I’m almost hesitant to write about this experience, it was that upsetting to me, but I think it needs to be shared.
One of the things that we were very excited about was the prospect of being able to witness the Summer Solstice sun rise at Stonehenge. It’s one of only two days per year (the other being the Winter Solstice) that the general public is allowed to walk right up and touch Stonehenge. As history nerds and Pagans, there’s very little that could top such an experience.
Because the travel to Amesbury was such an arduous undertaking, and the event itself required an overnight in a field, it was decided that Mighty would stay home with The Cap’n while Princess (our friend visiting from Arizona) and I would head down to the event. Princess and I were both pretty excited when we boarded the Overground train at Clapham Junction and headed down to Salisbury, the closest depot to where we needed to go. Tickets were about £36 each round trip, and vastly better than the bus fares we were able to find, as well as more flexible as they allowed us to travel on any available train rather than at a set time. We left London around 8:30 pm and enjoyed a stunning magenta sunset from our car as we listened to an Irish girl with a $6,000 camera chat up a fellow by claiming (I seriously hope it was a ploy, anyway) not to know how to use the camera on anything but the automatic setting. We should probably have been tipped off as to what was to come by the fact that most of the people on the train were dressed like they were headed to a rave and were already half in their cups or further.
Once we arrived at Salisbury, we joined an orderly queue and bought a £10 round trip shuttle bus ticket that would carry us to and from the actual site 9 miles away. The bus was full, and there were still people arriving, so we hustled aboard the top tier of a classic red double decker. The old guy seated two rows in front of us was already completely plastered and bleeding from a fresh scalp wound. He proceeded to spend the entire 20 minute bus ride loading and firing an invisible arsenal of weapons at on-coming traffic and other riders. Most of us ignored him until we were unloading when he grabbed the bag of another rider and refused to let it go until that guy gave him a smoke. They almost came to blows when no cigarette was proffered.
Still, one bad apple, right? A few drunks I can handle. Lighted poi balls and hula hoops are no big deal, and I couldn’t care less if you’re wearing furry neon pink leg warmers…but the little tickle of doubt had begun to form.
The bus let us off at the visitors center and we passed a line of pretty cheerful uniformed security officers. I’ll stop right here for a moment and state that flat out, this was one of the best organized and staffed events that I’ve ever been to. There were plenty of uniformed security guards on hand and they were all professional. They seemed to take the stance that unless someone or something was in danger, they were going to just bide. The grounds were also freshly mowed so the walking was easy and large stands of lights dotted the route. At each stand of lights there were banks of portable toilets and drinking water, making finding the necessary an easy task – a set up that was consistent through the whole site. There were also bag checks, a lost/checked item area (you’re not allowed to bring in chairs, large bags or tents, so they were letting people leave them on a coat-check system rather than expecting you to just discard them), several first aid stations and a few food vendors including vegan options.
As we walked past thousands of cars, it was nice to see people enjoying a “tail gating” atmosphere complete with children in tie dye running around giggling. It reminded me of other alt-events that I’d been to and I was starting to hope that I’d been worried about nothing.
And then the henge came into view.
It was surrounded, as expected, by tens of thousands of people. Loud music was alternately being broadcast and played in a drum-circle way. There was a mosh pit. People were climbing the stones, beers in hand, chanting football cheers as their friends made out on the Altar Stone steadfastly ignoring the drunk pissing on a stone a few feet away. And this was before things started to get…offensive for lack of any other description. I understand that not everyone holds this 5,000 year old (or more, who knows?) location with reverence. I get that 12 hours in a dark field is a pretty good place to have a party – especially when liquor and drugs are being freely handed around.
But would you have a rave in the Vatican? Even if you’re not Catholic, I’d bet the answer would be no.
That’s really what this was. There was no ceremony. No welcoming of the longest day with arms outstretched to the rising sun. No sense of communal renewal as we were washed over with light. There was a bunch of people, standing on rocks, watching the sun rise through their cell phone screens as people behind them craned to see around. There were tonnes of discarded beer cans, and food wrappers, and used condoms, and forgotten shoes (how drunk do you need to be to lose one shoe and not notice?!) There was a crush of people, shoving, stepping on, pushing down, and trampling one another in a way that would have made even the most hard core Black Friday shoppers stand back and remark on the rudeness. It was, in short, sad.
Sad enough, to make me almost wish that I had stayed home instead. Almost, because firstly, Mighty would have gotten arrested for punching people and secondly because I touched them. I laid my hands and cheeks against the stones. I rested my back against a monolith and sat in companionable silence at the eye of a storm of people with them as they waited to witness another season being born. I watched the moon set through a stand of stones as the sun rose through another, the streaky light gone pink and purple as an orange sun cresting over the Heel Stone. That part? Was awe inspiring.
So, if you think you might want to witness it yourself, here are my tips:
- Dress in layers – while it was fairly chilly outside of the stand itself, the interior held enough people close together that for most of the evening a long sleeved teeshirt was plenty to stay warm.
- Bring a Camera – one with both a manual and an automatic setting that you are familiar with. There is a lot of ambient light and hundreds of camera flashes that will screw with your images, so be prepared to make changes to your settings as you go.
- Do NOT bring a bag any larger than a purse and consider not bringing one at all if you plan on being in the circle. There are way too many people and a bag gets caught in the press making it easier for you to get knocked down. If you plan on spending your time outside the henge, a bag with a ground cover is a good idea – that grass gets chilly.
- Leave the kids at home – this was NO place for a child.
- Put a pack of tissues in your pocket – while they do regularly check and restock the bathrooms, you may get caught with no paper and the lines are way too long to wait through again.
- Bring Cash – the shuttle and food vendors are cash only.
- If you are mobility challenged, can not stand for long periods, are unable to handle large crowds or are sensitive to marijuana smoke – this isn’t the event for you.
- Be prepared to stand in lines – while the lines do move, you’ll be waiting in them to do nearly everything.
- Bring water -the food vendors are a ways out from the actual henge and you won’t want to walk it if you don’t need to. Consider also sticking a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in your pocket in case you get hungry. We also had a granola bar stashed away for the bus ride back to the train station and it was just enough to tide us until we made it the train station for a coffee and croissant.
- Don’t be a dick – don’t shove people. If you are walking and you step on something squishy – that’s probably another human, so stop and apologize. If you elbow someone in the face, apologize. Don’t claim that your bongo drum makes you “the band” and then push, shove and ram your way through people who are already unable to move. That, my dear and lovely friends, makes you a giant dick.
- For the love of all that is Holy (whatever your version of holy may be), put your phone down.
You can check out the rest of the photos I took with Mighty’s other girlfriend, Flossie, right here. Don’t judge by how dark/crappy they turned out. I was constantly having to adjust the settings for full darkness or brightest light depending on if someone was using flashes around me. So frustrating!