The longest day of the year is here. Today is the summer solstice when the UK gets to enjoy 16 hours and 38 minutes of daylight.
The sun rose at 4:43am today and sets at 9:31pm – plenty of time for an early morning run or a late evening barbecue.
What is the summer solstice exactly?
There are two solstices each year – one in the winter and one in the summer. The summer solstice occurs when the when the tilt of Earth’s axis is most inclined towards the sun and is directly above the Tropic of Cancer.
It might seem like a day to celebrate, but it actually signals the moment the sun’s path stops moving northward in the sky, and the start of days becoming steadily shorter as the slow march towards winter begins.
However, we won’t notice the days becoming shorter for a while. The shortest day of the year isn’t until Thursday, December 21, known as the winter solstice.
In the southern hemisphere the dates of the two solstices are reversed. The winter solstice occurs on the same day in June and the summer solstice the same day in December.
What happens during the winter solstice?
At the winter solstice, the Earth’s axis is tilted furthest away from the sun directly over the Tropic of Capricorn bringing only a few hours of daylight.
December 21 will be eight hours and 49 minutes shorter than the June solstice when the sun will set at 16:27 in London.
Read everything you need to know about winter solstice here.
What does ‘solstice’ actually mean?
The term ‘solstice’ derives from the Latin word ‘solstitium’, meaning ‘sun standing still’. Some prefer the more teutonic term ‘sunturn’ to describe the event.
Astrologers say the sun seems to ‘stand still’ at the point on the horizon where it appears to rise and set, before moving off in the reverse direction.
Why did people celebrate the summer solstice?
Pagans have always believed the summer solstice – also known as midsummer as it was the midpoint of the growing season – holds a special power.
Midsummer’s eve was believed to be a time when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest and when fairies were thought to be at their most powerful.
The day has inspired festivals and midsummer celebrations involving bonfires, picnics, singing and Maypole dancing over the centuries. Many towns and villages across Britain still celebrate the day.
One ritual that’s now died out was the lighting of fires with the idea that the flames would keep the dark days from approaching.
Why is Stonehenge so significant?
Thousands of garland-wearing hippies, druids and curious tourists descend on Stonehenge in Avebury, Wiltshire every year to watch the sunrise.
The ancient prehistoric structure has been a place of worship and celebration at the time of summer solstice for thousands of years and is seen by many as a sacred site.
The Pagan monument is famously aligned to the solstices. The rising sun only reaches the middle of the stones one day of the year when it shines on the central altar.
Despite it’s obvious connections to the sun, the exact purpose of the mysterious circle still remains unknown.
Built in three phases between 3,000 B.C. and 1,600 B.C, the huge stones were brought from very long distances – the bluestones from the Preseli Hills more than 150 miles away, and the sarsens probably from the Marlborough Downs, 19 miles to the north.
Read the Telegraph’s Stonehenge visitor guide here.
Where can I celebrate the summer solstice?
Sunrise gatherings will take place at many stone circles across Britain this week.
Stonehenge is of course the main place to celebrate the solstice. English Heritage, which runs the site, is closing the monument to normal admission today.
It will be slightly quieter at the National Trust’s Avebury stone circle, Britain’s second greatest prehistoric site, about 20 miles from Stonehenge, and also at the Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria.
Google is also marking the day with one of its doodles.