Nine hundred thousand people visit the Stonehenge monoliths each year, but the experience is tightly controlled by English Heritage. If you visit Stonehenge as a tourist you’ll find that you’re not allowed to touch the stones. You’ll be able to view them from the visitor’s centre. Normally you can also walk along a path which goes inside the henge but not up to the stone circle, although if the weather is unfavourable this path can be closed and you’ll be stuck at the visitor’s centre.
Alternatively, you can pay extra for a Stone Circle Access visit. These are held before and after normal opening hours, sometimes as early as 5am. Numbers are strictly limited to 26 per hour. Although you are allowed to leave the path and visit the stones, you are forbidden from touching the stones or even leaning against them.
For a Stone Circle Access visit you will need to follow a bureaucratic process involving giving full details of your camera equipment, and seeking permission if you intend to publicise your visit on the internet. Your visit is allowed to be for ceremonial or spiritual purposes provided you don’t use incense or candles, or get married, or take a dog, or eat or drink or smoke, and provided you declare the ceremony in advance.
But there is a little-publicised option which becomes available four times a year. At the equinoxes and solstices, the fence is opened and for a short time it’s possible to walk among the stones and touch them. Climbing on the fallen stones is not authorized but is nevertheless tolerated. As a bonus, there is no charge for access at these times.
At the autumn equinox, winter solstice and spring equinox the stones are normally open for just a few hours around sunrise, and are visited by a few thousand people. Summer solstice is different: the stones are open overnight (though you’re not allowed to take a tent or even a sleeping bag) and twenty or thirty thousand people attend.
English Heritage insists that it’s not an “event”, but a “managed open access session”. The entertainment is supposed to be spontaneous – drumming, chanting, singing, dancing, juggling and acoustic music. But in every other way it feels like an “event” – bright artificial lighting, lots of police and security staff, fast food and porta-loos in the car park, and so on.
The event isn’t publicised to mainstream tourists, so the attendees tend to be heavily representative of the druid, pagan, wicca and new-age subcultures, although there are plenty of family groups too.
The venue opens in the evening and the crowds peak at sunrise. Those who attend report hugely different experiences. Some are entranced by the grandeur, the atmosphere, the power and the mystery of the site and the solstice. Others are put off by the noise, the crowds, the litter, the drink and the drugs.
For some, it’s something they “must do” every year. For others, it’s a “oncer”.
From the 60s until 1984 the huge Stonehenge Free Festival was held every summer solstice, attended by up to 70,000 people. English Heritage was granted control of the site in 1984, and put a stop to the festival (in the interest of protecting the people from their culture, or as Margaret Thatcher put it “to make life difficult for the hippy convoys”). There were protests each year, and several break-ins. In 2000 English Heritage relented, and since then four times a year they have allowed people to experience the stones up-close.
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