Singing up the sun: A late report on an early solstice

The winter solstice celebration came to Cornwall early this year. No, the earth’s tilt hasn’t changed and the days hadn’t stopped growing shorter, but a group of people around here gather to sing up the sun on the summer and winter solstices and—well, the pub couldn’t handle that many breakfasts on the actual solstice, so having weighed the sun’s schedule against the pub’s schedule, the group met a day early. Or was that two days early? I’m the last person to trust on this kind of information, but what matters most in life, breakfast or accuracy?

Breakfast.

Stone circle at Minions

Stone circle at Minions

I’m not sure if I should say “they” or “we” as I write about this. I’ve joined the group twice now, but by definition it involves getting out of bed in the dark, so I’m a fringe member—always on the verge of rolling over and mumbling, “Next year.” So let’s go with “they.”

The place they meet is on the moor, where three ancient stone circles were built one right next to the other. Last year, a group of archeologists and volunteers uncovered an ancient pathway between two of the circles, then documented it and covered it back up, since that’s the best way to preserve it.

Not only is the place packed with ancient monuments and atmosphere, it’s also windy. The moors are like that. If there’s any wind at all, you’ll take a pounding. So it was cold and we didn’t stay out long, but we stood in the midst of the stone circles and sang, and the harmonies were beautiful. And in response, the sun did what it always does, which is to come up when it’s damn well ready. On this particular almost-solstice morning I’m sure it did come up but we couldn’t really tell. It was cloudy and anticlimactic and we walked to the pub and ate breakfast, but the harmonies really were beautiful and I’ll probably drag myself out of bed at silly o’clock when the summer solstice comes around.

Summer Solstice in Cornwall

This far north, the longest day of the year goes on for 26 hours.

Okay, that’s not the literal truth. It’s more like 27.

This morning, Wild Thing and I got up at 3:15 (that’s a.m.), staggered out to the car, and drove down the hill to pick up J. so we could drive to a double set of stone circles some 40 minutes from here and join a group of people who gather at the summer and winter solstices to sing up the sun.

Waiting for sunrise

Waiting for sunrise

If that sounds new agey and corny, it probably is. I’m not given to new aginess myself, but when you’re surrounded by ancient monuments the way we are here, you can be forgiven for sliding into a bit of nouveau-pagan celebration once in a while. Those who take it seriously do, and those who don’t can still stand inside a stone circle put up by prehistoric people for purposes we can only guess at and be overwhelmed by the scale of human history. It’s the closest I’ve come to touching my ancient ancestors—who (by way of full disclosure) aren’t my ancestors at all, except in the spirit of all humankind being one family. But humankind is one family, and those circles get to me. Not for any magical properties, but for their sheer age.

Sunrise

Sunrise

At the stone circles, we joined some hundred other people, dressed in everything from long skirts and ivy-leaf hair thingies, to shorts and blankets, to winter jackets (it gets cold on the moor), and we sang, and the sun came up, as red as it ever was when our ancestors watched it all those thousands of years ago. Then we headed to village pub, which had opened early for us, and we ate breakfast. It wasn’t an exact replica of the way our ancestors and not-ancestors celebrated the solstice, but everything changes with the times.

Stone circle

Stone circle

This evening, a group of women from the village will gather on the beach to watch the sun go down. J.’s organized the gathering for several years running, but this will be the first time we’ve gone. All I know is that it involves a bonfire and food. Our ancestors would have understood.

Wild Dartmoor ponies, happy to have the moor to themselves again

Wild Dartmoor ponies, happy to have the moor to themselves again

This is the first year that J. started the day by getting up at silly o’clock to watch the sun come up, and I told J. I half expect the evening to end with her falling asleep on the beach and everyone gently carrying her home.

She said everyone would be more likely to dump her in the sea.