Summer solstice celebrations across the UK: a short history and four places to celebrate in 2022
Celebrations of midsummer have long marked the UK landscape with festivities. As the day draws closer, we share four places to join in the revelries this year.
Heralding the return of the light and warmth on the day’s longest year is a ritual as old as time. It’s one that holds religious significance for many groups, including Druids, Wiccans and other neopagans, but it’s by no means only a religious celebration – people of all faiths and none gather on the day of the solstice to share in the universal experience of the changing seasons.
Celebration of midsummer in the British Isles reaches back centuries, with various festivals falling around the longest day; in the Christian era, these were assimilated with feast days, such as St John’s Eve and St Peter’s Eve. Certain themes have long run through the festivities. One of them is light, with bonfires and fireworks always featuring prominently; in rural areas, intrepid revellers would take turns to leap over smouldering fires, a practice thought to bring good luck to lovers and harvests alike. William Shakespeare may have set his Midsummer Night's Dream in ancient Athens, but his choice of theme reflects the prominence of midsummer in 16th-century England. At this time, Morris dancing, crop blessing and devil-banishing rituals were common rites, along with plenty of good old-fashioned drinking. This all sounded too much like a good time to the Puritan killjoys of the Reformation, who put an end to midsummer and other pagan festivals in the 16th century.
Happily, though, interest in paganism began to be revived in the 19th century, and today, Britain’s wealth of Neolithic sites makes it one of the most magical countries worldwide in which to celebrate the solstice. In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice marks the point when the North Pole is at its closest tilt to the sun and is therefore consequently the longest day of the year. Summer solstice falls on 21 June in 2022. Here are some of the best places to celebrate it in the UK.
1. Stonehenge, England
Every year, upwards of 10,000 revellers descend on Stonehenge for what is the closest thing to a summer solstice festival on British shores. It’s a diverse event: berobed druids observe formal ceremonies amid the stones, while all around them a more secular affair unfolds, with food trucks, boombox music, glowsticks and dancing. The main event is, of course, sunrise, when the first rays of the dawn crest the mighty Heel Stone and illuminate the centre of the stone circle. For many visitors, the most magical part of the experience is the opportunity to touch the stones, which is only allowed for this one day of the year. It’s important to be respectful, though, and remember that the stones hold religious significance for many people.
2. Avebury, England
Avebury is just 24 miles north of Stonehenge. It’s less famous, but just as enigmatic and beautiful: a collection of three ancient circles of craggy standing stones, fluffy sheep grazing at their feet, right in the heart of the modern village. There are two other Neolithic sites within walking distance – the chambered tomb of West Kennet Long Barrow and the mysterious, manmade Silbury Hill – making this complex one of the most spiritually charged places from which to observe the solstice. Solstice at Avebury is a more peaceful and family-friendly affair than Stonehenge, but it’s by no means sedate. The Red Lion pub, overlooking the stones, is a sociable spot to begin the celebrations, before fire dancers, musicians and dancers put on a show around sunset, kicking off drumming and dancing, which continues until dawn.
3. Bryn Celli Ddu, Wales
Atmospherically translating as “the mound in the dark grove”, Bryn Celli Ddu sits on the island of Anglesey and is one of the most famous Neolithic monuments in Wales. As a testament to the ingenuity of the tomb’s ancient architects, its opening is aligned so the sun shines directly into the inner chamber just once each year: at dawn on the summer solstice. This is a place to celebrate in peace, appreciating the beauty of Anglesey’s countryside and meditating on the spiritual significance of the changing seasons. Celebrants gather here to light a bowl of fire, play instruments, and make offerings to the forces of nature; afterwards, throughout the longest day, workshops in flint knapping, pottery and rock art are held here.
4. Shetland, Scotland
The further north you travel in the UK, the longer the summer days, and in the Scottish islands of Shetland, the sun barely sets at all in midsummer – a golden orb that seems to hover above the horizon before rising again on the new day. ‘Simmer Dim’ – ‘summer twilight’ – is marked in a variety of ways across Shetland, from the colourful floats of Lerwick Midsummer Carnival to the imbibing of Simmer Dim gin, specially brewed at Saxa Vord, the UK’s northernmost distillery. For a celebration with a difference, though, head to the Simmer Dim Rally, where the crackle of motorcycle exhaust shatters the silence over Ollaberry and revellers celebrate the longest day with live music, local food and beer.
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