Solstice marks start of summer

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JUNE has the longest daylight hours, making it ideal for all kinds of outdoor activities. Or it would be, if it weren’t for June’s habit of bringing unsettled weather.

At the heart of the month is the summer solstice on the 21st, when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky.

Solstice derives from the Latin for “sun stands”, because the solar disc does appear to stand still for a few days. What the sun is really doing is rising and setting at the same point on the horizon.

After the solstice the days gradually grow shorter, though thankfully we don’t notice.

For a while the sky never becomes really dark and twilight lasts until dawn.

The further north you go the lighter it is, until you reach the lands of the midnight sun.

More than 2,000 years ago a Greek scholar used the solstice to make a remarkable calculation.

In the Egyptian city of Syene, Eratosthenes found a deep well where sunlight shone straight down the shaft at noon on the summer solstice.

This meant that the sun was directly overhead. On the same date to the north, in Alexandria, the midday sun didn’t reach the same point, so there an obelisk cast a short shadow.

Assuming the earth to be a sphere, Eratosthenes realised that the angle made by this shadow gave the curvature of the Earth between the two cities.

He found the distance between them by ordering marching soldiers to count their steps.

Then using simple geometry, he calculated the Earth’s circumference as 24,420 miles. Amazingly, this was 98% accurate.

Hail the sun

With the sun god at the peak of his power, this was a time of great celebration for ancient communities.

From Ireland to remotest Siberia people lit ritual bonfires, held torchlight processions or rolled flaming wheels down hillsides.

By imitating the sun’s light and its path through the sky they honoured the life-giving god and hoped to win his favour.

In the medieval and early modern world June was important for rituals of protection, because crops and livestock were approaching the time when they were most vulnerable to disease.

For people there was a risk of plague, typhoid or malaria and they had none of the medicines we use to combat them.

The smoke produced by burning purifying herbs was considered effective against these terrors.

Lighted torches were carried around the fields to protect the crops, while animals were driven through the smoke from bonfires.

As the flames died down, people jumped over the embers to ensure their own good health.

You might think we don’t take the solstice seriously any more, but around Britain people will be celebrating.

The most well known are the Druids and other pagan groups who welcome the sun at Stonehenge, but other events are planned for Glastonbury, Avebury and smaller stone circles all over the country.

In Leek, Staffordshire, they turn out to see the solstice sun set twice.

From the northeast corner of the parish church the sun is seen sinking behind Cloud End Hill, only to reappear a few minutes later. Then it sets for a second time.

Perhaps it’s the rain god we should be calling upon, not the sun, as Britain’s great weather divide continues.

It’s wet and windy in the northwest, calm and parched in the southeast, with official drought conditions declared in East Anglia.

We are luckier, having had some rain in Yorkshire even though it’s not as much as usual.

But wherever we live, we need to value our water supplies and stop taking them for granted.