Stonehenge Solstice – What is it and when should you visit?

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Thousands of people worldwide will converge to the rock-forged English Heritage monument known as Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, at dawn to experience the sunrise at the summer solstice at Stonehenge. They will face northeast and witness the summer solstice celebrations, this is when the sun rises precisely at an arc over the stones, and everyone is there for the same purpose. It is one of those magical occasions as also it is one of the rare occasions when Stonehenge allows visitors to enter the stone circle and get up close and touch the Stones.

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Visitors at Stonehenge Solstice
Visitors after seeing the sunrise at Winter Solstice at Stonehenge

Since Stonehenge offers such an exquisite view of the rising sun at solstice dawn, tourists and academics have pondered this question for centuries: Did the architects of Stonehenge intend for it to serve as a stage for the solstice? Unfortunately, the only knowledge available to us is from archaeology, which is a long cry from being able to Instagram the experience.

It’s only one of the thousands of hypotheses surrounding the building, ranging from King Arthur legends to extraterrestrial invasions as to who erected the monument and why.

What is known about Stonehenge’s relationship to the solstice is detailed below.

Celebration at Stonehenge Summer Solstice 2022
Celebration at Stonehenge Summer Solstice 2022

What is Solstice?

Depending on the place and the season, varying amounts of sunlight reach the Earth. Due to the tilt of the Earth, only one-half of the globe experiences sunlight. Because of the Earth’s 23.5-degree tilt, one-half of the planet has longer days and nights due to more sunlight.

One hemisphere experiences its longest day, while the other hemisphere experiences its longest night when the tilt of the Earth concerning the sun is at its greatest. Solstice is the name for this twice-yearly event and there is no greater place to experience it than at the English Heritage ancient site of Stonehenge and even better to be in the stone circle where you will see the sun rises behind the Heel Stone in a peaceful and majestic manner.

What is the Heel Stone?

The Heel Stone is the centre of where the sun rises on Summer Solstice at Stonehenge if you were standing in the centre of the inner circle. It is the largest single block of Stone at Stonehenge, so it easily stands out as a critical focus point.

Why is there a Solstice?

The Earth’s tilt causes the solstice to occur. We have four distinct seasons according to the tilt of the Earth. Summer lasts from June to August in the hemisphere facing the sun and from December to February in the hemisphere facing the opposite sun. Winter is present in the hemisphere that faces the sun.

Parts of the Arctic Circle in the Northern Hemisphere see 24 hours of sunshine at the summer solstice, whereas there is no sunlight at all in the Antarctic area, which is in the Southern Hemisphere. On the evening before the winter solstice, we see that the reverse happens. While the Antarctic belt receives 24 hours of sunlight, the Arctic Circle does not.

When is Solstice?

Summer Solstice 2022 is Tuesday 21st June 2022, it is not always on the same day but it is usually around the 20th, 21st and 22nd June.

Winter Solstice 2022 is Wednesday 21st December 2022, like Summer Solstice it is not always on the same day but is around the 20th, 21st or 22nd December.

History of Stonehenge

The most well-known ancient structure in the entire globe is likely Stonehenge. The distinctive stone circle was formed in the late Neolithic period, around 2500 BC. The initial structure was an early henge monument constructed around 5,000 years ago. Numerous burial mounds were constructed nearby during the early Bronze Age. 

Preceding Stonehenge

Four or five trenches, three of which appear to have contained substantial pine “totem-pole-like” pillars built during the Mesolithic period, which is dated between 8500 BC and 7000 BC, are the earliest constructions in the nearby region that are known to exist. It is unknown how these poles connect to Stonehenge, a later structure.

The chalk downland in the vicinity of Stonehenge may have been an exceptionally open terrain at this period when much of the remainder of southern England was heavily covered by woods. This probably is why it was chosen as the location for a complex of early Neolithic monuments.

The causewayed enclosure at Robin Hood’s Ball, two cursus monuments (the Greater, or Stonehenge, and Lesser Cursus), some long barrows, and two rectangular earthworks, all belonging to periods about 3500 BC, were all part of this complex. The presence of these structures likely influenced the subsequent site of Stonehenge.

Who built Stonehenge and when?

Timothy Darvill, the head of the Centre for Archaeology and Anthropology at Bournemouth University, claims that the monument’s origins date back to 3000 BC and are a spiritual burial ground for a culture that existed two miles distant. These Neolithic inhabitants of the Durrington Walls were locals.

However, it wasn’t until approximately 2600 BC that another tribe started the process of creating what is now known as Stonehenge, complete with rocks. According to Heather Sebire, the English heritage senior curator at Stonehenge, “We’re quite convinced that those are the folks who built Stonehenge.”

