The summer solstice is nearly upon us on the 21st June, marking the height of the season and the longest day of the year for the Northern Hemisphere. The sunset has been making its way north with early dawns, long days, late sunsets and short nights.
Solstice is an astronomical event produced by the Earth sitting tilted on its axis. The June solstice sees the Earth positioned with the North Pole closest to the sun. In meteorology, summer actually begins on 1st June, however as every child knows summer really begins with the last school bell of the term, signalling joyful, warm days of fun ahead.
Ancient cultures have always followed the sun’s path across the sky and there are many beliefs and mythology associated with this time of year. In England 5000 years ago, unknown people raised huge standing stones into a circle to build a monument we know as Stonehenge in Wiltshire. Although nobody knows for sure how or why they did it, whoever built Stonehenge aligned the blue stones with the June solstice sunrise, seemingly to honour this time of warmth and light. Today, around 20,000 people attend Stonehenge for the summer solstice festival to meet, dance, feast, marry and observe the heavens.
There are many similar stone circles across Britain which show the importance of these festivities, and we’ve got once such monument right here in Norfolk. In 1998, the shifting sands at Holme beach in North Norfolk revealed a 4000 year old prehistoric timber circle of 55 oak trunks surrounding a larger central trunk. Now known as ‘Seahenge’, it was preserved by Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth and now is on display at The Lynn Museum in King’s Lynn.
Midsummer festivities can be traced right back to prehistoric rituals, marking the cycle of time, rebirth and fertility. The solstice is also known as Midsummer - or Litha - and Midsummer’s Eve was believed to hold a special power. It was thought to be a time when the divide between this world and the world of magic was lifted, and in folklore it has long been associated with witches, magic and fairies. If you sit in a stone circle all night on Midsummer’s Eve you would be sure to see the fay or fairy folk.
Midsummer is a festival of fire and has a close association with the sun. Bonfires were lit to repel evil spirits and strengthen the waning power of the sun. Villagers would dance sun-wise (or clock-wise) around them. If you jumped over the fire - hopefully without setting your pants on fire - you would have good luck for the coming year. To be ‘blackened by the fire’ was considered very lucky indeed!
When the Litha fire had burned out, the ashes could be used to make a protective amulet by kneading them into a clay and forming a talisman. The ashes scattered over crops would ensure an ample season ahead. Another solar-fire ritual was to roll a flaming fire wheel down a hill, the wheel symbolized the solar cycle of the seasons. The cartwheel was stuffed with straw which was then set on fire and released down a hill. If the wheel made it to the bottom without falling over then the harvest would be good and strong. If the wheel fell it was a bad omen. Possibly a difficult rite to perform in our rather flat Norfolk…
William Shakespeare associated midsummer with magic or witchcraft in three of his plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth and The Tempest. In his brilliant comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a night of romantic capers ensues in an enchanted forest where supernatural fairies make mischief in the mortal world. As in the play, it is a very potent night for love spells and potions. Oberon, the fairy King calls for ‘Love-in-idleness, fetch me that flower.. the juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid will make man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature that it sees’.
The flower ‘Love-in-idleness’ is actually Viola Tricolor, commonly known as Heart’s Ease. The Heartsease area of Norwich was originally agricultural land where this flower grew abundantly.
Whatever the mysterious origins of the folklore surrounding the summer solstice, they were rooted in a time when our ancestors were in harmony with nature, which is increasingly harder to do in today’s modern landscape. The ancient rites have all but gone, nevertheless on the longest day of the year, I am going to honour our pagan past, hang some greenery over my door and celebrate the light with midsummer events taking place across the county. Happy solstice! Louise Hunt
Ten great ways to celebrate the summer solstice:
- Head east to the coast to see the first light of the day at 04.15am or head west for stunning sunsets at 21.26pm.
- See the sun sink on the water of Fairhaven Broad with a Discover Dusk Canoe Trail.
- ‘Skyspace’ at Houghton Hall is an immersive masterpiece, found in the estate’s leafy grounds. Climb the stairs into the wooden cabin, for a view of the sky as you’ve never seen it before.
- Active Norfolk have organised an evening on the water at Whitlingham Adventure, Trowse, on 22 June.
- Stay out late for a drink, and make the most of the lightest night of the year. For beautiful outdoor spaces (with a great drinks menu…) , try The Ivy Norwich Brasserie, the waterside terrace at The Ribs of Beef pub, of the leafy garden at Norwich Playhouse.
- Gaze into the clear, wide skies of Norfolk from a kayak on the tranquil broads, on one of Norfolk Outdoor Adventures’ night kayak adventures. This guided trip will see you navigate the county’s iconic waters with a local guide, and stop on the riverbank for a warming cup of tea as the sun sets!
- Visit our own Seahenge, a 4000 year old bronze age timber circle, now on display at the Lynn Museum at Kings Lynn.
- Get your body moving with Summer Solstice Yoga Weekend, The Fire Pit Camp, Norfolk on 22 June.
- Prepare to be enchanted and enter a world full of magic and mischief with the many outdoor summer theatre productions of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at various venues across Norfolk, including:
Norwich Cathedral’s annual Shakespeare Festival in the Cloisters on 11 & 12 July.
The Plantation Gardens, Norwich on 12 July.
Holkham Hall Gardens on 28 August.
For little revellers The Garage are performing ‘My First Play- A Midsummer Night’s Nap’ from 20 July - 4 August.