Celebrating the Summer Solstice in the UK

A Midsummer Night's DreamJust beyond the golden walls of Athens under the shelter of a host of majestic Oaks and twisted Olive trees, four young lovers escape their reality and stray into an enchanted faerie-grove of magic, mischief and mistaken identities on the Eve of Midsummer. In Shakespeare’s time, Midsummer’s Eve was all about celebrating fertility: the successful planting and harvesting of crops. This single night of June, celebrating the summer solstice, was an excuse to party outdoors, dance relentlessly, drink copiously and embrace folklore and superstition.

For a lot of partygoers, Midsummer’s Eve was a time when mischievous spirits were able to touch down on Earth, faeries were free to roam the realms of man, plants were imbibed with magical healing properties and unmarried maidens could, if drinking alone, conjure a vision of their future husband.

Records show that many of our ancestors have been celebrating the eve of Midsummer since the 13th Century and this, of course, raises the question…what will we be doing this Midsummer?

Our Guide to Celebrating Summer Solstice

1.  Finding Faeries, Giants, Unicorns and Dragons in Chester (21st & 22nd June) - The Dee Way

Chester's Midsummer Watch FestivalFirst taking place in 1498, Chester’s Midsummer Watch is one of England’s oldest festivals.  It is also, without doubt, one of the Country’s friendliest, noisiest, funniest, most entertaining and most colourful!  The City’s Midsummer spectacle is not exclusive.  It includes chariot-riding Romans, dancing ravens, street-sailing swashbucklers on huge painted pirate ships, fifteen-feet tall green men and women, silver-horned unicorns and branch-antlered stags, stilt-jumping jesters, an arrow-shooting Cupid riding a ten-foot elephant, a terrifying host of fire-breathing dragons, and a family of giants dressed in traditional Tudor costumes.  Madness: we challenge you not to crack a smile, at the very least, at this carnival of comedy, charisma and custom!  In addition to the Parade, and between the fire-eaters, musicians and jugglers, there are plays performed, a tasty barbecue and a many-cakes tea party back in Rufus Square.  For those who fancy nightcap, there is also a post-Parade celebration that takes place in some of the local watering holes: expect old-fashioned singing, drinking, dancing and some great entertainment!

2.  Building Bon(e)fires with the Old Cornwall Society- St. Breock Beacon Burial Chamber (23 June) - The Saints' Way

Summer solstice bonfireThis year, as the sun sets atop the hills of Cornwall, a series of ancient monuments will echo with the sounds of leaping fiddle melodies, quick-tapping toes and the ditties of traditional Cornish folksongs.  Then, halted by a set of lone footsteps making their journey toward the darkened pyre, the music will pause as the Lady of the Flowers tosses posies of magical Midsummer herbs into the growing flames.  As the fire spreads, the music resumes tenfold and the real party will begin…Midsummer Bonfire ceremonies are steeped in old history and the backdrop of St. Breock Beacon Burial Chamber, whilst aboundingly atmospheric, is also befitting of a Celtic celebration with origins in the burning of human sacrifices.  Centuries ago both human and animal sacrifices were plunged alive into the flames, hence bonfire: a corruption of what was referred to as a bonefire!

 3.  Having a go at Ancient Astronomy…in a Tomb! (20th June) - The Bryn Celli Ddu Chamber - Isle of Anglesey Coastal Path

Bryn Celli Ddu ChamberOver the years, a multitude of artifacts found at Bryn Celli Ddu Chamber have suggested that the site has a bloody history of sacrifice and ritual burial.  One recent and rather grisly discovery made by archaeologists was a small pit in the inner chamber containing a burnt human ear bone, a variety of charred animal bones, soot-blackened crustacean shells and numerous flint arrowheads (shudders).  Above this pit is a stout, darkened-stone standing column.  Roughly scratched into the column’s sides are a series of lines, which, at first look, would seem to mark out the height of something…or, more likely, someone!  However, far from marking out the appropriate height-range of young sacrifices, the many etchings of the standing stone are scored-recordings of the passing of Solstice.  The Chamber is one huge light box!  The stone outside of the Chamber’s very narrow entrance is in perfect alignment with the Solstice and, coupled with the interior column, it has allowed our Druidic ancestors to accurately mark the passing of the year for around 4,000 of them!  A short taxi journey to the Bryn Celli Ddu Chamber can be taken from Brynsiencyn or Llanfairpwll. The journey takes about 15 minutes.

4.  Celebrating the Extra Daylight Hours at the Temple of Mithras (20th & 21st June) - Hadrian's Wall Path

Temple of MithrasTopping seventy-three miles sea to sea, is there any better way to enjoy the extra daylight hours afforded to us by the Midsummer Solstice than marching, like Emperor Hadrian himself, (some of) the length of his Wall.  Although there are a plethora of Roman forts, outposts and shrines along this trail, some of these are far more heavily visited than others and one of the must sees, but also most often forgotten of these, is the Mithraeum just past High Teppermoor.  During Roman times, it was commonly believed that the stars and planets were living Gods and it was their movements that controlled all aspects of human existence. Mithras, to whom the Temple near Brocolitia Roman Fort is dedicated, was the God of all Gods.  He was the Unconquered Sun and was believed to have the power to end the world.  Associated with immortality, prosperity, protection, life and the afterlife, he had control over the entire universe and in order to keep him happy the Roman’s made blood sacrifices, left offerings and banqueted with him inside the Temple to appease him.  Evening picnic anyone?

