We are all so consistently consumed with our daily schedules, deadlines and the general messiness of living a human life, that it is easy to forget about the miracle that we are all journeying on a planet that is travelling through space at a speed of roughly 1,000 miles per hour! However, there are two occasions when our closest ally, the sun, reminds us of our vulnerability, on the winter and summer solstices.
Whether in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, the summer solstice is the day with the longest period of sunlight and the shortest night of the year, when the sun is at its highest position in the sky, colloquially referred to as midsummer. It is no wonder then that the word solstice is derived from the Latin word sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). It has always been, and still remains, a day when humans do stop, stand still and contemplate their place in the universe.
Of course the sun has been deified since time immemorial. As the giver of light and heat, and subsequently life, it sits at the heart of ancient religion coursing through cultures from the Aztecs to the Egyptians. However, this innate sense of wonder goes back to something even more primordial.
Neolithic man recognised the importance of the sun as he moved away from his hunter gatherer ancestors, and ventured into agriculture and farming, and crafted the most extraordinary monument to venerate its power.
Stonehenge, a masterpiece of the strength, resilience and imagination of the human spirit still baffles archeologists and continues to draw visitors on the summer solstice to witness the sun appearing through its magnificent structures. It is a direct link from the experience of a human 4,000 years ago to our current experience, which is enough to give one goose bumps.
While Stonehenge may give a tangible signpost to our pre-historic cousins, we are fortunate to have our own Neolithic markers in the Penny Post region. Whether its the White Horse at Uffington, Wayland Smithy or anywhere along the magnificent Ridgeway path, there are huge opportunities to shed our twenty-first century skins and communicate with our ancestors’ experience on Midsummer.
But in actual fact, it is worth watching the sunset from any accessible hill an any summer’s evening. If possible, wait for a clear sky with just a light scattering of cloud and take a picnic. Watch the magic of the sun growing plumper and redder as it nears the horizon. As the earth revolves away from the sun, you increasingly view the sun through our planet’s layer of atmosphere. As there is more air in the atmosphere only the red spectrum of light passes through and the curvature of the atmosphere acts like a lens, distorting the shape of the sun to the naked eye.
Also remember to look behind you to see how the hue of dusky sky changes to the most delicate eggshell blue. You might also notice the insects that come out at night, and, if you are lucky, a barn owl gliding silently past.
Thanks to Frank Penhaligan for the picture above and to all the sunset lovers who sent in the images below. Click on each one to view full size.