Celebrating the Solstice!

Nicola here, talking about midsummer and using it as an excuse to post some gorgeous pictures! Yesterday marked the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and the shortest day in the Southern.  The June solstice is considered to be the beginning of summer and it’s rather nice that finally the warm, sunny weather has arrived in the UK so it really does feel like summer here.

I’m reading in various places that the solstice today is the earliest since 1796. The dates of the solstice occur within a relatively small range (June 20th or 21st and December 21st or 22nd.) As 2024 is a leap year, the time of the solstice occurs a whole 18 hours earlier than it did last year. The last year a solstice was this early, 228 years ago, Napoleon and Josephine got married, Edward Jenner administered the first smallpox vaccine, George Washington issued his “Farewell Address” and “Auld Lang Syne” by Robert Burns was first published.

Celebrating the summer solstice seems to have become even more popular this year in the UK than it has been before. There has always been the tradition of watching the sun rise at Stonehenge, which was built to align with the sun on both solstices. It’s first rays shine into the heart of the stone circle. Elsewhere, at Carnac in France, the pyramids of Giza, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and a number of other ancient and spiritual sites, the buildings or stones are aligned to illuminate special carvings or elements of the site.

Although I live relatively near to Stonehenge, I’ve never been for the solstice celebrations, mainly because it’s so busy and I find it difficult to tune into nature when I’m surrounded with thousands of people! However, I’m fortunate that close to where I am there are several places that are very special at the solstice (and at other times of the year too.) The best know is Waylands Smithy Long Barrow, where the sun rises behind the barrow on the Winter Solstice. The difficulty with that is getting a fine day to actually see the sun! Waylands Smith is a very atmospheric place to visit at just about any time of year really and the dogs and I love to go early in the morning or late in the evening when its quiet and you can hear the birds singing. More than once, we’ve thought we’ve heard the ghostly hoofbeats of horses on the Ridgeway track nearby!

White Horse Hill is another place local to me that is incredibly atmospheric. The Bronze Age chalk figure is a beautiful stylised vision of a horse, though some people argue it’s actually a dragon. On the Winter Solstice the sun rises along the edge of White Horse Hill at such an angle that it looks as though the chalk figure of the horse is pulling it into the sky. Amazing!

This year the newspapers have got in on the act, recommending the top ten most atmospheric places to celebrate the solstice and connect to natural beauty and spiritual significance. One place I heartily agree with is Lindisfarne in Northumberland. There are also a lot of votes for Glastonbury in Somerset, with its connections to King Arthur, Orkney, Snowdonia in Wales and various fascinating sites all over the country.

If, however, you can’t get to one of these places to celebrate the solstice, there are lots of other suggested activities. Gathering vervain and other herbs is considered very fortunate on the solstice but only if you wait until after the dog star has risen, harvest it with a sickle, pour honey on the earth in thanks and offer the flowers to Sirius.  Alternatively, you can build a bonfire, put a stone in your pocket and walk around the fire three times in a clockwise direction before asking the flames to grant you a wish as you toss the pebble into the fire. On a smaller scale, lighting a candle should do the trick as well. Even more special is that the June Strawberry moon falls on the 21st adding its light to the solstice celebrations.

It’s no wonder that with so much magic around, midsummer (or midwinter) is a good time to set a book. Shakespeare drew on the idea of midsummer enchantment in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Laurie Lee’s book As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning was a favourite of mine as a teenager. Midsummer (and Midsomer) Murders and crime novels are popular and there are plenty of wonderful romances set at this time of year. One of my favourites is Midsummer Eve at Rookery End by Elizabeth Hanbury.

All this midsummer lore is rather lovely and connects us to our past and the beliefs of our ancestors, as well as taking us out into nature. Wherever you are, I wish you a very happy Summer or Winter Solstice. Is there a place that is especially atmospheric for you, or somewhere you like to visit at this time of year? Do you have any favourite books set at this time of year?

22 thoughts on “Celebrating the Solstice!”

  1. What a wonderful post, Nicola! Not only beautiful pictures, but I loved the list of things that happened the last time the summer solstice was this early. (Washington’s farewell address? The marriage of Napoleon and Josephine? Fascinating!)

    I visited your white horse years ago though it wasn’t on the solstice. Seeing the sun pulling the horse into the sky would be marvelous. Of the invocations you mentioned, putting a stone in my pocket and walking three times around a candle sounds like the easiest. I’ll give it a try!