5.  Watching the Sun Spin from Prehistoric Eyam Moor (21st June) - Peak District 'Cross Country' Walk

Higger TorEyam Moor is certainly one of the most magical spots from which to enjoy the Midsummer Solstice should you prefer a much quieter affair.  One of the largest monuments on the Moor is Wet Withens Stone Circle, found on its northern edge heading off towards nearby Hathersage Moor (if it’s your first time though, we recommend that you kit yourself out with a GPS and good navigation skills: scrambling through sheep and heather isn’t such fun in the darkness!).  From Wet Withens, once in position, the Solstice sun can be seen gradually emerging from behind shadowy Higger Tor before meeting with the horizon and making a quick ascent to mark the new day’s beginning.  Viewed from the Circle, the sun appears to spin in the sky in a haze of glowing reds, purples, yellows and oranges.  Higger Tor is flat topped and this shape is echoed in the largest stone of the Circle.  On Solstice night, visitors to the site will notice that both the Tor and standing stone will align – undoubtedly, another Prehistoric Calendar.

Hopefully we’ve given you a few ideas?  If not, here are five more Solstice Celebrations that didn’t quite make it into our top five…but it was close:

6.  Listening to the Memories of the Megaliths at Avebury Stone Circle (20th, 21st & 22nd June) - The Ridgeway

Avebury Stone CircleLast year, over 22,000 people descended upon Avebury Stone Circle to celebrate the arrival of the Summer Solstice.  Whilst Stone Henge, arguably Avebury’s sister Circle, is believed to have been built to celebrate the sun setting during the Winter Solstice, the Stones at Avebury were erected to welcome the sunrise of the Summer Solstice.  Upon arrival at the site, you will be greeted by the sounds of the Solstice Samba Band (the same band visits the Stones every year), the pounding feet of a crowd of bare-footed fire dancers, and the hollers of a multitude of Pagan, Druid and New Age revellers – keep an eye out for the bear man who will be all too pleased to enlighten you as to the stories of the Stones and, like the Solstice Sambas, he frequents the Stones annually!

 7.  Paying a Visit to World’s End - The Dursey Island Cable Car (June-September) -  The Beara Way

Beara Peninsula 2 - Tourism IrelandAlthough the Dursey Island Cable Car runs most days of the year, charting a course across the infamous Dursey Sound where strong tides make travelling by boat far too dangerous, over the summer months, the Solstice the Car operates extended hours in order to allow visitors the chance to watch the sun set or rise at Ancient world’s end.  Dursey Island lies at the very end of the ancient-known world and, during the Solstices, it sits as the closest point to the setting sun and towards what was once, and still is by some, believed to be the place of the afterlife.  During its extended Summer hours the Car usually runs between 9am and 8pm – so you may not catch the actual Solstice – but, for the scenery, mythology and Celtic ties that the Island and the larger Beara Peninsula own, the €8 return ticket is well worth its purchase price.

 8. Catch Up with the Once-and-Future King in Wiltshire - The Sixth Solstice Festival at Stonehenge (20th & 21st June) - Mendip Way

  StonehengeNot quite on the Mendip Way, but close enough to be deserving of an end-of-the-trail detour, Stone Henge is definitely one of the most well-known venues at which to partake in some Solstice revels!   Like Avebury, you can expect the Henge to be incredibly busy – last year the site saw upwards of 30,000 visitors, many of whom decided to camp onsite over night.  However, if you want to catch a glimpse of Arthur Pendragon, the reincarnated ‘once-and-future’ King, or you simply want to ‘go and have a look’ at one of the most iconic Prehistoric landmarks in the UK, Stone Henge is the ‘first-and-only’ option.

9. Stargazing on Cley Beach (whenever, but we recommend the 20th June this year) - Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path

Cley BeachNorfolk was highlighted on ‘Stargazing Live’ with Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain as one of the best places in the UK to catch some unforgettable glimpses of the night sky.  Whilst there are many places on the Norfolk Coast that play host to ‘Star Parties’, particularly around the Midsummer Solstice when the sky is often seen to be clearer than at any other time during the year, the sands of Cley Beach are far too often forgotten.  Yet, to those in the know, the beach comes highly recommended for its haunting beauty, cosy ambiance and some astronomical vistas (sorry, bad pun)!

10. Take Time for a Midsummer Bevvy at Castlerigg Stone Circle (20th June) - Threlkeld Ale Trail

2. Castlerigg Stone Circle and BlencathraFor lovers of real ales that also love to walk, there is perhaps no better pause-point around the time of Midsummer Solstice than at Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria.  For millennia people of the UK and Europe have been celebrating the longest day and shortest night of the year with dancing, singing, eating and enjoy a few pints (or flaggons) of the strong stuff.  Whilst a bit of Midsummer mead may get you in shape for a spot of late-night maypole dancing, it may not prepare you for the superb all-around view over the surrounding fells that this remarkable site affords.  From inside the Circle you can enjoy views of Skiddaw, Blencathra and Lonscale Fell.  It has also been noted that many of the standing stones of Castlerigg appear to mimic these features in the surrounding landscape, as though the stones themselves recognise the beauty of their surroundings and reproduce it to a magical effect.

Originally published 29/05/14

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