If there is one thing we can say about the summer solstice without fear of contradiction, it’s that there will be more people standing around in stone circles and on hill tops than will be doing so at the winter solstice in a little over 6 months time. Funny that.
Until the late 1990s, Oxfordshire’s Rollright Stones still belonged to the late Pauline Flick whose family had owned that small piece of land for decades. She opened the site each year at Beltane, the summer solstice, Lughnasa and Samhain to the public, manning the box office through the night at the little cabin near the entrance and relieving visitors of 20p or 30p for entry. Given the situation of the stones, right alongside a quiet rural road, the site’s not being officially open wouldn’t have made any difference as visitors would simply have entered anyway, through the hedge if necessary.
For a couple of years, immediately following my arrival in the Midlands, I attended the summer solstice gathering there along with probably a couple of hundred others. Most visitors attended in small groups and sat around their lanterns or jars with a candle in, either in or around the circle itself or over the road by The King Stone on the crest of the ridge with its north-easterly aspect directly towards the sunrise. And all very pleasant it was, even if the actual sunrise was hidden behind the inevitable bank of cloud on the horizon.
In the late 1990s, with Pauline Flick terminally ill, the Stones passed into the ownership and care of The Rollright Trust. There had been earlier attempts by local pagans to persuade Pauline to sell the stones to a pagan-run trust but each time things had looked hopeful she changed her mind. Faced with her own impending death she finally agreed to sell and an appeal was launched within the pagan community to raise the asking price. Pagans being pagans, virtually nobody was willing to actually put their hands in their pockets and the appeal went nowhere until funds were offered by a couple of City bankers with an interest in archaeology. Although the funds were raised, the trust set up and the stones bought, the pagan influence was greatly watered down with a good half of the appointed trustees being business people and archaeologists. Today there appear to be no pagans at all on the board of trustees.
In the years immediately following the stones’ acquisition by the trust, the site remained open to visitors at the usual festivals. A non-denominational, but vaguely wiccan, ceremony was held on or as near as possible to the festival date which all were welcome to attend for the usual payment on the gate because this was found to be the best defence against the various druid orders and other pagan groups all wanting to hold their rituals at the site on the popular dates. On the other festivals the visitors were few, and at the winter solstice and Imbolc they were non-existent. I know this because for several years I wardened the site overnight on these latter two dates, sometimes with one or two others and occasionally on my own. Usually the only visitors in fact were a couple of plods from either Warwickshire Constabulary or Thames Valley Police (the border between the forces runs along the minor road beside the stones) who parked their patrol car in the layby and came in for a coffee and a chat.
So if you are planning to attend an overnight outside gathering this summer solstice, ask yourself whether you will be doing the same in 6 months’ time with 17 or 18 hours of darkness and, quite possibly, a hard frost.