The Winter Solstice, which takes place on 21st December in the Northern Hemisphere, is celebrated in various forms all over the world. In astronomical terms, this is the shortest day of the year, when the sun is at its lowest in the sky. After the solstice, the days begin to get longer again, and it is for this reason that it was celebrated as the beginning of a new year by pagan cultures.

I celebrated the winter solstice at Newgrange, a Neolithic passage tomb in Co. Meath, Ireland. This monument is an Newgrangeastounding feat of engineering: dating from around 3,200 B.C. (that’s older than the Pyramids!) it is aligned exactly with the rising of the midwinter sun. Above the entrance to the tomb there is an opening called the roof-box. On 21st December, the light of the rising sun passes through the roof-box and travels up the narrow passage, illuminating the inner chamber.

Entry to the chamber on the morning of the solstice is decided by a lottery. Alas, I was not one of the lucky few chosen. Indeed, further misfortune was in store as, after having dragged myself out of bed at 6am and trekked across narrow country lanes, the weather was cloudy and the sun barely visible.

But the unlikelihood of a clear sunrise (this is Ireland, after all) did not deter the hundreds of people who turned out to welcome the new year. We were an eclectic bunch, ranging from the mildly curious to the deeply spiritual.

Dedicated believers, dressed in long cloaks with wreaths of leaves and twigs on their heads, led the welcoming of the sun. They banged drums and chanted, softly at first, the volume rising in a crescendo as the sky got gradually lighter.

Another group were gathered in a circle taking part in a guided meditation as part of a two-day retreat. As the drum-banging unofficial leaders of the celebration shepherded bemused bystanders into an enormous circle, the meditation group moved into the centre and stood facing out. Eventually they moved out to join the larger circle as the chanting reached its height, and the revellers greeted the sun (still hidden behind a cloud) with whoops and cries of ‘Happy Solstice!’

It would be difficult to find someone less spiritual than myself, and I’ll admit to finding most of the celebrations frankly a bit odd. Yet there was something undeniably refreshing about standing in that field at dawn, waiting to mark the most natural sign of the new year. It was definitely more enjoyable than the repetitive and ultimately disappointing festivities of the 31st.

Similar celebrations take place at Stonehenge, Britain’s most famous prehistoric monument, which is also aligned with the rising and setting of the sun. Huge crowds gather there annually for exuberant solstice festivities.

There is a lot of wisdom to be found in prehistoric pagan cultures. Not only have they given us some of the most awe-inspiring architectural accomplishments in the world, but they have also left us a legacy of spiritualism which has survived the advance of scientific understandings of the world.

If you come to visit Newgrange or Stonehenge just for the views and the guided tours, you might end up leaving with a new and perhaps more optimistic perspective on the coming year. Even if the sun fails to make an appearance.
By Naoise Murphy
Photograph: Naoise Murphy

Stonehenge Winter Solstice Tour: Click here

Stonehenge Guided Tours

  • Excavations confirm that Stonehenge was  built on an Ice Age landform
  • Ridges found to point at the mid-winter  sunset and mid-summer sunrise
  • Experts claim that ancient people  believed the geological scars signified the ‘union of heaven and earth’ at the  longest and shortest day of the year
  • Evidence has also been found that the now  broken circle was once complete

The ancient people who built Stonehenge chose  the site in modern-day Wiltshire because of its solar significance,  archaeologists claim.

The ridges were created by Ice Age meltwater and naturally point directly at the mid-winter sunset in one direction and the mid-summer sunrise in the other

The ridges were created by Ice Age meltwater and naturally point directly at the mid-winter sunset in one direction and the mid-summer sunrise in the other

In what is described as a ‘missing piece in  the jigsaw’ in our understanding of England’s greatest prehistoric site,  excavations confirm the theory that its ancient processional route was built  along an ice-age landform which was naturally on the solstice axis, according to  Professor Mike Parker Pearson, a leading expert on Stonehenge.

The monument’s original purpose still remains  shrouded in mystery, but this is a dramatic clue, he said.

The route, known as the Avenue, extended 1.5  miles from the standing stones’ north-eastern entrance to West Amesbury. It has  been likened to The Mall leading to Buckingham Palace.

After the closure of the A344 road, which  bisected the route, archaeologists have been able to excavate there for the  first time.

The excavations were conducted by Wessex  Archaeology for English Heritage.

Just below the modern road’s surface, they  unearthed ditches dug by prehistoric builders.

Professor Parker Pearson identified  naturally-occurring fissures that once lay between ridges which follow the route  of the Avenue.

The ridges were created by Ice Age meltwater  and naturally point directly at the mid-winter sunset in one direction and the  mid-summer sunrise in the other.

Professer Parker Pearson is excited by the  evidence, which he describes as ‘hugely significant’.

‘It tells us a lot about why Stonehenge was  located where it is and why they were so interested in the solstices,’ he  said.

‘It’s not to do with worshipping the sun,  some kind of calendar or astronomical observatory.

‘It’s about how this place was special to  prehistoric people. This natural landform happens to be on the solstice axis,  which brings heaven and earth into one.’

He explained that Stonehenge is ‘all about  the solstices’ and our ancestors could see this in the land.

The excavations support theories that first  emerged in 2008 with an exploration of a narrow trench across the Avenue.

Professor Parker Pearson said: ‘It’s being  able to see the big picture.’

Dr Heather Sebire, English Heritage’s  Stonehenge curator, said: ‘The part of the Avenue that was cut through by the  road has obviously been destroyed forever, but we were hopeful that archaeology  below the road would survive.

‘And here we have it – the missing piece in  the jigsaw. It is very exciting to find a piece of physical evidence that  officially makes the connection which we were hoping for.’

She expects the latest findings to spark  vigorous academic debate, and English Heritage has not expressed an opinion on  the naturally-formed ridges, their interpretation being confined to the ditches.

The original A344 road is to be grassed over  next year as part of English Heritage’s £27m transformation of the World  Heritage Site, which draws more than one million annual visitors.

A new visitor centre will be opened, 1.5  miles away out of sight, to allow Stonehenge to reconnect with the surrounding  landscape.

The latest study has also identified three  holes where missing stones would have stood on the outer sarsen circle –  evidence, it is believed, that the circle was indeed once complete.

Astonishingly, at least to the layman, even  the most sophisticated surveys failed to spot them.

Two eagle-eyed members of staff happened to  notice dry surface areas of grass, or parchmarks.

Professor Parker Pearson said: ‘The problem  is we’ve not had a decent dry summer in many years.

‘Stonehenge is always regularly watered – and  the only reason these have shown up is because – for some reason this year –  their hose was too short… So we’re very lucky.’

Susan Greaney, an English Heritage historian,  added: ‘The discovery… has certainly strengthened the case for [the monument]  being a full circle.’

Full article: By Dalya Alberge:

Stonehenge Tour Guide