All photographs by Luke Montgomery.
It’s become a hot, gritty, ugly summer in Britain. There’s a sense of fracturing and uncertainty in the air. A ghost-like Prime Minister hanging on to power, exit from the European Union being bungled, the horrors on our streets of Grenfell Tower, Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park – each unleashing its own currents of fury, fear and hate.
Such things seemed distant in the alternative universe of the summer solstice celebrations at Stonehenge on Tuesday night. As the mingled scents of weed and incense drifted across the ancient stones, the fields of Salisbury Plain faded away into the dark, while drums and yelps started a party at one of the world’s most famous landmarks; an ancient monument whose purpose and meaning remains obscure beyond the fact of its alignment on the midsummer sunrise-midwinter sunset solstitial axis.
While the crusty veterans were there, it was a surprisingly young crowd. Many seemed in a mood of post-exam abandonment. At sundown, a group of singers dressed all in red at the centre of the stones helped create an excitable, effervescent atmosphere. Crowds kept arriving down the long grass avenue that connected the car-park to the site. Some were in full (unironic) Tolkein wardrobe: cloaks, tunics, staffs, wizard hats. There were Pre-Raphaelite women in flowing dresses and with garlands of flowers in their hair.
As the evening light faded, an Ancient of Days lay down on the grass near me as if he had just stepped out of the 13th Century, every finger sprouting a huge decorative silver ring, a crimson skull-cap on his head, velvet cape, the beard of God. He smoked a cigarette propped up on his elbow and sipped at something in a coke bottle. Not a word said to anyone all night as far as I saw and a face that remained somberly expressionless.
Elsewhere things are rather different. The area at the centre of the stones quickly becomes a churning rave to the rhythm of drums. Later in the night a group starts up the youth’s favourite summer anthem, and the familiar chant rings out of “Oh, Jer-e-my Corrr-byn!”
At the edges of the monument there is a lot of caressing and holding of the stones going on. A shaven-headed middle-aged man with the hairs of his beard shaped into two long plaits has had his cheek up against one of the lichen-covered monoliths for the last hour with a look of dreamy distraction on his face. Andreas, from Germany, tells me he has been inspired to come to England because of Brexit and a troubling spirit of bellicose nationalism he feels has taken hold here. He’s particularly alarmed at the new five-pound note: “It has Churchill, blood, sweat, toil, tears on it. Everyone is walking around with this in their pocket!” he says with dismay and bewilderment. What was he doing with the stone? “It’s saying something to me. I’m not sure what, exactly.” He settles back in for another few hours to try and find out.
A drum troupe from Eastbourne – huge, bearded, tattooed pagans, dressed in red, green, and black rag jackets – have arrived with more drums.
But there are other, less obvious types. Groups of lads in Jack Wills t-shirts and white plimsolls, dreadlocked surfers, ravers, kids from the nearby towns of Salisbury and Amesbury. Pale-faced goths. There are many young Italian and Spanish voices in the night air.
Security is very visible but hands-off and generous. Thorough bag searches on arrival but only a couple of armed policemen due to the heightened terrorist threat. As troubled as our own times may seem, the regular appearance of riot police at this event in the 80s and 90s are a distant memory. It’s an amiable, festival vibe. Someone climbs to the top of one of the standing stones but the appearance of a member of the security team quickly has him scuttling back down. The only agro I witness is when two security guards briefly square up to each other in the morning (“Don’t tell me how to do my fucking job!” – clearly it’s been a long shortest night of the year for some).
A solitary druid in white robes strolls the site, stopping to have his photo taken every few minutes like a generous celebrity. Blissed-out people gyrate to the drumming like they’re at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. Groups and couples are dotted around everywhere on rugs and blankets, joints glowing in the dark.
As the night wears on the atmosphere lurches into a new register. Wasted teens stagger past. “I hope he dies tonight,” one girl cackles winningly. “Takes a fuckin’ heavy pill.” Another lad stops at every group to simply slur: “Got any ketamine?”
Meanwhile, ecstatic Hare Krishnas move around the site in a drumming, jumping, dervish-crowd of their own, presumably with no chemical stimulation required.
Around 4am, a red crescent moon appears above the stones in the eastern sky as the surrounding fields emerge out of haze with the first dawn light. Arthur Pendragon, leading neo-druid and recent loser of a court case against English Heritage on the parking charges for this event, rolls up with friends for a ceremony. At just before 5, the red disc of the sun starts to show itself on the horizon in a sky with only the lightest wisps of cirrus cloud and plane trails. Whoops and cheers from the thousands massed facing east.
The sky is beautiful but the dawn light is not kind to many. Thousand-yard stares as people slump against the stones. A young man sits cross-legged staring blankly ahead beside a pile of his own vomit. Dozens lie passed out and oblivious under blankets. The portaloos reek.
But the drummers keep drumming; the transporting beat that has persisted all night without pause. There are glad faces too; joyful, bleary but beatific-looking people.
Eventually, with the warm sun now shining down over the Plain, the carnival atmosphere of the night calms as the damaged start drifting away. A former IT manager is telling my friend about the energy emanating from a particular stone with eager intensity. Others are facing the rising sun in yoga poses and gestures of reverence.
What would the late Neolithic people that began building Stonehenge those 5000 or so summers ago have made of it all? Who knows. But the Sun and the Earth still go on their inexorable way, as indifferent to individual destiny and the fate of nations as they ever have been. A midsummer night spent taking the axial spin on this Wiltshire rise, waiting for the return of the light, is perhaps not such a bad place to start in trying to understand who and where we are. And failing that, there’s always getting smashed. Or hugging old stones.