Time Zones: Five Hours of Solstice Reverence and Revelry at Stonehenge
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
At the stroke of 12:01 a.m., Stonehenge is set aglow by the thousands of camera flashes ricocheting off the monument's standing stones, paparazzi-style. Against the black sky, the ancient circle suddenly stands out against the horizon like a set of blue fingers poking up from the ground.
"We are here to call in the sun," shouts King Arthur Pendragon, thrusting his hazel-wood staff into the air.
It's Sunday, June 21, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and a record 35,000 people have flocked to Stonehenge to celebrate it. That's up from 14,500 in 2000, when English Heritage, caretaker of the site, started keeping track.
For a growing number of people, celebrating summer solstice at Stonehenge is mainly an excuse to drink themselves silly in a setting as exotic as any. (It's one of the few times a year when visitors can walk -- or, in many cases, lurch -- among the world-famous stones some scholars believe are 5,000 years old.)
For Britain's pagan community -- about 115,000-strong and growing, observers say -- June 21 is the holiest day of the year.
At 1 a.m., the scene on this pocket of the Salisbury Plain, about 80 miles west of London, resembles a carnival. Self-styled druids, witches and nature-worshiping pagans cast spells and perform rituals. Teenagers stagger around trailing billows of cannabis smoke. Tribal dancers from Indonesia stomp in grass skirts. Parents are poised like warriors as they protect their patches of grass from inebriated revelers.
Pendragon, who legally changed his name from John Rothwell to Arthur Uther Pendragon in 1986, is reciting poetry away from the stone circle. He wears a white robe and a red belt, with a three-foot sword tied to one side and a pouch holding business cards and cigarettes tied to the other. The 55-year-old battle chieftain of the Council of British Druid Orders is a well-known local protester and, after Stonehenge, the most photographed subject here.
The annual festival began on a Saturday this year, meaning that people with weekday jobs, who need more than 30 minutes of sleep at night, could come. But the real reason for the influx, organizers say, is that it has become a fixture on the summer festival circuit in Europe, which includes events such as Glastonbury and the Edinburgh Fringe.
Just before 2 a.m. Sunday, the temperature dips to 48 degrees, the coldest point of the night. Because this is Britain, there is a lot of talk about the weather. The druids are gleeful it's not raining but are quick to point out that even if it does, they are hardy people; Pendragon, for example, lives a mile away in an unheated caravan.
In an effort to manage the crowds, there are more rules than ever this year: no glass, no large bags, no fires, no torches, no candles, no more than four beers apiece, no climbing and no standing on the stones, all of which are broken.