Every summer on June 21, more than 10,000 people flock across the Salisbury Plain in England’s Wiltshire to gather around the ring of monolithic stones that form Britain’s most celebrated archaeological site.
These people come to the standing stones for the summer solstice, the most important day of the year at Stonehenge.
But this year, the stones will ring in dawn alone, in a cancellation that proves 2020 is difficult even for age-old relics.
“As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, for the safety and well-being of all attendees, volunteers and staff, English Heritage regrets that we will not be able to host the summer solstice celebrations at Stonehenge this year,” reads a statement by the charity that manages the historic site.
Down, but not out
But neolithic structures are not easily kept down, and solstice is a magical time to be at Stonehenge, which is why organisers decided to turn this year's event into a free-to-all digital affair.
“We hope that our live stream offers an alternative opportunity for people near and far to connect with this spiritual place at such a special time of year,” explains Heather Sebire, curator for English Heritage.
To make this happen, two camera operators will have the ancient site to themselves on its most important day of the year. Filming live, they will capture the sun as it sets on Saturday, June 20, then capture its magnificent rise the next morning.
And while there’s nothing quite like the goosebumps that arise from being at the Unesco World Heritage site on solstice, this modern method is a close second that's set to bring an ancient celebration to plenty more people across the globe.
What is Stonehenge?
If you've never heard of it before, Stonehenge is bound to be a mystery. Even if you're familiar with the site, the intrigue remains. Decidedly otherworldly, Stonehenge is more than 5,000 years old and was built as a temple – a place of ceremony, burial and celebration.
A poignant echo from Britain’s past, the structure unites the country's present, attracting families, travellers, tourists, Druids and pagans to its stone circle every year.
“The monument we know as Stonehenge was built in stages from 3000 BC. Stonehenge has many different meanings to people today. It is a wonder of the world, a spiritual place and a source of inspiration,” explains Sebire.
“The Stone Circle is a masterpiece of engineering, and building it would have taken huge effort from hundreds of well-organised people using only simple tools and technologies.”
What to expect at summer solstice
Stonehenge is dramatic any day of the year, but watching the sunrise at solstice is one of those moments that injects itself into your memory.
The silence of the crowd becomes almost deafening as the dark night's sky begins to lighten and the creeping sunrise sweeps above the 100 ancient stones, illuminating their precision engineering from a bygone era.
In the ancient world, there was nothing more significant the changing of the seasons and summer solstice marked the start of a summer, and the death of spring, which is why it held such prominence. But even without this reliance on nature, the event is a visual feast.
“At dawn on summer solstice, rays of sun are channelled into the centre of the monument through a gap between two stones of the outer circle and through the opening to the central horseshoe of trilithons,” says Sebire.
“Originally, the dawn light would have struck the Altar Stone which originally stood before the horseshoes tallest pair but which now lies beneath the fallen pillar of the central trilithon."
How can you tune in?
English Heritage will stream the summer solstice live across its social media pages.
Sunset on Saturday, June 20 will happen at 9.26pm (UK time), which is 12.26am in the UAE on Sunday, June 21. The sunrise, which is the most important part of the summer celebration, is scheduled to occur at 4.52am (UK time) on Sunday, June 21, which will be at 7.52am in the UAE.
And if the pandemic-induced live stream happens to go well, it could change the future for this historic celebration.
“We hope to be back to normal by summer 2021 and we will consider, if the live streaming is successful, whether we repeat it next year,” said Sibre.