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I’ve remembered it’s coming up to that day again. I went to Stonehenge for the solstice once. I’m glad I went, but I doubt I’ll go again. There were a couple of big disappointments.

One was the lack of a visible English Heritage presence. There were an estimated 20,000 people there who wanted some connection to the past. I would have thought that was a good target audience for EH. At the very least there’s money to be made with the Solstice 2012 t-shirts to be sold. The official solstice blankets for those who forgot to bring one, solstice kagouls and umbrellas for when it rains and so on. It’s also an excellent time to attempt guilt-tripping people into joining EH to support access to ancient sites. They might have trouble with this last one as they’re not known for supporting access to Stonehenge on the solstice, but it’d be worth a try. The impression I got (rightly or wrongly) was that EH had abandoned the site for the night.

Drunk man standing on a stone at Stonehenge acting like an arse.

A reveller welcomes the arrival of lager and, possibly, the Sun.

The other was the sheer mess around the site. Everyone got a bag as they went in for their rubbish. It doesn’t have to look like this. After all the fighting over access in the 1980s and 90s, is this a place people come are they here to celebrate or to conquer?

On the plus side I got a lesson in the difference between modern Pagans and New Agers. The Pagans tended to look dignified and patient. Quite a few had their ceremonial robes on, but not all. The easiest ones to spot were those who’d let their beards down for the night.

In contrast the New Agers were laden with mystical kit, and were often very purple. They’d looked agitated and annoyed. Every time someone elbowed in the ribs, she’d be wearing a pointy hat as if to compensate for the clothes she was wearing would ideally be on someone taller. There’d also be a purple scarf and purple jumper hidden beneath at least half a dozen medallions. I should have heard them coming with the various esoteric bangles and bracelets they were wearing.

As sunrise got closer the New Age people looked visibly more grumpy. I thought this was because the circle was packed solid, but after a while it looked as though they were annoyed that the Sun was blocked by clouds, like it nearly always is. I tend to be short on sympathy when I’ve been up all night, so they went from being an irritation to being something comical. They obviously paid a lot of money for the kit, and paid to get to Stonehenge. They were pursuing spirituality through consumerism, and the sun had completely failed to respect their beliefs by hiding behind a cloud instead of appearing at sunrise like they had paid for.

If I’d written up my trip the next day, the Pagans would have done well out of it. They’re considered a soft option to mock, but from an atheist view I don’t see them as particularly silly. They’re trying to connect with what it means to be in the universe and part of the cycle of the seasons. On the other hand New Agers would have done badly.

The day before I’d been trying to photograph another ancient site. I was having difficulty setting everything up. It was a busy day with lots of people around. Children would cheerfully run around screaming and adults would inadvertently walk in the way and apologise, but there was nothing to apologise for. It’s not like I owned the site and it was a nice sunny day. I was prepared to wait. What I didn’t expect was a bunch of people dominating the tombs I was looking at for the next hour.

There were one or two middle-aged men, many more middle-aged woman and perhaps a young couple. They also had a leader and some bloke who was the staff-maker. I knew he was the staff make because the leader of the group spent a long while admiring his mighty staff in a loud voice, describing how magnificent it looked as he held it proud and erect.

I’m doing the leader a terrible disservice in this description as her penis allusions were nothing like as subtle.

Anyway, my impression of New Age believers was that their ability to take part in spiritual behaviour was a deep as their purses. For people seeking to reach out and comprehend creation and its meaning, they seemed amazingly unwilling to look beyond themselves. Add in the elbows and sense of entitlement at Stonehenge and they looked extremely intolerant.

Maybe this was a self-selecting sample. It’s possible there were plenty of open-minded and inclusive New Age believers, but it was the purple ones who were the pains.

With time, and after the bruises had healed, there was more to think about. Much television and advertising is geared to the belief that you can buy a lifestyle. If religion is, in part, about you then is this something you can purchase too? If, after purchasing the car, the house, the iPod, the clothes and the HD-TV you still feel like you lack something, can you buy the goods to fill that hole? There’s a line in Generation X I think, that we have confused shopping with creativity.

Put like that it sounds rather sad and foolish, but not intentionally intolerant.

Before I get too smug though, it’s something I’ve fallen for. At the start I was advocating selling t-shirts and blankets to exploit a desire for a connection with the past. If we have genuinely moved into a period where shopping is self-expression then maybe New Age belief is religion expressed in a way that we’d prefer to not recognise.