In the summer of 1981, a young Sky & Telescope editor ventured to England's iconic megalithic monument to see what all the fuss was about.
Today's solstice came and went at 5:04 Universal Time (1:04 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time). On this day we Bostonians will enjoy 15¼ hours of daylight — but only 4¼ of "night" between the confines of astronomical twilight last night until this morning. And there's a nearly full Moon out too. So, with notions of stargazing largely abandoned, I'm reminiscing about a June solstice "road trip" taken long ago.
In 1981, I convinced Cheryl, my longtime girlfriend and future wife, to join me on a 2½-week adventure in England and Scotland. On that trip we saw much of what makes Great Britain famous, including castles, London, Bath (including William Herschel's house), cathedrals, castles, Shakespeare's Stratford-on-Avon, Cheddar Gorge (of cheese fame), and — I almost forgot — some castles.
Topping the "must see" list (mine, at least) was Stonehenge, the famed prehistoric monument on Salisbury Plain in southern England. It's only 2-hour drive from London, and I'd carefully planned the trip so that we could visit Stonehenge on or near the solstice. In fact, thanks to my status as a bona fide astronomy journalist, I scored two press passes to be among those iconic stones for the solstice sunrise.
Solstice comes to us from Latin's sol (Sun) and stitium (a stoppage). It's the twice-yearly moment when Earth's spin axis is tipped most toward or away from our star, depending on your hemispheric preference. Skywise, on the June solstice the Sun appears its highest in the northern sky. But there it stops, and then backtracks in declination until reaching its southernmost extreme in December. TV meteorologists often refer to this date as the "astronomical beginning of summer" — when, in fact, it marks midsummer based purely on sky motions.
Much has been written about how Stonehenge came to exist and why Neolithic people hauled giant stone slabs to the site from perhaps 150 miles (240 km) away. It was built in several stages beginning about 3000 B.C., and you'll find good descriptions of all that at the English Heritage website and, yes, Wikipedia's entry.
About 2600 BC, its architects erected a circle of 80 towering megaliths, 43 of which remain today. Various astronomical alignments have been proposed for Stonehenge, some more tenuous than others. But there's no question that, a solitary stone to the northeast was positioned so that on the summer solstice the Sun would appear to rise directly above it as seen from the circle's center. The prospect of seeing this alignment firsthand was the big draw for me in 1981.
Salisbury Plain is a busy place on the solstice. In particular, back then you could attend the adjacent Stonehenge Free Festival (think "Woodstock with British accents"), and the one that year was especially popular. But the government disliked the prospect of the iconic stones being overrun by thousands of stoners. So tight security and a barbed-wire barricade kept Stonehenge off limits except for a select few, which included a band of Neo-druids who performed a ritual celebration of the solstice sunrise.
Cheryl and I had to arrive around 2 a.m. to pass through security. The distant thump-thump-thump of festival music reverberated across the plain. I saw uniformed soldiers equipped with rifles and guard dogs. Cheryl fears dogs almost as much as snakes, but we pressed onward and found a perch atop some of the fallen megaliths.
As dawn approached, we were startled when one of the aforementioned stoners crawled out from under one — he'd snuck in before the perimeter was locked down. The morning dawned cloudy, as it often does in England, so we didn't see the Sun rise over the Heelstone. But the Druids, unfazed, continued their ceremony, and we left soon thereafter.
There was a time when visitors to Stonehenge were issued small hammers to chip off a souvenir or two — an awful practice that's long been banned. In fact, you can't even touch the stones now but instead must admire them at a distance from a roped-off walkway. (However, a select few can walk among the stones near dawn and dusk by special arrangement.)
And, yes, it's still possible to get ringside seats for the solstice — in fact, these days a toned-down festival has replaced the Druids. I hope to do that again someday — but only if the prospects for clear skies are good.
Have you ever been to Stonehenge? If so, add a comment below to let me know what your experience was like.