STONE HENGE AUTUMN EQUINOX 2023
Every six months or so, social media is inundated with videos of mesmerised onlookers visiting one of Britain’s most well preserved ancient and historical sites. Depending on what time of year you find yourself in, the algorithm will either show you the summer or winter solstice at Stonehenge. A crowd of roughly 10,000 embark on a pilgrimage to marvel at the sunrise through the monumental stones. People have been making this journey for roughly 5000 years and scholars, even after all this time, find themselves scratching their heads as to how exactly these stones were arranged in such a formation. Nonetheless, the excitement over this event has not dwindled; if anything, it has intensified, taking on a form of excitement not necessarily mirroring the sentiments of our ancestors.
I made my own journey via car with my co-pilgrim/girlfriend joining me for company. I had read online that there was an equinox on the horizon. The equinox distinct from the solstice, marks the equilibrium between night and day. I had never heard of an equinox and wondered if it would gather the same amount of attention as its counterpart. We entered the eerily empty and desolate car park of a budget friendly hotel in Salisbury, parked up and headed inside. The hotel was almost vacant bar a few ghostly figures drifting through the hallways. According to my research, this particular hotel in Salisbury was within the closest proximity to Stonehenge. I started to question if perhaps the equinox wasn’t quite as significant as the solstice in the Pagan calendar but perhaps my fellow travellers had opted for an early night in preparation for the 4:00am wake up call.
4:00am came quicker than I would have liked and we got ready for the drive. It was cold and the height of summer had most definitely passed. Out of all the events I have chosen to photograph, my personal favourites always start before sunrise. There is something quite communal being in the same groggy boat as the rest of the crowd. As we pulled into the Stonehenge visitors carpark, a convoy of headlights appeared over the hill in the distance, a sign that the faithful were arriving. The minutes passed and the headlights continued to shine. We decided to wander over to the coffee shop and get ahead of the crowd, still having to wait for the shuttle bus to take us to the stones.
There was an excitement in the air as we were corralled by friendly staff and boarded the shuttlebus. The bus was clean and spacious, a stark departure from the crowded confines of the number 88 bus back in London. Groups of families and friends chatted amongst themselves in a giddy manner whilst clutching onto hot drinks to warm their frozen fingers. Amidst the sea of camaraderie, a solitary traveller cut a lonely figure directly in front of us. Dressed in a floor length beige cloak with the hood concealing his face and a 6-foot staff in his hand, he gazed solemnly out of the window. The shuttlebus rumbled towards our destination and the contrast between the buoyant energy of families and the quiet contemplation of this enigmatic figure became increasingly apparent. This was a small glimpse into the dichotomy that awaited us at the stones.
The shuttlebus edged through a narrow country lane made smaller by campervans parked upon the verges. We disembarked from the shuttlebus and followed the sound of drums in the distance. The giant stones continued to grow in size as we approached the circle. Inside the perimeter a frenetic crowd were sandwiched shoulder to shoulder, moving to the primal rhythm of the drums, totally uninhibited and likely fuelled by some illicit substance. Amidst the chaos, a man held onto a pet crow stroking at its feathered head as it made a unnerving squawk. The majority of the attendees opted to go barefoot, curling their toes into the ground. It couldn’t have been more than 5 degrees Celsius and the grass was still covered in a thick dew that had not yet evaporated. On the outer edge of the National Heritage Site, the divide was clear and a quieter and more introspective gathering took place. I noticed an older gentleman with a ‘Teddy Boy’ quiff sporting a bolero tie. He had amassed a small crowd who posed for photographs as he addressed them. He was quite fascinating, I photographed him for approximately ten minutes and stopped once I could tell he was uncomfortable by my presence (despite hours of googling, I still have not figured out who he was). His cloaked comrades held tapestries which bared the scars of previous pickets and in the background, others charged their crystals on the surrounding stones. A round of applause and cheers came from somewhere over our shoulder. I decided to go and investigate. 30 metres away, adjacent to the gentle stream that meanders through the heritage site, a newlywed couple adorned with flower crowns and white linen robes shared a passionate embrace. They had just exchanged vows and now, surrounded by their loved ones danced joyfully forehead to forehead.
The sky had now turned a fiery red and in synchronicity with the crescendo of drumbeats the sun rose high above the stones. And that was it, we had witnessed an equinox at Stonehenge. I continued to take pictures for another 20 minutes. By this point our feet were cold and wet through our shoes and we trudged back to the shuttlebus. The time was only 8:00am and we still had four hours until we had to check out of the hotel. We wisely chose to go back to sleep and recharge for the journey back to London.