Stonehenge is the most famous prehistoric monument in Europe, if not the world. I’ve always felt fortunate to live within a day’s bike ride of the 5000-year-old stone circle that sits within a much larger ancient ritual landscape of earthworks, burial mounds and hill forts. Over the years it’s become a victim of its celebrity and the stones are now roped off and even after paying the £19.50 entry fee you still can’t get very close.
But thanks to an agreement struck between English Heritage and the druid and pagan community, there are four occasions a year when Stonehenge lets its hair down, the ropes are removed and there is free, open access for everyone. These are the night of the summer solstice and at sunrise at the winter solstice and the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Get there by bike
I do most of my cycling in the daytime, but I try, once a year, to go for an all-night ride. It’s a chance to remind myself how different the world feels in its nightly cloak of darkness and quiet.
It’s a challenge to stay awake all night, but it has the effect of rebooting mind and body and somehow puts the cares and concerns of normal life into perspective (though maybe that’s just the sleep deprivation talking!).
When I saw that the night of the 2018 winter solstice was also a full moon and the first night of the Christmas holidays, I knew I had to give it a go.
Using my favourite OS Landranger maps I worked out a good route on quiet roads from where I live in south-east Wales and invited a few friends along.
On the way out of Abergavenny it was raining lightly and unseasonably warm for midwinter. As we climbed up from the Usk Valley over Wentwood and looked down across the Severn Bridge the sky began to clear. By midnight we were speeding along the cycle path over the bridge with a gentle tailwind helping us on our way.
The magic of the night
Into England we followed quiet lanes and deserted B-roads along the Cotswold edge. In the wee small hours you see things at night that you rarely see in the daytime: a badger trotting along the verge, a fox leaping over a wall, a spectral barn owl swooping along the hedgerow.
We slipped quietly through sleeping villages, Christmas lights blinking away in front gardens. Lacking leaves the winter oaks rise from the fields as skeletal forms and as we rode through dark hedgerow tunnels, our headlights cast giant forms of cyclists on the trees in a hypnotic shadow cinema.
There were moments when the quiet magic of the sleeping world was briefly suspended: the stark lights of logistics depot where powerful floodlights banish the night; the roar and rumble of the M4 motorway; a late-night lock-in at a village pub.
Across Salisbury Plain
At 3am we arrived at our coffee stop and walked blinking into the brightness of the 24 hour McDonalds on the outskirts of Chippenham. Friday night party people looked at us amazed, asked what we were doing and cheered us on our way.
We rolled on through the darkest hours of the night on deserted B-roads towards Salisbury Plain. Approaching the from the north, we had to climb the scarp slope of the plain on a steep lane out of Market Lavington. At the top there is an army checkpoint and the tarmac road ends.
A handful of gravel byways cross the plain and while most of the time this area is closed to the public, that night the guns weren’t firing, and we were free to ride on (firing times are published on the Ministry of Defence website). To the south, Venus rose bright in the sky and guided us towards Stonehenge.
This was the most exciting part of the ride and none of us knew for sure the quality of the track. For the most part the track was completely rideable on our touring bikes and just one flooded section where we had to carry our bikes along a narrow verge.
We made it!
After 9 hours and about 90 miles we had finally made it and joined the thousands of others making their way to the stones. Arriving by bicycle was like having a VIP ticket. We breezed past the long lines of cars snarled up in mile-long traffic jams and then overtook hundreds of people making the long walk from the temporary car parks to the stones.
Stonehenge is curiously deceptive. It’s such an iconic monument that you expect it to be really big. Yet from afar it looks disappointingly small, even underwhelming. It’s only by getting up close to the stones, in amongst them, that fully appreciate how gigantic the megaliths really are and what an astonishing human achievement it was to build it, all those thousands of years ago.
Solstice is party time at Stonehenge. The summer celebrations go on all night and the vibe is pretty hedonistic.
The winter celebrations felt altogether calmer and more serene. The chief druid led a ceremony calling for for peace and harmony in the world, a choir sang beautifully, a fiddler played folk reels and assorted drummers beat out rhythms as if to call for the new day.
As the crowds grew, the sky gently lightened from the east and for a brief moment the sun cast its rays onto the scene before disappearing behind a thick blanket of cloud.
We snapped a quick group photo before getting back on our bikes to roll down the Avon valley for a big breakfast and a train from Salisbury back to Wales.
Here's our route in OS maps if you wanted to follow it too.
Open access times at Stonehenge for 2019 are the spring equinox at sunrise on 21st March, the summer solstice on the night of 20/21st June, the autumn equinox on the sunrise on 23rd September and the winter solstice on the sunrise on 22nd December.
It really is best to arrive by bike as parking not only costs £15 but looks like a huge hassle. Failing that, there are special bus services from Salisbury and it’s also possible to get their on foot. My favourite approach to Stonehenge is from the barrows on Normanton Down. This 12km walking route would be perfect, going clockwise and starting in Wilsford if possible. Just be sure to take great care crossing the A303.
My tips for night rides
- Have a good idea where you’re going. Navigating is harder at night as familiar landmarks can no longer be seen. A GPS device that alerts you if you’ve strayed off route is handy. I prefer to ride well known routes, so I don’t need to stop to find my way. If it’s your first ever night ride, consider a route you know well from daytime rides. It will feel a different ride altogether at night.
- Modern bike lights are fantastic, both for seeing and being seen. Dynamo lighting is more expensive and can’t easily be swapped from bike to bike but once installed it’s always ready to go and there’s no risk of running out of batteries. Carry spares: both a spare set of lights and spare batteries. I carry a small head torch, which helps if I have to fix a puncture. Reflective helps you be seen.
- Pay attention to the moon, its phase and its time of rising. A full moon is best for seeing the land in the eerie silver glow but a new moon best for seeing stars and galaxies as there’s no moonlight.
- Pack plenty of snacks to keep you going, or even better plan a stop at chippy or all-night cafe.
- Check the weather forecast before heading off into the night. If storms are forecast, I’ll stay at home. Any more than a hour riding through the rain in the dark is truly miserable. It can get cold, especially on clear nights, so pack a couple of extra layers and take particular care of your extremities. If it gets really cold, I'll swap cycling shoes for walking boots.
Find a summer night ride
If you like the idea of riding with a group and following a trail of blinking lights into the night, here are some free, turn-up-and-go summer night rides that are happening this year:
- Dunwich Dynamo. 120 mostly flat miles from London to the Suffolk coast. The oldest, the biggest, and maybe still the best. 13/14 July 2019
- Exmouth Exodus. 100 rolling miles from Bath to the Devon coast. 17/18 August 2019
- Ride to the Sun. Carlisle to Edinburgh. 100 miles. 22nd June 2019
- Solstice Coast to Coast. 125 hilly miles from Whitehaven to Whitly Bay. Saturday night nearest the Summer Solstice
- Cardiff to the Beach. Cardiff to Swansea Bay. 67 mostly flat miles. Sat June 15th 2019
- Darkmoor. Hilly 100 mile loop from Plymouth around Dartmoor National Park. 20 July 2019
- Dorset Dash. Oxford to Avon Beach, Christchurch. 104 miles. 2019 16 June 2019
- Scarborough Dynamo. 200km from Stalybridge to the beach. 2019 date tbc