It was a misty, drizzly kind of morning but it did not matter a bit for a record-breaking crowd that made the pilgrimage to Stonehenge for the winter solstice.
As the sun rose on Salisbury Plain, they sang, chanted, danced, banged drums, hugged or simply mulled over the cheerful idea that from now on the days would grow longer.
“It’s wonderful, isn’t it?” said Sam MacDonald, an NHS worker from Oxford, who had taken a day off to attend the solstice event with her two young children. “Times feel really hard. When you’re at work or on the street you can see the pressure everyone is under, but when you come up here, people’s troubles seem to melt away, at least for a few minutes and you can look forward. I think people find some solace here.
“I find the solstices and the equinoxes are a good time to take stock, check how you’re doing, look back at what you’ve achieved and think about what might come along. Now I’ve seen the solstice sunrise, I can believe that this winter won’t last forever. Spring will come.”
Winter solstice used to be a much more modest affair at Stonehenge compared with the huge celebration and party that the summer version tends to be.
But this year English Heritage said an “unprecedented” number of people turned up on Thursday morning, meaning car parks filled up and it had to send out messages asking those who had not yet set off to stay away if they were driving.
Those who had arrived in good time began the walk up to the stones from the visitor centre in darkness and the stone circle emerged through the grey half-light.
The circle was tightly packed as the sun rose. “I love the warmth you feel here even on the coldest of days,” said Tree, who described herself as a white witch from Somerset. “I know it’s really from the crush of people in the circle but I like to think there’s a magical heat coming from the stones. Perhaps it’s both.”
One woman told how she married her late husband on the winter solstice and came to the circle at this time every year. Touching the soft lichen on the stones made her feel close to him.
A man said he had lost his mother to Covid. She loved coming to Stonehenge and he felt she would like him to visit the circle now she is gone.
Usually the stones are roped off but at the solstices and equinoxes, English Heritage allows managed access.
At last December’s solstice there was still deep anxiety about Covid, with people asked to take a lateral flow test before setting off, wear face masks and social distance.
This year it all felt a bit more free again. Many wore wreaths of ivy in their hair and sprigs of rosemary in their hats. Several people stumbled around in unicorn heads. At the heel stone as the sun rose the red-clad choir Shakti Sings performed gentle songs celebrating the Earth.
Another trend is for people to take in the solstice as part of morning runs – which also gets round the traffic problem – leading to odd juxtapositions of Lycra-clad athletes drinking in the scene alongside druids in flowing robes.
Stuart Hannington, a druid known as the Wizard of Tottenham, who has been attending solstices at Stonehenge for more than 60 years – as well as full and new moons – surveyed the scene with a serene look.
“It’s good to see so many different types of people here,” he said. “More people are turning to paganism, coming over to our way of thinking and finding some peace here. Long may it continue.”