After 30 years of planning and archaeological controversy, the ancient stones offer pagans and other visitors more than ever
Towards the end of December the sun dips to its lowest in the sky, almost seeming to disappear. Then, once again, the days begin to lengthen. But this year the winter solstice is a little different – at least for those who hope to mark it at Stonehenge.
The 2013 solstice, on Saturday 21 December, comes only three days after the opening of the first phase of a £27m rebuild of facilities at the prehistoric site in Wiltshire. Demand to take part in the annual celebrations, which have already been attracting increasing numbers, is expected to beat all previous years.
English Heritage, which runs the site, is preparing to unveil its visitor centre – after 30 years of planning rows and archaeological controversy. Situated a mile-and-a-half to the west of the stones, the new building, designed by architects Denton Corker Marshall, will showcase hundreds of items originally found at Stonehenge, many of them not displayed in public before.
Although this is the most expensive capital project yet undertaken by English Heritage, the quango is concerned not to imply there is any greater capacity for visitors who want to join the druid and pagan ceremony among the stones. Three years ago, only 2,000 people attended winter solstice; in 2012 more than 5,000 turned up.
Julian Richards, archaeologist and author of a new guidebook to Stonehenge who is delivering a lecture on the subject next week, said: "There has been a growth in Druid orders and in the number of people interested in pagan festivals.
"The winter solstice, which I prefer to the summer event, has always been less well attended – but that may not be the case this year, because of the visitor centre and with it falling at the weekend. It is the more significant ceremony because it coincides with our Christmas festivities and is about the return of light. I just want people to be respectful."
Sunrise takes place at 8.09am that Saturday and people will be allowed rare access to the stones as soon as it is light enough to do so safely. Entrance is free and access will continue until 9am, when the site will close, before re-opening as usual to paying visitors at 9.30am.
The solstice, regarded as the beginning of the winter season, occurs when the Earth's axial tilt is farthest away from the sun. This will actually happen at 17.11pm on the 21st, but celebrations customarily take place at dawn, so access is arranged for the morning.
The Wednesday prior to the solstice will see the first members of the public sampling long-awaited improvements to the site. A 360-degree virtual "immersive experience" will let visitors stand within a virtual recreation of the stone circles before they enter a gallery that sets out the facts and theories surrounding the monument. Nearly 300 prehistoric artefacts have been loaned to the centre by the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, the Wiltshire Museum, the Duckworth Collection and the University of Cambridge.
The first special exhibition at the centre will be "Set in Stone? How our ancestors saw Stonehenge." It charts more than 800 years of theories and debate – from 12th-century legends, to radiocarbon dating reports in the 1950s.
"The exhibition will change the way people experience and think about Stonehenge forever, beyond the cliches and towards a meaningful inquiry into an extraordinary human achievement in the distant past," said Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage. "It will put at its centre the individuals associated with its creation and use."
Designers intend tourists to have a heightened sense of anticipation because the stones are not immediately visible from the new centre. They will emerge on the horizon during a 10-minute shuttle ride.
The work at the site has created a chance to walk down Stonehenge's ancient processional approach, The Avenue, which has been reconnected to the stone circle after being severed by the busy A344 for centuries.
A new cafe and visitors' car park are complete, and by Easter English Heritage plans to open a group of reconstructed Neolithic houses, built by volunteers and based on houses where the builders of Stonehenge may have lived, complete with furniture and fittings.
The final phase – restoration of the landscape around Stonehenge – should be finished by the summer. The project has been financed by £10m of Heritage Lottery Fund money, English Heritage's commercial income and philanthropic donations.
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