Thursday, 8 January 2015
Winter Solstice 2014: a report by Penny Jackson of the HTW Inner Court
According to English Heritage, the winter solstice sunrise of 2014 was on 22 December. However, according to the Met Office, this would be thick with cloud. So I had a better idea - see the sunset on the 20th instead, which contained a possible window of daylight.
The exact purpose of Stonehenge is not known, but celebrating the winter solstice sunrise isn't actually on the list. There is no known alignment associated with it, it just seems to be a less crowded version of the midsummer sunrise. The midsummer sunrise does have archaeological logic, the stones are lined up for it. However, that alignment corresponds with the midwinter sunset directly opposite. Not the sunrise. So why is it celebrated today and not the sunset? I don't know. Probably because it suits English Heritage's opening times better?
Last year, I decided to explore the Stonehenge Avenue about a week after the solstice since it was one of the few days of the year I had free. We happened to arrive just before sunset, and sadly I had not brought a camera. What I saw made me desperate to return with a camera the next year, as it appeared to reveal an alignment not previously known. As the setting sun passed the summer sunrise/winter sunset axis, it projected a long shadow of the stones directly down the avenue. You may not be familiar with the avenue, which is a natural feature which happens to be aligned with the midwinter sunrise/midwinter sunset, and is probably why the location was considered sacred to one of those times of year (maybe both) and inspired Stonehenge to be built there. The part of it visible today is the section nearest Stonehenge, and it is a series of ridges running down the hill. The long shadows in parallel with those ditches was an amazing sight, and far more visible to a large number of people than a small hole only visible from one place and easily blocked by spectators. So I went back a day before the solstice itself to try to get some pictures.
Unlike the main stones, the avenue is free entry. I decided to respect nature (and the likely lack of parking) and get the bus to Amesbury. From there you walk along Stonehenge Road, cross the A303, and enter the field containing the Avenue, which gets you not a lot further from Stonehenge than the paying customers! It is about a 40 minute walk though. I was rather worried on the approach as it had turned cloudy, but noticed the horizon itself seemed to be clear so we probably would get a good view of the sunset. The field contained some of the best fairy rings I've ever seen.
The good news was the sky was clear enough on the horizon to see the sun setting, and we have some beautiful photos. The bad news is that it wasn't powerful enough to cast the shadows I saw the previous year. It's possible that this was due to thin cloud still being in front of the sun and on a completely clear sky it would work, but it may be that the reason for the spectacular shadows last year was that being a week or so off meant the sun was higher when it passed the stones and was therefore powerful enough to cast the shadows, but it isn't at the solstice itself.
A few others turned up to watch, but not many. I think there were about 5 on the avenue side of the fence? It seems a pity that what is probably such a spectacular cathedral to the winter solstice had so few people turn up to see the last actually visible sunset of the waning year. The paying customer side had a fair few but not an unusually high looking number for a day out at Stonehenge, fewer than an average day in summer. I was glad to see most of them looked like they were appreciating the sunset, all lined up by the heelstone. Someone had even brought a camera drone, not sure which side of the fence. This is something missing in most of the ceremonies I see at Stonehenge and Avebury - they ignore the sun. We go supposedly to celebrate it, but then at the moment the sun is supposed to rise the attention is on them not the sun. They don't even notice or acknowledge when it actually breaks over the horizon (or to be more realistic in modern Britain, the cloud). This is why I didn't feel much need to go to the ceremony that morning, I'd already seen the sun.
I think Stonehenge gets an unjustified bad press as big and commercialised among pagans. I love the place because there is so much to it which isn't well known or attended, there is plenty about it you can make special to you. The fire festivals aren't celebrated at all for example, if you attend then, it will probably just be you. How is that overly commercialised?
Getting into the main circle is at the mercy of English Heritage but the area is huge complex of monuments not under their control, and you can get very close for free if you know where the paths are. The Avenue is free access and until recently very little was known about it. And despite probably being the main purpose, very few people turn up to the winter solstice sunset. If you like a huge party where everyone is welcome it can be that, but if you like quiet, mysterious and intimate it can be that. In fact I think the surrounding barrows and avenue achieve that far better than Avebury except at certain times a couple of days of the year.
The photo above made up for the disappointing lack of shadows down the avenue. It shows the sun setting through the stones, and a ray of light almost perfectly lining up with the axis marked by English Heritage to show it. Although to be fair it was hardly a disappointing experience, I am one of the few people who have been able to see Stonehenge as it may have been intended, seeing the sun align with the heelstone and the avenue at the midwinter sunset. Not because I arranged special access with contacts in useful places or spent a lot of money, I just did some basic homework, checked the weather forecast, got the bus and went for a walk. Isn't that what paganism is supposed to be about?