A Stonehenge Solstice Remembered

In the summer of 1981, a young Sky & Telescope editor ventured to England's iconic megalithic monument to see what all the fuss was about.

Today's solstice came and went at 5:04 Universal Time (1:04 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time). On this day we Bostonians will enjoy 15¼ hours of daylight — but only 4¼ of "night" between the confines of astronomical twilight last night until this morning. And there's a nearly full Moon out too. So, with notions of stargazing largely abandoned, I'm reminiscing about a June solstice "road trip" taken long ago.

In 1981, I convinced Cheryl, my longtime girlfriend and future wife, to join me on a 2½-week adventure in England and Scotland. On that trip we saw much of what makes Great Britain famous, including castles, London, Bath (including William Herschel's house), cathedrals, castles, Shakespeare's Stratford-on-Avon, Cheddar Gorge (of cheese fame), and — I almost forgot — some castles.

Stonehenge from above
Located about 80 miles (120 km) southwest of London, Stonehenge remains a hugely popular tourist attraction. The center of the stone ring and the Heelstone align with the rising Sun on the June solstice.
Google Earth
Topping the "must see" list (mine, at least) was Stonehenge, the famed prehistoric monument on Salisbury Plain in southern England. It's only 2-hour drive from London, and I'd carefully planned the trip so that we could visit Stonehenge on or near the solstice. In fact, thanks to my status as a bona fide astronomy journalist, I scored two press passes to be among those iconic stones for the solstice sunrise.

Solstice comes to us from Latin's sol (Sun) and stitium (a stoppage). It's the twice-yearly moment when Earth's spin axis is tipped most toward or away from our star, depending on your hemispheric preference. Skywise, on the June solstice the Sun appears its highest in the northern sky. But there it stops, and then backtracks in declination until reaching its southernmost extreme in December. TV meteorologists often refer to this date as the "astronomical beginning of summer" — when, in fact, it marks midsummer based purely on sky motions.

Much has been written about how Stonehenge came to exist and why Neolithic people hauled giant stone slabs to the site from perhaps 150 miles (240 km) away. It was built in several stages beginning about 3000 B.C., and you'll find good descriptions of all that at the English Heritage website and, yes, Wikipedia's entry.

About 2600 BC, its architects erected a circle of 80 towering megaliths, 43 of which remain today. Various astronomical alignments have been proposed for Stonehenge, some more tenuous than others. But there's no question that, a solitary stone to the northeast was positioned so that on the summer solstice the Sun would appear to rise directly above it as seen from the circle's center. The prospect of seeing this alignment firsthand was the big draw for me in 1981.

Salisbury Plain is a busy place on the solstice. In particular, back then you could attend the adjacent Stonehenge Free Festival (think "Woodstock with British accents"), and the one that year was especially popular. But the government disliked the prospect of the iconic stones being overrun by thousands of stoners. So tight security and a barbed-wire barricade kept Stonehenge off limits except for a select few, which included a band of Neo-druids who performed a ritual celebration of the solstice sunrise.

Stonehenge solstice in 1981
A gathering of Neo-druids and scores of curious onlookers await in vain amid the megaliths of Stonehenge to see the Sun rise on June 21, 1981. The Heelstone, critical for the site's solstitial alignment, appears in the distance at center.
J. Kelly Beatty
Cheryl and I had to arrive around 2 a.m. to pass through security. The distant thump-thump-thump of festival music reverberated across the plain. I saw uniformed soldiers equipped with rifles and guard dogs. Cheryl fears dogs almost as much as snakes, but we pressed onward and found a perch atop some of the fallen megaliths.

As dawn approached, we were startled when one of the aforementioned stoners crawled out from under one — he'd snuck in before the perimeter was locked down. The morning dawned cloudy, as it often does in England, so we didn't see the Sun rise over the Heelstone. But the Druids, unfazed, continued their ceremony, and we left soon thereafter.

There was a time when visitors to Stonehenge were issued small hammers to chip off a souvenir or two — an awful practice that's long been banned. In fact, you can't even touch the stones now but instead must admire them at a distance from a roped-off walkway. (However, a select few can walk among the stones near dawn and dusk by special arrangement.)

And, yes, it's still possible to get ringside seats for the solstice — in fact, these days a toned-down festival has replaced the Druids. I hope to do that again someday — but only if the prospects for clear skies are good.

Have you ever been to Stonehenge? If so, add a comment below to let me know what your experience was like.

CATEGORIES
News
Kelly Beatty

About Kelly Beatty

J. Kelly Beatty, S&T's Senior Contributing Editor, joined the staff of Sky Publishing in 1974 and specializes in planetary science and space exploration. Learn more about him here.

8 thoughts on “A Stonehenge Solstice Remembered

  1. Janine Milward

    It was a cold Sunday, in the middle of Autumn. I lived in London with some friends and then we decided to go to the country and have some tea there. We drove up to Bath – at that time (1986) I had not the faintest idea that that beautiful town had nested Herschell and his sister and their discoveries (Uranus, included!) in the past. Later and already on our way back to London, I shouted: Stop the car, this is Stonehenge! Wow, I was in Stonehenge and did not know ever in my life that I would have such big opportunity to see that beautiful monument. Regards, Janine

  2. Steve

    I visited Stonehenge in 1977 and was disappointed to see the ropes, but happy the stones were being protected. While walking around, a thunderstorm quickly moved across the plain, chasing everyone else away from the monument and into cover. (Being a soldier, I was used to being in the rain for days.) I was completely alone with the monument for about twenty minutes and it was as if I had been swept hundreds of years into the past. It was quite a trip!

  3. David

    I was there in August 1970 when we were free to wander as we pleased and I spent a full morning among the stones and walking the perimeter and imagining the past. It was very special to me.

  4. Patrick Donnelly

    I visited Stonehenge in the Spring of 1995. The day was rainy, as usual for southwest England. It was a very interesting experience. All the time I was there I kept asking myself Why and Why here? I don’t think those questions will ever be answered. I’ll always remember my time there. After visiting Stonehenge, I travelled the 25 miles to Bath to stand on the spot in William Herschel’s back yard, where he discovered Uranus. One of the best days of my life.

  5. Geoff

    I have been to Stonehenge twice. The first time we were free to roam and it was awesome. By the second visit the monolith was protected so it wasn’t quite the same, but one can understand that preservation is taking priority.
    My elder daughter went to Bath university and then worked in the area for a few years. The last of several rentals she had during that time was a smallish flat in the attic of Herschel’s house. It made trips down to visit her even more pleasurable and I spent a fair time in the museum on the lower floors before she left.

  6. G P Hanner

    My family and I lived in England for three years. 1981 was the year we saw Stonehenge, but it was after the soltice by several days. The barriers that keep the gawkers at a distance were back up and no one could go near the circle. As we stood there doing our own gawking, two the the wardens (grounds keepers) stood nearby talking to one another. I heard one of them say to the other, "Oh, arrrr. When I was a lad the lord of this here land used to pay us 5 crown a day to break up that rock and haul it away." It’s now part the the British national heritage.

  7. Marlin Burke

    Yes. I was there just two years ago. I found the price of the tickets, the wait in line, the commercialization and the security so off putting I stayed outside the high chain link fence and took photos from a distance.

Comments are closed.