But we timed it about right, turning off the A303 shortly before the car park opened so we only had to berth up for a bit on nearby lanes before we joined the queue to get in. Here we found remnants of the old-school traveller/cider punk hardcore - rightly protesting against English Heritage’s decision to charge entry for solstice for the first time ever (and at £15 per car setting the bar quite steep straight away). In the pictures below you’ll see Liz on the back of her mate’s van, and they had a go at ‘not paying to pray’ until a swift word from the Wiltshire fuzz (basically ‘pay or fuck off’) killed the matter for that group. Whatever their justification, English Heritage were cashing in on worshippers and revellers’ desire to see solstice.
We parked up and, after the walk from that field near that garish new visitor centre (complete with replicas of iron age dwellings), were probably in the first 1000 or so on site, enabling us to set up base near one of the stones not in the inner ring but the next set out, so very close (basing any nearer would have been possible but misguided given the constant flow of people in and out of the epicentre). Security’s attempt to keep people off the pair of sloped stones (perfect for a vantage point into the hub) just in front of us was adhered to initially but became a losing battle as darkness fell. Generally the booze ban was observed and with us having to make the evening work for the kids was not an issue for us.
We caught a little of the blessing ceremonies and the bit where anybody can take the floor, do a spoken or musical turn to generally good reception. One women’s leading of the People Get Ready / A Change is Gonna Come song was very effective. As the Strawberry Moon came and went, the drums got louder and more insistent and slowly the more polemical/faith-based nature of the ceremonies gives way to your basic hedonic activity.
It’s a great and liberatory thing, having no dj or band to give you your event’s soundtrack. You are the musicker. You Are the sound system. If you want to lead proceedings you just head on into the centre and freak the loudest. It will help if you have a didgeridoo or a drum, of course.
The best part of the evening on these terms was unmistakably the late night and early morning, when the centre circle was constantly being regenerated. The vibes here were generally great, though at times there was as much ‘look at me I’m here / woop, woop ’ mitherings from younguns constantly filming proceedings on their phones as there were transgressive moments when the various drummers near the centre of the circle coalesce into some kind of form and you could groove away (I should say here that with the kids our wonderings into the centre were only occasional but we were in constant aural connection). But i’ll remember the old sax dude tearing it up with his impressionistic blowing over various drum patterns, and one young Druidy type with a drum starting up a great rhythm as a means to protest his ‘no pay to pray, this is my temple’ spiel and winning over much of the throng.
The freeform and participatory nature of the evenings and the need to keep it going generate inadvertent weirdness - at one stage i was hearing a rendition of Wonderwall from the main circle for christ’s sakes (bit of Euro 2016 infection there?). Other popular and memetic numbers such as Who Let the Dogs Out got an airing too. Nearby, there are drunken drama guys bellowing songs like Bohemian Rhapsody and Tainted Love to anyone who would listen. and of course there is always one who has to clamber up one of the bigger stones, then realise the drop down is bigger than he thought and is there for ages working out his descent. I wonder elsewhere and see the Hare Krishna mobile tent gathering quite a crowd around it, with its mix of chanting and free food.
There was a relative lull around 2-3am, and breakout bits of drumming away from the centre that win substantial attention. But soon enough the dark skies brighten and the throng starts preparing for that moment: a cloudy sunrise arrives, and with it many more arrivals who turn up just for this bit of the day. At this stage everyone even around the outer henges is standing up and photographing the views their memory may not sustain and I had one last wonder into the communal centre. The sky was rapidly brightening up at this stage and it looked like it would be a special early morning assembly but the kids had gone on the journey with us to 5am already so it would have been harsh to ask them to keep going some more. Driving back having had no sleep (me as passenger, partner as driver) was misguided but we made it.
How did the kids cope? Very well, considering their proximity to the action, getting about an hour and a half of sleep each. I'm glossing over losing our son for a bit - he woke up disoriented, went to the wrong set of toilets and couldn't work out his way back but remembered our mobile number to a guard. There were much younger kids in the thick of it too, and I’ll remember the daughter of the Manc crowd, themselves constantly toking, doing some crystal power thing with the stones on the behest of a hippie couple and her mother. Tuning in here had no lower age boundary.
Would we do it again? Absolutely, although English Heritage’s prices and some of its policies are offputting. Coming down just for sunrise would be tempting. And we’re absolutely delighted this time worked out too.
Here's Liz riding the protest van