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    • Thank you, Mary Jo! Yes, it’s amazing to think of all those events happening. The white horse is stunning isn’t it. Quite magical. I hope the spell works for you.

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  2. What a lovely post, Nicola. I wish I could be there. It all sounds wonderful. Unfortunately, Summer arrived too early here in the northeastern US with a bang in May. Hot humid as July and August usually is. We have been breaking records with temps in the 80’s(F) and 90’s(F) (feeling even hotter) so no outdoor activity for me☹️ except spending time under the trees at the local pool.😊

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    • Jane, I’m sorry your summer is so uncomfortable. I sympathise as I can’t cope with humidity. A fresh, sunny day is lovely. That said, lying in the shade by the pool does sound nice!

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  3. Such gorgeous photos, Nicola! I would love to visit Wayland’s Smithy or Stonehenge for the solstices. Normally, I like to celebrate Midsummer in Sweden as they have special rituals for that – dancing around a sort of maypole and singing traditional songs. We also usually eat a “summery” meal of pickled herring, new potatoes boiled with dill, served with sour cream (or whipped cream) and chives. Sometimes followed by strawberry cream cake … Lovely post – happy midsummer!

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    • Thank you, Christina! I loved your post about a Swedish midsummer celebration a couple of years ago. Traditional pickled herring is probably an acquired taste 😀. Happy Midsummer to you too!

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  4. I was lucky enough to visit Stonehenge as a teen, back in 1969. My recollection is vague, but it was not blocked off then, you could walk right up to and around the stones.
    Tonight I plan to go to the beach to see the full moon rise over the Atlantic.

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    • That sounds wonderful, Karin. I love watching the moon over the ocean. Yes, in the old days you could walk all round the Stonehenge stones. They have become such a huge attraction that 15 thousand people went to experience the solstice there this year!

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  5. A lovely post and it’s wonderful to hear of all the old traditions. I hope they never die out. I would love to be at Stonehenge but I’m not very good with crowds. I agree with Mary Jo, the pebble and walking round the fire sounds the easiest to try 🙂 Unfortunately it’s been horribly wet here all day in Ireland but the sun seems to be appearing at the moment for the dying of the day.

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  6. Lovely post, Nicola. It’s midwinter where I am, and knowing it was the winter solstice was cheering, as the days will start getting longer. I didn’t attend any celebrations, though in the past I have attended the occasional winter solstice bonfire. I adore bonfires, but there are fewer these days, or maybe fewer of my friends organize them.

    There was, however a brilliant full moon, which lights up my whole house through the night. I always enjoy that when it happens — in other words when the sky is clear.
    So I’ll toast the solstice with my morning coffee, while sitting in a room with the heater on and typing this message in fingerless merino gloves.

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    • Bonfires in winter are very cheering, I think.
      How lovely to have the full moon shining into your house! We missed it last night as it was cloudy but the pictures of it around the world are beautiful.

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  7. I’m in Australia too and am doing much the same as Anne. I’ve always been amazed at teh idea of witches dancing skyclad around the fire at winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. They must have been tough cookies! I also loved the photos and the solstice lore – fascinating. But best of all was hearing about Wayland Smithy’s Barrow. Wayland Smith is the alias of a character in one of the Patricia Briggs series, so a light bulb just went off over my head. I’m off to Google and fall down another rabbit hole. Sincere thanks.

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    • I didn’t know that about Wayland Smith! How interesting. I love the way there are all these links and connections!

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  8. Thank you for your beautiful post. I have family near Swindon and have visited often but not enough. White Horse Hill is a definite favorite. Living in the swamps of southeastern North Carolina we do not have many English delights, but we do have alligators. 🐊

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    • “Living in the swamps of southeastern North Carolina …”

      If you live on West Street, you’d have all the directions covered, Eleanor!

      “…we do not have many English delights, but we do have alligators.”

      I have neither English delights nor alligators. That last makes me VERY happy.

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  9. There is a Manhattanhenge which is a rare natural phenomenon that occurs twice a year when the setting sun aligns with Manhattan’s street grid. The sun streams so brightly between buildings illuminating the whole block. It’s May 28, 29 and July 12, 13.

    Happy Solstice to you and yours, Nicola!

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