Nowhere in England is the summer solstice more famously celebrated than at Stonehenge. This ancient site has been a place of worship and celebration of the solstice for thousands of years. Every midsummer it draws crowds, some committed Druids, others merely curious observers, to watch as the sun rises behind the Heel Stone to the northeast, and its first rays shine into the heart of the stone circle.
Many different theories have been put forward about who built Stonehenge, when, and why. Some say it was a Druid temple; some, an astronomical computer for predicting eclipses and solar events; and some, a place where ancestors were worshipped. The interpretation which is most generally accepted today is that it was a prehistoric temple constructed to align with the movements of the sun.
What is undisputed is its significance. It is the only surviving lintelled stone circle in the world and considered the most architecturally sophisticated. It was constructed on the site of one of the largest cremations cemeteries known in Neolithic Britain.
The stones used in its construction were brought here over long distances; in particular the famous bluestones which came from the Preseli Hills in Wales, over 150 miles (250km) away. And those stones were dressed using sophisticated techniques, and were erected using precisely interlocking joints, unseen at any other prehistoric monument. If you are interested there is a full history of Stonehenge on the very informative English Heritage website.
Note the passing A303 main road in the image above; there is talk from time to time, but so far nothing more than talk, of moving this away from the monument or building a tunnel.
As a child Stonehenge was a familiar sight as we passed by on our way to holidays in Devon or Cornwall. On one occasion we stopped to visit. Back then there was no fancy visitor centre and no restrictions on access to the stones. Somewhere there is an old photo of me and my sister standing right next to the megaliths. While this is no longer possible (except for the carefully controlled access during the solstice event and special premium-priced experience visits), recent developments have ensured that intrusions such as car parks have been distanced from the stones. Instead, today visitors park some distance away, near the modern and very informative visitor centre, and are bussed to the monument. There a grassy path leads around the perimeter; while the limitations placed on access ensure people-free photos are possible for anyone with a small amount of patience.
So last year on our way home from Dorset we stopped to visit, just as I had long ago with my family. The shuttle bus dropped us off near the stones and we strolled all the way around, taking photos from all angles.
It was early November and a perfect day, and perfect time of day, for photography here. The sun was low enough to cast interesting shadows; the clouds scudded across the blue sky; a few crows wheeled overhead or settled on the massive stones in photo-worthy poses. Forgive me then if I share rather too many images from this shoot!
Our walk also took us out beyond the stones to see the famous Heel Stone. This is also sometimes referred to as the Friar’s Heel, because of a folktale attached to it:
The Devil bought these stones from an Irish woman, wrapped them up, and carried them to Salisbury plain. One of the stones fell into the river Avon, the rest were brought to the plain. The Devil declared that, ‘No-one will ever find out how these stones came here!’ A friar retorted, ‘That’s what you think!’ At this, the Devil threw one of the stones at the friar and struck him on his heel. The stone stuck in the ground and is still there to this day.
After completing the circuit around the stones we considered walking back to the visitor centre rather than taking the bus, but there was a sharp wind blowing across Salisbury Plain, and we had a table booked at a local pub for lunch. So we decided on the warmer, faster option!
However we made sure to have a look at the museum where, among other things, I was delighted to see a temporary exhibition about people’s memories of Stonehenge, staged to mark the 100 years it has been in public ownership. The many family photos submitted reminded me of my own long-ago visit! The exhibition has since finished but the old photos have been archived on the English Heritage website: Stonehenge 100.
I last visited Stonehenge in 2021 when all these photos were taken