It was a foggy, drizzly morning, but that didn’t matter to a record-breaking crowd making the pilgrimage to Stonehenge for the winter solstice.
As the sun rose on the plain of Salisbury, they sang, sang, danced, beat drums, hugged or simply brooded over the happy idea that from now on the days will grow longer.
“It’s great, isn’t it?” said Sam MacDonald, an Oxford NHS worker, who had taken the day off to attend the solstice with her two young children. “Times feel very difficult. When you’re at work or on the street, you see the pressure everyone’s under, but when you come here, people’s problems seem to melt away, at least for a few minutes, and you can look ahead. I think people find some comfort here.
“I think the solstices and equinoxes are a good time to take stock, see how you’re doing, look back on what you’ve accomplished and think about what might come next. Now that I’ve watched the solstice come on, I can believe this winter won’t last forever. Spring is coming.”
Winter solstice used to be a much more modest affair at Stonehenge compared to the huge party and celebration that the summer version tends to be.
But this year English Heritage said an “unprecedented” number of people turned up on Thursday mornings, meaning car parks filled up and it had to steer messages asking those who had not yet left to stay away if they were driving.
Those who arrived on time began the walk to the stones from the visitor center in the dark, and the stone circle loomed through the gray halflight.
The circle was tightly packed as the sun rose. “I love the warmth you feel here, even on the coldest of days,” said Tree, who described herself as a white witch from Somerset. “I know it’s really because of the crowding of people in the circle, but I like to think there’s a magical warmth emanating from the stones. Maybe it’s both.”
One woman told how she married her late husband on the winter solstice and came to the circle around this time every year. Touching the soft lichen on the stones made her feel close to him.
A man said he lost his mother to Covid. She loved coming to Stonehenge and he felt she would like him to visit the circle now that she is gone.
Usually the stones are roped off, but on the solstices and equinoxes English Heritage allows controlled access.
During last December’s solstice, there was still widespread concern about Covid, with people being asked to take a lateral flow test before leaving, wear face masks and maintain social distancing.
This year it all felt a bit freer again. Many wore wreaths of ivy in their hair and sprigs of rosemary in their hats. Several people stumbled around in unicorn heads. When the sun rose, the red clad Choir Shakti Sings at the heel stone sang soft songs celebrating the earth.
Another trend is for people to take in the solstice as part of morning runs — which also sidesteps the traffic problem — leading to odd juxtapositions of lycra-clad athletes drinking in the scene alongside druids in flowing robes.
Stuart Hannington, a druid known as the Wizard of Tottenham, who has attended the solstices at Stonehenge for over 60 years – as well as full and new moons – surveyed the scene with a serene gaze.
“It’s good to see so many different types of people here,” he said. “More people are turning to paganism, coming over to our way of thinking and finding some peace here. Long may it be.”