When the summer solstice arrives, the sun will rise over the Heel Stone, a single block, and light onto the middle of the circle thanks to the group’s attention to astronomical events. A similar image is seen around sunset on December 21, the winter solstice.

Was Stonehenge created on purpose to highlight the solstice?

Experts are virtually confident that the builders positioned the rocks purposefully to highlight the solstices twice a year. However, as there is little documentation from the period, much is left to the imagination.

“We are aware that the midsummer dawn and midwinter sunset lines are respected by the stone circles. However, I don’t believe that was the primary justification for building it, adds Sebire.

Even while the summer solstice may be a popular time for tourists to visit the monument, it could not be the only event going on. The Trilithon, which consists of two vertical stones with a horizontal stone perched atop, is also hinged for optimal viewing at the winter solstice when the sun sets behind it. Sebire says that the Trilothon is optimally aligned when it faces the sun at midwinter sunset.

According to scientists, the monument faces the vista more directly during the winter sunset than it does during the summer dawn. 

According to Darvill, it would be an “inevitable consequence” if the stones were set up to coincide with the winter solstice that they would also serve the same purpose for the summer solstice.

Experts like Sebire and Darvill have other reasons to think the monument was more closely related to the winter solstice than merely the orientation. The Neolithic builders recognised the winter solstice was the shortest day of the year despite a lack of resources and technology. They, therefore, understood that “things were going to become better,” according to Sebire, “the days were going to get longer” when the sun set on the winter solstice. They might plant their next crops when the good weather returned. 

The monument is aligned with more than simply the solstices, though. The quantity and patterns of the stones also point to a 365.25-day calendar; therefore, Darvill claims that “that construction embeds some type of calendrical reference” inside it.

Did the Druids build Stonehenge?

William Stukeley popularised the idea that it was a temple for and constructed by the Druids, adherents of a Celtic spiritual tradition thought to be comparable to modern Paganism in the 1700s. The monument was erected as a guide to the solstices, according to Stukeley’s book Stonehenge, a temple restored to the British druids, which was published in 1740. As the New Yorker notes, it took years to successfully refute this notion.

In terms of the solstices, Stukeley may have been somewhat correct, but he was mistaken in terms of the other. Darvill claims there is no proof that the original Druids, who were called in the Roman era by Caesar in the first century BC, were alive at the time the monument was created, even though he speculated that they were the ones who did it. 

According to the website of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, a contemporary authority on Druidry in the U.K., the core text of Druidry was not recorded and made accessible until the 16th century. According to Darvill, contemporary Pagans and Druids emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries. Stukeley was referring to a very different group from what has been around over the past few centuries when he wrote about the later-prehistoric people Caesar had referred to as Druids.

When the summer solstice arrives, why do people go to Stonehenge?

Although it seems unlikely that the Druids constructed Stonehenge, the relationship still exists. According to Sebire, “modern Pagan and Druid organizations think it is their temple, and it is their right to worship there, thus [going to Stonehenge is like] going to a church or cathedral for them.” However, Stukeley was the first to make a convincing argument in writing about Stonehenge’s connection to the solstices. According to Darvill, “It was undoubtedly known about before his time, although the literature is quite scant until the mid-18th century.”

The discovery of Stonehenge in the 17th century by John Aubrey, who gave the Aubrey holes name to the ring of trenches created for the early burial places, was the most significant work on the monument before Stukeley.

Stonehenge’s legend continues to this day. According to Sebire, one of the attractions of the area for tourists is the presence of the 56 Aubrey holes, where deceased persons were interred following cremation rites. 

It’s odd that thousands of people still congregate at Stonehenge for sun rises at the summer solstice, yet many fewer go there in the winter, given that the winter solstice was probably of greater significance. A straightforward reason is the weather. According to Sebire, people frequently go on picnics and attend concerts in the summer because December in the UK is so bitterly cold. Therefore, wouldn’t you rather sit and have a picnic inside the Stone circle at Stonehenge when it’s dry and warm, than the risk it when it’s cold and wet. In addition, many people want to visit Stonehenge in the current era of global tourism, and some wish to do it on the solstice to make it even more special, according to Sebire. 

Regardless of the monument’s real history, everybody may appreciate the magnificent dawn sun rises at the solstice. In the words of Darvill, “We may place ourselves as nearly as possible in the shoes of prehistoric humans”. And how much better could you experience this amazing time than being in the stone circle when the sun rises for this amazing pagan festival event.

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