONEHENGE BROADCAST

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Vernal (Spring) Equinox at Stonehenge.

25 02 2017

The Spring Equinox in 2017 falls on March 20th and occurs at 10:28am GMT. The time is for the instant when the Sun crosses the celestial equator moving northwards and has a celestial longitude of 0°. Everywhere on Earth has a day and night of almost equal length and it marks the beginning of the northern spring season.

Druids and Pagans enjoying the Equinox sunrise celebrations at Stonehenge.

Druids and Pagans enjoying the Equinox sunrise celebrations at Stonehenge. Copyright

There is considerable debate in the archaeoastronomy community as to whether the Equinox had any special meaning for the builders of Stonehenge. They had no accurate clocks by which they could determine when the day and night were almost exactly equal and discovering the mid-point between the Winter and Summer solstice can be done in a couple of obvious ways.

You can count the days and divide by two. Or you can mark the summer and winter sunrise positions along the horizon and divide that line into two equal parts. These two methods give different results.

For example, counting the days between Winter Solstice 2016 (December 21st) and Summer Solstice 2017 (June 21st) gives 182 days. Half of that is 91, meaning the midpoint would fall on March 22nd 2017 – two days after the actual Equinox.

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The time is for the instant when the Sun crosses the celestial equator moving northwards and has a celestial longitude of 0°

 

Using the “divide the horizon” approach causes an additional problem – at the Solstices do you mark the first gleam of the Sun appearing, the point when half of it is above the horizon or when it has fully risen and the full orb is standing exactly on the horizon?

The difference in position between using “first gleam” and “full orb” is about 1.5° because the Sun rises at an angle. As a result the halfway position could be 0.75° different depending on your choice and that is one and a half times the width of the Sun’s disc, potentially putting your Equinox out by a day or so.

In any event, there is no alignment through Stonehenge for the Equinox and what’s more there isn’t even a clear sightline directly through the monument that runs true East-West towards the Equinox sunrise position, in the way that there are clear sightlines for the Solstice sunrises and sunsets.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice photo of an equinox sunrise when it’s clear, because you can.

equinox-sunrise

English Heritage Charitable Trust allows everyone in to the centre of the monument for the Spring Equinox sunrise, in the same way that they do for the Autumn Equinox and the two Solstices, through their “Managed Open Access” events. It’s one of only four occasions in the year when open access is allowed.

It’s worth checking with their customer services department (0370 333 1181) a week or so ahead because sometimes they set the actual day of the open access to be different to the day when the Equinox occurs.

Equinox open accesses attract fewer people than the Solstices – in the several hundreds rather than tens of thousands – and there are modern Druid ceremonies which are held in the circle around dawn, so if you prefer a quieter experience then attending an Equinox is a good choice.

If you do visit Stonehenge on the Equinox please respect the special terms of entry and read this blog: ‘Respecting the Stones’

If you are considering visiting Stonehenge for the Solstice or Equinox celebrations you can join a specialist organised small group tour.  Use a only a reputable tour operator who respect the conditions of entry.  Stonehenge Guided Tours are the longest established company offering award winning discreet tours from London. Solstice Events offer small group sunrise tours using only local expert guides.

Article by guest blogger and local Stonehenge historian Simon Banton

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Winter Solstice Celebrations at Stonehenge: 21st December 2016

1 12 2016

English Heritage will once again welcome people to Stonehenge to celebrate the Winter Solstice. Sunrise is just after 8am on Wednesday 21st December and visitors will be able to access the monument as soon as it is light enough to do so safely. Please read the information below before planning your visit.

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PRACTICAL INFORMATION:

DATE AND TIMINGS
WEDNESDAY 21st DECEMBER 2016
MONUMENT FIELD OPENS: 07.45am (approximately, depending on light levels)
MONUMENT FIELD CLOSES: 10am

Please note, access to Stonehenge for Winter Solstice is free. Parking charges apply.

GETTING HERE:

Parking for Winter Solstice is very limited and we cannot guarantee that you will be able to park near to Stonehenge. If you are planning to travel by car, wherever you park there may be a 30 minute walk to the Monument. We strongly recommend car sharing or using public transport.

Car Sharing – Request or offer a lift to Solstice at Stonehenge

Travel by busSalisbury Reds buses will be running from 06:30 from Salisbury (New Canal, Stop U and Salisbury Rail Station). Check timetable.

Blue Badge Parking – Blue badge parking is in the visitor centre car park and permits must be booked in advance. There is accessible transport to the monument field from the visitor centre beginning at approximately 6.30am. Permits available from Solstice.Stonehenge@english-heritage.org.uk

Parking and parking charges Limited parking is available in the winter solstice car parks, which will open at 5.30am on the 21st December.

As you approach Stonehenge, there will be signs to direct you to the car park – please ensure that you follow these. Please do not arrive early as there is no waiting on the roads in the area and you will be moved on.

