In my very first week of university, as an interminably hungover and generally quite misguided archaeology student, I was bundled onto a bus with about 50 other students and ferried off around the area that used to be known as Wessex on a field trip into the past.
My thoughts while trudging around Stonehenge, the ostensible apex of this trip, just about perfectly sums up my antipathy for the whole experience. As an archaeologist, I'd imagined myself digging up mummies in Egypt or searching for Inca gold in the Amazon. Essentially, I had watched Indiana Jones and genuinely believed that was a way of life that existed outside of a Hollywood sound stage. Walking around a track in the rain and being lectured about each of the 16 different ways Stonehenge could be approached (and the relative merits of each) was a dose of reality I was not prepared for.
A fortnight ago I finished my final exam on that course, and had been looking for a way to celebrate that didn't involve drinking shit beer at the same pub I go to literally every week. Conveniently, this past weekend, the summer solstice rolled around. Traditionally, this is a day where lots of people go to Stonehenge to watch the sunrise, get really fucked, sober up a bit, fall asleep, wake up to see the sunrise and then go home.
So struck a dilemma: when I was done tottering around that hill three years ago, I can honestly say I thought that was the last time I would be anywhere near a miserable, 5,000-year-old collection of boulders. But, I figured, by going back to the place it all began, maybe I'd have the opportunity to round off those three years in one full cathartic swoop. The celebration of the cycles of nature at the solstice aligns with the cycles of my life, and by returning to the Henge I could mark the end of that chapter and the beginning of the next. Or something.
Anyway, here's all the weird shit I saw.
19:30: Me and my friend Weez head to Salisbury from Waterloo. Weez is more prepared than I am: she's brought a single bottle of water and a tablecloth to use as a blanket.
21:27: Salisbury station is a cute little place. If it weren't for the density of policemen and small-time drug dealers when we arrive, I could imagine living out my final years somewhere near here – fly fishing on the River Avon, communicating as little as possible with other humans and working my way up towards a full-blown brandy dependency.
21:40: Onboard the shuttle bus to Stonehenge I'm surrounded by a wildly disparate group of people – two Chinese tourists with professional telephoto lenses; a psytrance guy sharing glitter with a Home Counties hippy; a couple of sixth formers talking about how "jokes" it was last year when someone tripped over a couple having sex by the portaloos; and a girl with braids telling her mum over the phone that yes, she'd caught the bus fine, and no, she wasn't going to have to come and pick her up at 3AM like last time.
21:47: It dawns on us that we've neglected to buy any alcohol. This could be a very long night.
22:00: Getting off the bus, we join hundreds of revellers stumbling across a field towards the monument. It occurs to me that this must be much like the pilgrimages Neolithic communities would have undertaken 5,000 years ago. I wonder which of the 16 unique directions we are approaching the henge from, before remembering I do not give a shit.
22:15: We've reached a collection of "fire horses", whatever that means. Someone's dog has scared one, and it looks like they're about to get a kick to the face from the horse, as well as an attending police officer.
22:30: The pilgrimage comes to an end at what looks like a bit like an astroturf Disneyland. Crane-mounted floodlights gaze down onto rows of portaloos, while high-vis jackets parade the fenced perimeter in pairs. The police-officer who checks my bag at the cattle-grid tells me I'm a fucking idiot for bringing my laptop. I mutter an apology in agreement.
23:00: None other than King Arthur Pendragon emerges from the organic wood-baked pizza van. Call me a nerd, but I followed his entire legal battle in 2011 to stop researchers from examining ancient human remains found at Stonehenge, a spiritual site for him and his druid mates. There was something spellbinding about watching a man dressed as the reincarnation of England's most famous mythical king walk into an actual court of law and argue with a man in a powdered wig. I tell him this and he reluctantly shakes my hand.
23:30: Over at the Henge, a toppled sandstone block makes the perfect platform to take a few photos and get our bearings. Stepping down, I inadvertently tread on some women setting up a liquid picnic. I tell them I like their glow sticks and ask to take a photo, but they insist on waiting for their friend to get back. Half a minute later, a woman emerges from the Henge and obligingly blinks into the flash.
23:45: Next to King Arthur and the glow stick girls, we're feeling slightly underdressed. I elect to draw a pattern on Weez's face with a blunt eyeliner, and then fashion a dress out of the tablecloth.
23:47: Two sixth formers stumble over to marvel at my handiwork. They want to know if they can use the eyeliner to scrawl some stars and love hearts into their Clearasil. We approve and they promise to return with some rub-on Maori tattoos, a spot of cultural appropriation that I imagine a lot of people here – despite their bindis and ginger dreadlocks – might not be all that chill with.
00:00: Some guys has smuggled in eight packs of Stella and is selling them off for £2 a can. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, we buy him out and settle into our new community.
00:15: A French film crew wades through the crowd towards us and we manage to catch their attention. Despite my best efforts, they take a disproportionate liking to Weez and she gets a full 15-minute interview about spirituality and archaeology. This may have less to do with her expertise on European megaliths and more because she has eyeliner on her face and looks a bit like a Swami, but then maybe I'm just jealous.
01:00: Everyone around us is getting stoned, and we're starting to get hungry by proxy, so decide to head over to the food vans. With a variety as broad as the Old World, the only thing not on the menu is literally anything a Neolithic tribesman might have eaten, so I suck it up and get an Angus cheeseburger and chips instead.
01:30: We go to the loo because there's nothing else to do and it feels appropriate for this article for some reason. The queue for the loo stretches half a mile and is overlooked by a solitary floodlight. Again, there is nothing else to do.
02:00: We talk to a guy for about 10 minutes about the difference between Druids, witches and pagans, and how many species of lichen grow on Stonehenge. I ask whether he thinks the laser pens people are shining at the stones might be damaging them, and he is visibly not happy with that suggestion.
I then ask for a family picture. The person I assume to be his son turns out to be his girlfriend, which she tells us while baring her weird baby teeth. We make our excuses and quickly shuffle off.
03:00: It's too dark to take photos without making people scream, and one cyber-goth has already threatened to stab me with her boot buckle if the flash goes off again, so we decide to look for somewhere to sit.
03:07: We nestle into a network of hormonal teenagers and precarious tea lights in a nettle patch just the wrong side of comfortable. Here, we will wait until sunrise and ignore all the finger-blasting the people around us seem to think they're hiding expertly.
03:30: I get up to take a photo of some people fucking in the bushes and come back to find Weez passed out like this. She claims I've been gone for a day and a half, and that someone has pissed on her leg.
04:15: The sun begins to rise and people start to move again. At 4:20, someone in the crowd – to absolutely no one's surprise – shouts: "4:20!"
04:30: A pink haze falls over the site as a boy in a panda hat does his last NOS balloon of the night, and his friends once again become conscious of their jaws.
05:00: This hybrid woman-tent human may as well have been at home for how far away she was from the actual stones, but she seemed to be having a lovely time regardless.
05:15: The sunrise reaches its underwhelming conclusion in a sort of murky grey fog, and with that, the antics of the shortest night of the year are already in the past. People start collecting their belongings and prepare to head off, ready to embrace the tragedy of modernity all over again.
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