‘Winter solstice festivities at Stonehenge evoke moments of introspection.’

Thousands gather on Salisbury Plain and more watch online as the sun climbs again after the longest night

It was a little chilly, with a strong wind whipping at the robes of the druids, and cloud meant the sunrise was a soft blur rather than a spectacular blaze.

But the moment when the sun climbed again after the longest night was relished by the thousands who turned up on Salisbury Plain to celebrate the solstice at Stonehenge.

“I always try to come if I can get time off,” said Jane Clark, a care home worker from Bristol. “For me it’s a lovely, mellow celebration, a time to reflect, think about the year that’s almost gone and the one coming up. It’s also wonderful to think we’ve turned a corner and are heading towards spring and summer.”

The winter solstice at Stonehenge used to be a much more modest event, especially compared with its summer counterpart’s hedonistic excesses. While it was hugely important for the druids and other pagan people who consider Stonehenge a temple, it didn’t attract as many “civilian” visitors.

In recent years, it has gained more popularity and on Friday, with 20 minutes to go before sunrise, the car parks at Stonehenge were full. Additionally, almost 7,000 people across the UK, Australia, the US, and south-east Asia were watching the live feed. While a few complained about the music added to the feed by English Heritage, the chat box was dominated by messages of goodwill and peace.

Dr Jennifer Wexler, a senior properties historian at English Heritage, said: “I do think the winter solstice has become more popular. The winter solstice marks the turning of the year, the return of the light and end of the long, dark nights. It evokes the start or perhaps hope for something new, marking both an annual cycle and change – all things that draw people to the site at this time of the year. I think also the spirituality of the event and the site is more potent in the winter, there’s something really magical wandering across cold, misty fields in the dark and seeing lights across the landscape as people gather to celebrate the return of the light. For me, it evokes the feeling of what it might have been like 4,000 years ago.

Usually the stones are roped off, but at the solstices and equinoxes, English Heritage allows managed access. On Friday, there was dancing, pipe playing, drum banging, and stone hugging, while Arthur Pendragon, who claims to be the present incarnation of the once and future king, knighted loyal followers.

Countless pictures were taken and posted on social media feeds, but many others left their phones in their pockets and savored the special moment.

The solstice coincides with Stonehenge being in the headlines due to the government’s controversial plan of building a road tunnel near the great circle. Opponents of the project went to the high court earlier this month to try to get the plan scrapped.

However, politics was kept out of these solstice celebrations. John Adams, the chair of the Stonehenge Alliance, which is fighting against the tunnel, said the group had decided not to campaign there this year and instead simply enjoy the feeling of transitioning from darkness to light.

One of the most beautiful aspects of the winter solstice at Stonehenge is the sense of togetherness. People from all walks of life come together and get along.

Lois Lloyd, an archdruid, expressed her happiness that so many people make the difficult journey to the stones at this time of year, even if they have no spiritual or sacred intent. “I’ve met so many who find solace, energy, and comfort in such a primordial place,” she said.

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