Once upon one winter’s longest night, from a shire of soft beds and dry socks, three unwise travellers did rise and step out into the darkness of pre-dawn’s morn, and the driving rain of a solstice storm, to venture westward in search of ancient lands. The realm of druids and mysterious monuments and long-forgotten secrets was their goal, their quest: to see sun rise among standing stones.
No star did guide them, no nor satnav neither; yet their trusted simple steed, a hatchback (less noble than a hump-back, perhaps, but more suited to our questers’ sopping climes), delivered them with steady surety along roads running wild as rivers, and onto the plains which the bones of Britannia’s distant ancestors do hold. Within one hour and thirty, while darkness still enfolded the earth, and prevented us by sight from gauging how far the site still lay, we were assured by orange-coated men that our journey was at an end, and shepherded into line behind the transports of fellow travellers.
Early had we reached our rest, and nigh-on an hour lay ahead before we the stones could enter. So we sat awhile blind in the hatchback, engine and lights off, listening to the thundering rain increase in intensity and wash down the windscreens in tumbling waves, causing us to ponder whether this be the beginning of a horror story, or the untimely end of an ill-fated expedition. And as we thus sat, feasting according to ancient travellers’ custom on bread and chocolate pastries, one of our party, the male thereof, stirred from his sleep (for truly the solemnity of our mission had weighed heavily upon him), and saideth of an orange blur beyond the window-waterfalls: “Is that a druid?”
Sadly it was not so, and contrary to our back-up hopes, it would not be possible to sit and spy solstice’s sunrise and all its devotees from the comfort of a car. Thus as the hour of dawn approached, we left our shelter, and joined the multitudes gathering at the sacred site’s gateway. Here, under rain that had eased to a bare drizzle and wind that had lost its bite, we found new energy, and hopped with anticipation, and passed slow minutes in surveying the disparate gathering of peoples that were exposed beneath the floodlights. Some were, like our little band, simply curious one-off curiosity seekers; others middle-aged former hippies, herding with them their hippy-in-the-making offspring; a large part appeared new age spiritualists on sincere pilgrimage; and much of the rest: druids. These druids clustered on the edges of the crowd, the women in colourful hooded capes, the men in white robes emblazoned with dragon motifs, their white beards prettified with amulets, bearing staffs or swords or tambourine drums in hand. And foremost among the druid gathering, Arthur Uther Pendragon himself, the self-declared reincarnation of the legendary king. Oh! How we longed for a selfie with this self-anointed king of all druids, how tempting the idea of requesting he sign some part of our flesh as an immemorial memento of this day!
Yet as we toyed with such idle fantasies, the chance to accost the king was lost: for the approaching sun lightened the sky to the east, and at last the gates to Stonehenge’s grounds were opened to admit the flood of thousands of tourists, hippies, spiritualists, priests, priestesses, druids, and at least one unicorn. We three travellers shuffled with the rest along the path towards the silencing silhouette of black stones against a dark blue sky, and being not too far near the back of the crowd, managed to nudge our way in to stand among the stones themselves.
The stones surrounding one so close appear larger, more imposing and awesome in the truest sense of the word than in any distantly-taken picture, and the mystery of how and why they were assembled becomes thereby more acute to answer. When we first entered the circle the light was still scant, and the stones stood as so many towering shadows. Over the course of the next half hour however, the sky, although never bright, lightened gradually, almost imperceptibly softening the impression of the stones and bringing the details of her occupants into sharper focus.
These occupants, those that were not taking photographs or smoking weed, were craning to hear the voices of druids in the circle’s centre, reciting barely audible prayers or incantations and giving speeches on the significance of the occasion, battling to be heard over the muttering of their audience and the beating of drums. As druids apparently have yet to unearth the magic power of microphones, their efforts were not very successful, and most of what they said was not heard or misheard by we three travellers (though I think they might have said something about “blessed are the cheesemakers”).
The vital ceremonies did however relay themselves over the crowd to us. Twice we obediently turned upon the spot and saluted east, north, west and south in turn. Several times the cry of “Happy Solstice!” went up, and we gaily exchanged felicitations, hoping, in vain as it transpired, that “happy solstice!” may be followed by solstice cake. And at last, as the official minute of sunrise passed according to our watches – yet with no signal thereof in the sky as the thick cloud concealed the sun, and the change in light upon her supposed rise was no more dramatic than the gradations of the past half hour – we were exhorted to give “three cheers for winter solstice – hip hip – hooray!”.
Which as celebratory effusions go, is a decidedly un-druidy, delightfully quaint way of welcoming in a grey, understated start of a new season. Happy solstice everybody!