Is nothing sacred? The Solstice isn't what it used to be...

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Last week it was race-goers at Ascot. Now it's been kicking off among the latter-day druids at Stonehenge

On the longest day of the year yesterday in Wiltshire, the sun rose above a green horizon and kissed the ancient monument of Stonehenge. But while the arc of the sky has not changed over the past five millennia, the gathering that greets the summer solstice each year has become something very different from its earliest incarnation.

The worshipping pagans of prehistory who may have circled the stones would not have had their peace disturbed by passing traffic on the A303, for a start. Secondly, though the precise purpose of the site remains a contentious issue, not even the most maverick of historians would suggest it has ever been an arena for drink-fuelled fist-fights between bare-chested men in tracksuit bottoms.

Police patrolled the site where 20,000 revellers greeted the sun's first rays yesterday morning, making 20 arrests. Eleven were for drug offences, five for breaches of public order, and 47 drug seizures were made. St John Ambulance treated 60 casualties on site for minor injuries and transported four people to hospital. A local news agency photographed young men fighting each other: one had a bloodied mouth.

The summer solstice, which usually falls on 21 June, is the only day on which the public is granted access right up to the stones themselves, without prior appointment. Many people are drawn by this unique cultural opportunity. Thousands have since followed, drawn more by the urge to have a good time.

"There was a high degree of narcotic and alcohol-induced revelry [this year]," said Philip Mould, an art expert on the BBC's Antiques Roadshow. "We saw people being hoiked away. Although overall it was a peaceful and cultural event."

Throughout the 20th century, Stonehenge began to be revived as a place of religious significance, by adherents of Neopagan and New Age beliefs, particularly the Neo-Druids. Men, women and children in their long white robes, and flowing beards, form a significant portion of the party who mingle freely with the less religious attendees.

Numbers were lower this year than previously, owing to the poor weather in the run-up to the event, and because the last few years had seen it fall on the weekend. But the rain did little to dampen its growing reinvention as another date on the summer calendar of hedonism.

When Stonehenge was first opened to the public it was possible to walk amongst and even climb on the stones, but they were roped off in 1977. Arthur Uther Pendragon, an eco-campaigner and self-declared reincarnation of King Arthur (born John Timothy Rothwell, in Yorkshire), protested against the decision and picketed the site. Each summer solstice he would sneak under the roped-off areas, and encourage others to do the same and, in so doing, planting the seed for the giant party that now occurs there annually.

In 1998 the case of Pendragon was heard by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, his argument being that the exclusion zone around Stonehenge was a restriction of his freedom of thought, conscience and religion. He lost, but in 2000 full public access to Stonehenge was officially granted for celebrating the solstice.

Pendragon set up camp on the edge of the site after the 2008 summer solstice, to campaign for open access to the site all year round, much to the irritation of Wiltshire council, who claimed he was blocking a public highway. In the 2010 general election, he stood as an independent candidate in the Salisbury constituency over the issue. For him, the mass influx of visitors each year is anything but unwelcome.

"We didn't get a great sunrise [yesterday] but it was dry," he said. "Everyone seems happy with the result. It is great to see the stones being used in this way, as opposed to the usual manner with tourists being herded around." Before leading the ceremony yesterday, he spoke of the significance of the site for the druids: "Many stone circles, many wooded glades where we gather for different things, they are the churches. [Stonehenge] on the other hand, is the cathedral."

"The druids were amazing, and the morris dancers, but mainly it's just another excuse for a party," said Kristy Harlow, a screenwriter from Essex. "It's not like a music festival, though. The stones are the star of the show. In the morning light, they are extraordinary things to behold."

Yet the druids' love of the spot is far more cultural than historical. "Druids like to believe that they built it," said Cat Treadwell, a trustee of the Druid Network. "But it was there for a long time before they arrived."

In 1905, the Ancient Order of Druids performed a mass initiation ceremony there, in which they admitted 259 new members into their organisation, much to the ridicule of the press. The site, and date, steadily grew in significance, and their pilgrimages to the site grew in size, to the point where clashes with the police over use of the site became regular and larger in scale.

After the stones were roped off in the 1970s, English Heritage established a four-mile exclusion zone around them. On 1 June 1985, a "peace convoy" of 600 new age travellers journeyed to the 11th Stonehenge Free Festival, on squatted land beside the stones. It looked just like a carnival at first. The weather was sunny and music played as the convoy set off towards the ancient site. But the travellers were involved in a stand-off with police officers, resulting in dozens of injuries and hundreds of arrests. Reporters at what became known as "the Battle of the Beanfield" spoke of police in riot gear beating women holding babies with their truncheons. Cars were smashed and set on fire; 537 people were arrested, more than on any day since the Second World War.

For Ms Treadwell, the opening of the monument for one night of mayhem is an equivocal issue. "They are part of England; we should be allowed to access them. We've got the right to go there and to see the stones. And we still don't know how the stones got to where they are.

"But I am against vandalism and drunken rowdiness as it is detrimental to everyone. The stones are of great cultural and spiritual significance, just like Westminster Abbey. It is right for people to have access to these places. But then, people don't go to Westminster Abbey to take drugs or commit drunken violence, do they?"

However, the druids themselves are not completely impartial to a bit of what might be considered anti-social behaviour. "A woman in long robes grabbed my friend and said: 'Now is the time. You are my leader,'" said Natalie Mady, an engineer who attended the event with her student friends after she graduated in 2007. "And the RSPCA send people there to make sure no one performs any animal sacrifices."

Stonehenge and the Summer Solstice

Stonehenge has been an important site for sun worshippers for millennia, but the kind of celebration we see today owes much to the hippy movement of the 1970s.

In recent years, New Age groups, hippies, druids and party-goers have flocked to Stonehenge to celebrate the solstice, and the World Heritage Site has become a magnet for people seeking a "spiritual experience".

The first Stonehenge Free Festival was staged during the summer solstice of 1974. Five hundred hippies climbed a barbed wire fence to celebrate the event; 30 of them didn't leave for six months.

Police closed the site in 1984 after repeated clashes with party-goers. English Heritage, the monument's caretaker, began allowing full access to Stonehenge again in 2000.

Since then numbers have grown each year, and tens of thousands now travel to the site each year – some to worship the sun, others simply to have a good time.

Richard Hall

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
Danielle George is both science professor and presenter
people
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015