Parking may involve a shuttle journey to the visitor centre and wherever you park there may be a 30 minute walk.

  • Cars, private hire minibuses and live-in vehicles £5
  • Motorbikes £2
  • Commercial coaches £50

The car parking charge is designed to encourage people to car share and will help the charity offset  the costs of providing additional staffing and lighting in the car parks.

Please note, car parking charges apply to all users of the Winter Solstice car parks, including Blue Badge holders, and members of English Heritage and National Trust.

Motorists have access to a park and ride shuttle from the off-site solstice car parking to the visitor centre. A shuttle will also be provided between the visitor centre and Stonehenge, however visitors are asked to note that disabled people have priority on this bus and should therefore be prepared for a 30 minute walk, in low light, from parking areas to the monument.

We cannot guarantee entry to the car parks and recommend coming by public transport as cars will be turned away when the car parks are full.

CONDITIONS OF ENTRY

Access to Stonehenge for solstice is subject to the Conditions of Entry – please read these before deciding whether to attend.

COME PREPARED

Stonehenge is in a field on Salisbury Plain and the weather in December will be cold and may be wet and windy. Even if it isn’t raining, the ground will be wet from the dew. There may also be frost.

Please be prepared for a 30 minute walk (in low light or darkness), from the bus drop off and from parking areas to the monument. You are strongly advised to wear warm and waterproof clothing and footwear and bring a torch with you.

Toilets at the Monument Field will only be available once the access period begins. There are no catering facilities in the monument field, however the café at the visitor centre is open for hot drinks and breakfast rolls from 6am.

Please note that there are no other amenities or facilities available to visitors until the Monument Field opens.

Please visit the official English Heritage website for full details.

Solstice Events are offering their usual small group Winter Solstice guided tour from London and Bath, ideal if you do not have your own transport and want to learn more about the history and  mystery of Stonehenge and the surrounding landscape. Visit their website to book.

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Solar Astronomy at Stonehenge

4 11 2016

Most people are aware that Stonehenge is somehow aligned to the annual movements of the Sun.

Each year thousands of pilgrims, druids and party-goers gather in celebration, hoping to Stonehenge Avenue.jpgwitness the most famous of these – the Summer Solstice Sunrise on June 21st.

At this time of year, as seen from the centre of the monument, the Sun rises in the same direction as the centre-line of the Avenue – the ancient processional approach to Stonehenge – towards the northeast.

The Stonehenge Avenue alignment was first pointed out by William Stukeley in 1740.

Even though almost everyone believes the Heel Stone was put up by the builders to exactly mark the summer solstice sunrise position, this can’t be true because it stands off to the right hand side of the alignment.

Today the Sun seems to rise out of the top of the Heel Stone due to the modern trees that are on the horizon.

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Walking up the Avenue they would have seen the Sun setting exactly into the middle of the stones between the uprights of the tallest trilithon in the southwest. We can still experience this today, even though only one upright of that trilithon – Stone 56, the tallest stone on the site – remains in place.

There’s a secondary alignment too – from Winter Solstice Sunrise to Summer Solstice Sunset.

This was first described by Prof. Gordon Freeman in 1997 and it makes use of a “notch” in the edge of Stone 58 of the western trilithon to give a clear sightline across the stone circle.

Viewed through this notch, Winter Solstice Sunrise is seen over Coneybury Hill to the southeast…

winter-solstice-sunrise

If they weren’t there, sunrise would be almost a Sun’s width to the left – and 4,500 years ago the Sun would have risen a whole degree further over to the left.

Even though the Heel Stone wasn’t intended as the solstice sunrise marker, the sight is still magnificent – when the weather cooperates.

Along the same alignment, but exactly in the opposite direction, lies the Winter Solstice Sunset point.

… and Summer Solstice Sunset is seen over Fargo Wood to the northwest.

What’s remarkable about these alignments through the circle is that they intersect over the centre of the Altar Stone (shown as Stone 80 in the plan below). The Altar Stone is not perpendicular to the main alignment but is offset so that it lies exactly along the secondary one.

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The intersection angle of 80° between summer and winter solstice sunrises at this latitude is echoed in the large gold lozenge discovered in 1808 when the Bronze Age “shamanic” burial from Bush Barrow, just south of Stonehenge, was excavated.

The intersection angle of 80° between summer and winter solstice sunrises at this latitude is echoed in the large gold lozenge discovered in 1808 when the Bronze Age “shamanic” burial from Bush Barrow, just south of Stonehenge, was excavated.bush-barrow-lozenge
Some see this as coincidence. Others believe the lozenge shows that the knowledge of this important astronomical angle was passed down the generations for at least 600 years.

The lozenge and the other astonishing Bush Barrow finds are on display at Wiltshire Museum in Devizes.

There are Stonehenge lunar alignments too, but that will be the subject of a different article.

Article by guest blogger and local Stonehenge historian Simon Banton

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