Stonehenge - A View from the Moment

Summer Solstice, 21 June 2000
by Emma Restall Orr

Over the few weeks before the Summer Solstice, I was asked a thousand times what I was expecting to happen on 21 June at Stonehenge, whether I was looking forward to it, whether I would be there at all, not only by friends and colleagues in the Druid community, but also by the media. In truth, my answer was usually filled with a mixture of concern and hope.

Though I've been a part of the Stonehenge Access Committee for very many years, I am not a Druid who finds active protest as effective as personal relationship. The greatest changes I have made in my life have been as a result of clear communication, face to face, spirit to spirit, questing inspiration sufficient to dissolve blocks to understanding. Though I can feel the motivation of those Druids and anarcho-Pagans who have stood at the gates of Stonehenge, pushed at the exclusion zone fences, yelling for free access, that isn't my practice of Druidry.

Contrary to what many think, Druid groups have been celebrating at Stonehenge, within the temple itself, having agreements with English Heritage for private access over the period of 4-5 days around the Summer Solstice, throughout most of the 16 years since it was closed. The issue of access on 21 June has not really been about whether Druids could celebrate; most of the large Orders gave up on the idea of being able to have privacy and/or quiet on that day for their spiritual and religious ritual a good while ago. The Ancient Order of Druids left the Access Committee some time ago; the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids have been given midday access on the previous Sunday for a few years; the Ancient Druid Order, those with the longest history of Stonehenge ritual, have compromised to take access the day after 21 June; the British Druid Order chooses to celebrate on Midsummer's dawn, 24 June. And essentially, I think this is right. To begin with, there are many Orders wanting to celebrate in different ways, but also 21 June is not just for the Druids. The long negotiations for free public access on 21 June were for the people of Britian.

Or were they? I never went to the Stonehenge free festival of the 1970s and 1980s; I've never much enjoyed being in the midst of a crowd. Having said that, I've heard wonderful things about it from people I respect. I've heard horrendous things about it, from others I respect equally. It's a personal thing, I guess, whether or not you like these muddy, damp, noisy, crowded, exhilarating events. But like it or not, in the end, with the counterculture aggression spurred on by Maggie Thatcher and all she was doing, the free festival erupted into violence and both the festival and temple were closed. Druids who were involved back then kept the pressure on English Heritage to reopen the site, but as they were a part of the festival culture it wasn't until others joined the negotiations, representative from the larger Orders of the mainstream Druid faith community, that English Heritage and the police began to listen. In the past year or two, the talks having reached a state of sanity with sound relationships made, we opened up the meetings, inviting other Druid Orders, Pagan organizations, and interest groups from the local, New Age and other faith communities to join.

In 1998, access was given to a group drawn from those involved in the negotiations. With as many press as there were Druids, Pagans and others, and with the ethical problems of those with access moving through the lines of the exclusion zone, the whole event was very difficult. The following year, 1999, the exclusion zone was gone. The committee decided that we would advertise as widely as we could, in the media and across the web, inviting people to attend the dawn. It was a ticketed event again, but we hoped that everyone who wanted to come would be able to come, while retaining enough calm for there to be prayers, ritual, meditation, contemplation, for what everyone at the Access meeting felt was a spiritual occasion in an ancient and sacred place. On the night, the fences were stormed. When we arrived, there were folks dancing on the trilithons. The place was a mess of police, aggression, litter and fires.

This year, with the on-going Access Committee negotiations, it was decided that we should try and remove all of the 'fences'; in other words, take away anything that might provoke aggression that could in any way lead to damage or violence. The primary concern was to care for the monument, the temple itself, but also to do what we could to make sure there were no accidents, riots or other problems.

So what happened in the event?

By dusk the car park field was starting to fill. By the time I arrived at 11.15 pm, there must have been around a thousand cars, vans and buses, including the occasional horse box. The organization was effective, with glow-in-the-dark stewards directing the arriving vehicles as to where to park. There were portaloos and a fast food van at the top of the field; it felt like we were arriving at some huge outdoor rock concert, only the stars were behind the clouds, the rocks were old stones.

It was a 20 minute walk down the lane from the cars towards the site, the stadium lights set up adding to the feeling that it was a festival, bathing the temple in a surreal blue; the sky was strangely mauve. At the gates, there were stewards giving out black plastic bags (for both rubbish and protection against the rain) and plastic bottles in a glass amnesty (give us your bottles and fill the plastic with your poison). There was another fast food van, this one selling veggie burgers and food altogether healthier than the hotdogs up in the field.

The big-hearted warrior-druid fellow who calls himself King Arthur was making a circle beside the temple, gathering together any who'd join him, encouraging folk to share the Druid Vow, "We swear by peace and love to stand ... ", determined that the night would be smooth and without trouble.

