“Summer Solstice is a day of great celebration. The sun is strong and light will flood over the moor stretching into the hours of night; this a day the Bad must shrink and flee. Hang garlands from the doors, and wrap them around the throats of animals and small children. Bring the gardens inside the house, and eat the ripest fruit… All broken things are made new. All sickness is healed.”
So Green, the narrator of my novel Foxlowe, recites the rituals and beliefs the Family—the cult at the heart of the novel—holds about the Summer Solstice. The longest day of the year is the climax for both the rhythm of the year in Green’s world, a time when a stone circle full of solstice sunlight can heal and renew, and of the novel itself, as Green and the Family career towards tragedy.
Today thousands of revellers will descend on the vast Welsh rocks of our most famous landmark, some with smart phones held aloft, others carrying more traditional offerings of sunflowers and sage. Summer Solstice at Stonehenge is raucous, fun, and full of glorious British eccentricity. But a practically invisible and silent ritual will also be happening today, two hundred miles north.
At Summer Solstice in the Staffordshire Moorlands, where Foxlowe is set, if you are lucky and at just the right place at the right time, two extraordinary things occur. The sun appears to set twice from Leek Churchyard, and out on the moor, an ancient stone circle, largely forgotten, filters the solstice light through its rocks as the sun sets directly over what’s known as the Sun Stone. It’s believed that grooves cut into the rock would have collected water, dazzlingly reflecting the solstice light. Witnessed by birds and the odd lost walker, here, far from the madding crowds of Solstice parties from Stonehenge to Goa, in a wooded grove over an empty field, is our ancient ritual past, quietly revealed Summer after Summer. This stone circle, known locally as the “Ipstones Sun Temple” or “Ludchurch”, was the inspiration for the Standing Stones, the stone circle in Foxlowe where the community of lost souls go to smoke, meditate and search for the healing and renewal they so desperately need.
In researching the book, I found strands of ancient solstice traditions which I weaved into the Family’s rituals in much the same way that I imagined Freya, the matriarch of Foxlowe, would have stolen and rearranged half-remembered traditions for her own world. Lithia, the pagan name for Summer Solstice, is still celebrated by modern Pagans and Wiccans with bonfires, burning incense and burying protective amulets (the importance of fire in the Family’s ideology is of a much darker tone). The wreaths of flowers tied around the neck for protection is a Latvian tradition, although today wreaths are more often tied around car wing mirrors than livestock. Our own British medieval tradition held that herbs picked at Summer Solstice held more healing powers than those picked at other times—a piece of collective folklore memory which Freya twists for her own insidious purposes.
In writing about the Summer Solstice I found it was easy to imagine the binaries of the ancient belief system that we must all carry in our collective cultural subconscious, and that could be exploited by a character like Freya: light is good and dark is bad, warmth and sun is nourishing, the height of Summer means health, full bloom. With a double sunset and a quiet, abandoned stone circle, it wasn’t difficult to imagine a world in which the solstice could also mean re-birth, renewal, a second chance (indeed, the Summer Solstice continues to mean these things in Paganism.) It’s an attractive proposition, like New Year’s Eve without the financial drain and the hangover. In the novel, despite its gothic undertones, the beauty and hope of this day is very real for Green. By the Solstice’s end her world is in tatters, and she searches for that beauty and hope for the rest of her life.
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