Pagans welcome Summer Solstice at a social distance

Pic: Needpix

By Rosie Dawson, 20 June, 2020

Sarah Kerr will greet tomorrow’s sunrise with some drumming while sitting underneath an apple tree in her Derbyshire garden. The president of the Pagan Federation chooses to celebrate the summer solstice on the eve of the longest day of the year. “I feel about it like some people think of Christmas Eve,” she says, “The day before solstice is more exciting for me than the day itself. The wheel of the year is turning; change — even if it’s very subtle change — is coming.”

Sarah says she began following a Pagan path 24 years ago and describes herself as an “eclectic witch”. In normal times Sarah would be hosting a sunrise event on top of Silverhill in Nottinghamshire — a former spoil heap landscaped after Silverhill colliery closed. But lockdown has put paid to that for this year.

The largest solstice event in the UK is at Stonehenge in Wiltshire on 21 June. Last year more than 10,000 people from around the world gathered at the stones to observe Druid rituals. The site is managed by English Heritage which came to an agreement with Druid and pagan groups in 2000 to allow the celebration of their rites among the stones. This year the site is shut to them again because of Covid-19. English Heritage will be livestreaming the sunrise instead.

“It’s our 20th anniversary so it’s a real sadness not to be able to be there this year,” says Chief Druid Arthur Pendragon who led the campaign to open up the site to druids and pagans. He took his case to the European Court, telling the Religion Media Centre that his legal representative was a young Keir Starmer, now leader of the Labour Party.

“I’m particularly disappointed because in less than two weeks the site will be open to the public again anyway. So on Sunday morning I will be in a nearby field, as close to the stones as I can get. I don’t expect there to be many people there, but I’ll lead a socially distanced ritual if I’m asked to — there’s nowhere easier to socially distance than on Salisbury Plain.”

Sarah Kerr has found it difficult not to be able to meet with her fellow pagans during lockdown. “Although we don’t have buildings and places of worship that we rely on, it’s important for us to come together in circles, or moots,” she says.

Jenny Uzzell, a Druid, agrees. But she says that pagan communities were already familiar with gathering online in ways that other religious communities may not have been. “We’re such a widely dispersed community,” she says. “I had to travel an hour and half in order to take part in rituals, so we already had a very strong online operation.”

One of the largest events that has had to be cancelled this year is the summer gathering of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) which meets every June on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor in Somerset. Four hundred people attended in 2019 with many more turned away. This year’s meeting was eagerly anticipated because it was to witness the installation of OBOD’s new “chosen chief”. Instead Philip Carr-Gomm, who had held the position for 32 years, handed over the role to Eimear Burke in an online ceremony earlier this month.

The UK Pagan Federation, with about 2,000 members, represents the interests of pagan groups to the Government. According to Sarah Kerr the lockdown has led to a rise in the level of public interest in paganism. “The number of inquiries has definitely risen. We’ve had more than 1,000 expressions of interest since lockdown began, particularly after our Facebook event on Earth Day in April.” Sarah puts the increase down partly to the fact that people were getting out of the house, connecting with nature and finding beauty in their neighbourhoods.

Lockdown may have another upside for paganism. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing that people can’t get to their ancient sites this year,” says Jenny Uzzell. “They are being damaged physically and spiritually by the numbers of people visiting them, and although I understand why we want to do that, they do need time to recover. Let’s leave them be this year.”

And when Sarah Kerr got wind of news that some groups were planning illegal gatherings over the summer solstice she issued this statement: “This year we have a chance to celebrate closer to home. To honour the sacred that is right on our doorstep. Let’s leave the land to breathe and renew itself while we explore and gather in our own space.”