The temple was thick with people, even at 11.30 pm, and it stayed that way through until 6.30 in the morning, the rain alternately drizzling and pouring, the drums rising and falling. People wandered, friends were met and lost, people dozed and wondered why they were there getting drenched and cold (we heard quite a few moaning, "There's nothing to do!" as if they'd expected entertainment laid on). The estimate from various sources was that over 8000 people came. How many were Pagans? There were a good number who were seriously drunk, the air was thick with dope smoke, folks were sleeping in heaps of plastic and rugs, and the drums kept playing. Yet even with the occasional brawl and abusive outburst of antagonism, it was an exhilarating atmosphere.

The Access Committee had decided that both the temple and a corridor from the circle to the Heel Stone (the line of the solar alignment) would be cleared for sunrise so that everyone who wished could observe the sacred moment of alignment. The Druids of the old festival days, who had been so active in pressuring English Heritage for access, had organized with the committee that they would have the temple for their five minutes of ritual just after sunrise. Even at midnight my colleagues and I stood in the centre of the temple, the wild drumming all around us, folks yelling, whooping and dancing on the stones, and we agreed that anyone attempting to clear the place for the Druids, the sun, or pretty much anything, would be trying in vain.

The night had been claimed. The sunrise moment had been claimed. For that night, the temple had been claimed, and nothing else would be possible.

So was it a success? On 21 June Stonehenge was the venue of a wet, wild and happy party. If the measure of success is whether there was any trouble, the answer must be a resounding yes, it was a success. The atmosphere was peaceful. A good time was had by all, as they say.

The conditions laid down by English Heritage for access were not adequately met by some people, which was disappointing. Folks did dance on the stones, killing the lichens, leaving the marks of their footprints, scratching the rock, but many got down when asked and some danced barefoot. There were dozens of tents erected within the bank and ditch area, tent pegs rammed into what is sensitive, archaeological and sacred ground. Despite the amnesty, there were bottles, broken glass and can ring pulls, scattered across the site, making it dangerous with so many barefoot, especially children. There were dogs, which weren't allowed on site, leaving their muck for folks to stand and lie in. There was human excrement found within the bank and ditch area. Though by the end there was not the litter mess of 1999, many who came clearing their litter with them, and a great job done by the stewards and Druids at the end, it wasn't ideal.

My question is whether Stonehenge was, on 21 June, open for the people of Britain (and the world beyond)? Not really. It was closed to the people of Britain sixteen years ago, when the free festival clashed with the authorities. Over the past sixteen years, Druids (first the festival Druids, then the wider Druid community), and in the last year or so others, have been talking with English Heritage and the police, and this year they managed to open the site, ostensibly for everyone. The hope was that anyone and everyone, from all over the world, could come to Stonehenge to be a part of a powerful, ancient and mysterious moment: the solar alignment, the sunrise of 2000 CE at the 4000 year old temple.

As a Druid, in honesty, I don't mind in the slightest that there was no space, quiet or respect for the rituals that we might have wished to do. To most people in this secular world, Druidry is as odd as any religion. We might not have statues of some bloke nailed to wooden cross whose blood and flesh we pretend to eat, but we honour the powers of nature, the wisdom of the ancestors, calling to the spirits of place ... Religion is odd. The British Druid Order have their ritual in peace and power on 24 June, when we witness the sun rising from the serenity of the temple, 50 - 100 Druids, priests, families and guests joining in the prayers, dancing with the drums of celebration. On 21 June, I wasn't there to make public ritual, but to witness what would happen, making my prayers in the privacy of my soul.

Yet I would pose this, to provoke thought perhaps, to explore and express what we would hope for the future ... While I would declare that the Druids do not have exclusive rights to the temple on 21 June, I would say so because I believe that it is a place that everyone should be free to go. Neither does English Heritage have exclusive rights to close the place completely. But the group who claimed the temple were just another minority subculture.

A huge number of people wanted to be there on 21 June; as ever, I was contacted by people all over Britain, all over the world, people eager to be at the temple, to experience the connection, that moment in the continuum between ancient past and future times. As each year, some ask how they can be involved in the Druid rites, but most simply want to be there, imagining the grass un-muddied, the calm, the silence, the beauty of the moment, the skylarks waking. When they knew what would be happening this year, they shied away. Nervous of such a wild gathering, uncomfortable with the noise, with the drugs and drunkenness, they feel just as excluded as they have been for all these years. And they are deeply disappointed.

Stonehenge is for the people. No one should be excluded. It is a part of our heritage, a potent treasure of the ancient history and the culture of the people of Britain, built by our ancestors as a temple to study and honour the connection between humanity and power of nature. It belongs to us all. Even the 'normal' people.

I am pleased that 21 June 2000 at Stonehenge went without violence. But I would urge all those involved to think again. Let us conceive of an event that is not exclusivist, to any political, religious or sub-cultural group. Let us work towards creating an event for all the people of Britain, to be enjoyed by those of all ages, of all faith communities, a 'here and now' that is felt to be entirely safe, exquisitely sacred and utterly free. I pray that it can be so.