Avebury Summer Solstice 2021

Like my previous Avebury solstice visits in 2019 (summer and winter) there wasn't really much walking involved on this outing - perhaps 5 miles - just from East Kennet where I was staying to Avebury and back again. However it was still an adventure outdoors of sorts, and somehow still feels like it has a place on John Goes For a Walk.

I'd planned to stay for sunset on the day before the solstice, and then see in sunrise on the morning of the solstice itself. In hindsight I wish I'd just been a bit braver and planned to sleep in a bivvy in a field somewhere, but as it was I had booked a B&B in East Kennet. So after checking in at the B&B, just before 6pm I headed off on the 2 mile walk from there to Avebury.

The weather was rather grey and miserable unfortunately, and was forecast to be like that right through to the sunset, which didn't sound particularly promising in terms of observing the sun at any point. 

The walk from East Kennet to Avebury is fairly straightforward, and more or less follows the road route between the two, but with a couple of slight improvements for pedestrians.

I found there was a permissive footpath, not marked on the OS map, which allowed me to cut the corner off and avoid having to walk along much of the A4.

Off the A4, I turned up the B4003, the road that leads to Avebury, knowing that after a short section following the road I'd be into the open access area of Waden Hill, and could follow the stone avenue into Avebury. Despite the rather mixed messages from the powers that be about whether any form of gather for the solstice was going to be allowed or not this year, I was pleased to see there was already a cluster of vans up on the Ridgeway, and I could hear music (not really my sort of thing, but still) playing from a distance.

The avenue would presumably have originally been lined with stones all the way from The Sanctuary in East Kennet to the stone circle at Avebury, but now most of the southernmost half of the stones have been lost. One or two of them still remain, and it was quite uplifting to see the first of the stones, sat rather unassumingly by the side of the road.

After that, the more intact northernmost half of the avenue, which I shared this evening with a herd of cows, and always seems like a great way to arrive in Avebury.

On arrival in Avebury things definitely seemed a bit subdued - hardly any other people there - although people did start to arrive in dribs and drabs over the course of the evening. I suspect this year (given the mixed messaging about whether or not the event could take place or not) that the real party was happening up on the Ridgeway, where the authorities pretty much just left them to it. The weather probably didn't help encourage much of a turnout either.

Still, I met my friend Andrew, and we set up in more or less the same spot as two years ago, up on the earthwork in the south eastern quadrant of Avebury. We cracked open some wine and just carried on regardless really.

Gradually at least a few more people arrived, including a group twirling things around and doing acrobatics etc.

This video might give a better impression.

A few people did stop by to chat with us, which was nice. A few of them to make comments on the camping chairs Andrew had brought along (not always positive), plus we had a long chat with the two chaps pictured in the photo on the right here, who were very affable.

I was already sceptical about the camping chairs to begin with, but a combination of the commentary made by passing solstice attendees, and the fact that at one point I managed to fall off mine and spill red wine all over my white shirt meant I've decided these are definitely not for me, and at future solstices I will just sit on the ground like everyone else.

Andrew had also invested in an expensive and highly technical (I think) umbrella, which he never quite had to use in  the end, I don't think we ever saw more than light drizzle.

The moment of the actual sunset came and went without much ceremony, given that we couldn't see it for the thick cloud clover. There was a bit of cheering in the field, but that was it. Oh well - having seen a glorious sunset for the summer solstice in 2019, and a glorious sunsrise at the winter solstice that year, it probably is par for the course to have subsequently had a rather underwhelming performance. It still felt great to be here, despite everything.

The dancing / stick twirling / flaming torch spinning activity in amongst the stones livened up a bit after dark, but alas attempts to take photos of any of it with my phone were pretty much useless.

After a quick visit to the pub to warm up, Andrew headed off back to his accommodation, and I lingered in amongst the stones at Avebury a bit longer to enjoy the atmosphere, and eventually, perhaps just before midnight, set off on a wonderfully atmospheric walk in the dark back down the stone avenue.

I wish I could have captured some of it on camera somehow, but the photos I did attempt to take were just hopeless.

Although I had started to feel a bit cold when we were sitting on the bank at Avebury, now I was moving, and perhaps a bit more sheltered from the wind, I no longer felt cold, and was instead filled with an incredible sense of freedom and elation. I couldn't have felt further away from the cramped London terraced house where I live at that moment.

I really regretted at that point that I hadn't brought along a sleeping bag and a bivvy as I'm pretty sure I could have just slept in a field, and nobody would have noticed.

Rather than walk straight back to my lodgings in East Kennet, I diverted a bit just before I got back to the A4, following a path up the hill to the Ridgeway, to see what was going on there. This was awe inspiring, the number of vans parked along the Ridgeway must have ran into the hundreds - like a mobile city. It was hard to get a sense of it all in the dark, and being necessarily a linear encampment there didn't seem to be any obvious centre to it. So in patches it was relatively quiet, perhaps the residents had already turned in for the night, elsewhere there were groups gathered around a campfire, and in other places there was dancing and music. More fire twirling as well, whatever you call that, little clusters of parties in the copses near the Ridgeway. I think this is probably the closest to the free festivals of the 1970s I'll ever see, and it was hard to tell whether it was already winding down or not yet fully up and running at the point I wandered through, but then maybe nobody there knew that either? It was, I assume, a completely decentralised, uncoordinated gathering. There was no organisation committee setting a schedule. People just showed up and enjoyed themselves and came and left as they pleased. Wonderful.

I followed the Ridgeway down to the starting point at Overton Hill - and it occurred to me I'd never actually walked that short section before, having always diverted to head into Avebury. So that added a nice sense of completeness to this slightly mystical late night walk. A smaller bridleway then continues south of the A4. It should have been a short walk from there back to East Kennet but I think I managed to get lost a bit, due to now being away from the hub bub of the van encampment and it being completely pitch black. I'm not even sure I exactly recall the route I took for the final half a mile or so, and my phone also seemed to have given up recording my location history for that bit. Somehow though I did make it back to my B&B, where fortunately my room had its own private entrance, and therefore I hopefully didn't disturb anybody stumbling in some time around 1AM.

I actually set my alarm for 4AM, thinking I might wake up and once again walk the 2 miles back to Avebury to watch the sunrise. However you might not be surprised to learn I didn't bother in the end - the weather forecast looked very unpromising, and I was aware I had to drive back to London the next day so, alas, I prioritised getting more sleep instead.