Summer Solstice, 2009

Stonehenge by night

The summer solstice this year was apparently the biggest since the exclusion zone was lifted nine years ago, with access again managed by English Heritage: The BBC reported 36,500 revellers in attendance although given the way in which people were being counted, the real figure is almost certainly lower than this (counting was done by stewards on entry to the stones, so as people travelled back and forth to the campsite, they were presumably counted more than once).

The mood of those attending was largely good and I for one had many interesting and varied conversations with a variety of folks and even enjoyed a bit of dancing inside the bluestone circle, the latter not being something one can do everyday! There were folks from all over Europe and further afield and it is great to see so many people coming to see the event. I walked in from Durrington (avoiding the traffic carnage!) and couldn’t help but be moved by the people streaming in towards the circle from all directions, making me think of our ancestors who would have travelled along similar lines for soltices past: A truly inspiration feeling and one which really provides a sense of place.

The druids were there to welcome the dawn and the traveller community were well represented as ever. I really love the way in which Stonehenge represents so many different things to so many people from such diverse backgrounds: There are few events in the modern world which attract such a variety of people from all walks of life. Of course, there was a small contingent of ignorant yoof causing trouble, particularly at the buses in the morning, but this is the way of most such events these days, and it was more selfish, drunken bad behaviour than anything serious. I guess this is simply the way of the world these days: Even Glastonbury is no longer the preserve of the caring sharing hippy… And it is this minority which gives cause to the police presence…

The police, despite being present in numbers, were largely restrained although their heavy presence at the entrance, including dogs, and the use of metal-detectors and searches was intrusive to say the least but again, some level of intrusion seems to be the norm at any kind of public gathering these days. Thankfully, they were all wearing their ID numbers unlike at the recent G20 protests even if most of them had obviously forgetten how to smile, at least on the way in where intimidation was the order of the day: all the police I chatted to and saw around the circle were actually quite jovial, picking up on the good vibes from the crowd. I did hear a funny conversation between a visitor and one of the search teams as we passed through the security barriers which revealed they weren’t quite sure what they were looking for! I would guess from the police comments reported in the Guardian that illegal drugs were top of the list, hence the dogs but a tip for next year would be to watch out for large flares, at least one of which was sneaked in and caused mayhem in the circle when lit amongst the crowds…

The much talked about spy-in-the-sky seemed to be largely ineffective, with limited battery life (it kept disappearing, presumably for new batteries) and the laser-pointers aimed at it by the crowds can’t have helped it’s surveillance operations! From a geek point of view, I was rather jealous of the pilot: what a job flying such an amazing machine around (even if it does represent the rather repulsive surveillance obsession the authorities seem so keen on). I guess this was more of an intimidation tool than anything else, a bit like the zero-tolerance policy towards drugs which was patently untenable, much of the crowd enjoying, ahem, herbal cigarettes judging by the smells around the site.

The stewards did a fair job of keeping folks from climbing the trilithons but seemed resigned to letting people clamber on the smaller stones, a marked change from previous years and one which really ought to be remedied: The stones are not just important archaeological remains and of religious significance to some but are also home to a wide range of lichens which, taking years to grow, are very sensitive to damage.

One major problem, as in previous years, were the transport links. The roads became impassable and the police response was simply to close them and turn people away. The view in the morning was one of carnage with abandoned cars littering the surrounding roads where people trapped in the logjam had simply left their cars and walked to the henge. Yes, it was possible to get a bus between the event and Salisbury but the bus company certainly made a tidy profit, charging £6 for a single and £9 for a return ticket. Given that other similar sized (free) events such as the BBC One Big Weekend in Swindon earlier this year seem to manage the volumes of people and traffic, is it really that hard to implement some way of getting people to and from the event and ensure there are adequate numbers of stewards in the right places…? But of course, the difference being the solstice is an event which the authorities really don’t like like or want to happen, memories of the 1980’s festivals still influencing decision making. The use of tactics such as the bold statements about zero-tolerance to drugs accompanied by searches and sniffer dogs, the use of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, rumours of police horses being deployed for the first time since the Battle of the Beanfield and the alcohol restrictions, not to mention the rather under-resourced management of essentials such as the roads and public transport in favour of large number of uniformed officers on patrol all suggest the authorities would rather we simply weren’t there. Lessen the enjoyment and perhaps folks won’t return or be put off in the first place. Appreciated, English Heritage and the National Trust don’t want visitor numbers to increase but I for one am not keen on these rather insidious means of discouraging people, especially when all this security still fails to stop idiots bringing large flares into the event.

So, overall a wonderful experience once again but I have to wonder what will happen in the years to come…