The uncrowded alternatives to Stonehenge for the summer solstice

Castlerigg Circle, Cumbria
One of the oldest remaining stone circle in England is at Castlerigg, Cumbria - Alamy

There are stone circles all over the world, from different eras and serving different purposes. Many of Europe's appear to be early astronomical observatories, their stones arranged to align with the sun during the solstices and/or equinoxes. In 2024, the summer solstice will occur on June 20, to mark midsummer; the longest day and shortest night of the year.

Stone circles in Britain and Ireland date from 3300 to 900 BC, evolving out of earlier ritual and funerary traditions – thus linking death and devotion to cosmic cycles. Aubrey Burl’s authoritative gazetteer, The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany (2000), lists 1,061 stone circles in the UK and a further 187 in Ireland, six in the Channel Isles and 49 in Brittany. An impressive 508 are found in Scotland. It’s widely assumed that for every stone circle that survives, two have been lost.

Even allowing that some are not complete – or even very circular – that’s a lot of options when it comes to a spot of sun-worshipping beyond the crowds of Stonehenge. Here are nine alternatives to visit.

Twelve Apostles, near Ilkley, Yorkshire

Don’t go up here “baht ’at” – because Burley Moor can rival neighbouring Ilkley for its gusting winds. This splendid site, at over 1,200 feet above sea level, has a circle of millstone grit stones possibly used for lunar observations; local historians say the site once comprised 20 stones and was known as the Druid’s Chair or Druidical Dial Circle.

Place to stay nearby: The Crescent Inn has doubles from £123. Plan a trip to Yorkshire with our guide.

Rollright Stones, Cotswolds

On the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border, this fine site comprises three separate elements in weathered limestone: The Kings Men ceremonial stone circle dating from around 2,500BC, the curiously-shaped King Stone, and the very ancient Whispering Knights dolmen (burial chamber). The private site is made accessible on a permissive basis, and visitors are asked to contribute £2 for each adult, £1 for children.

Rollright Stones
Rollright Stones is a private site on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border - Copyright - Stephen Dorey/Stephen Dorey

Place to stay nearby: The Bull has doubles from £180. Plan a trip to the Cotswolds with our guide.

Ballynoe Stone Circle, near Downpatrick, County Down

More than 50 closely-spaced tall stones adorn this Northern Ireland beauty. During the Bronze Age, a burial mound was constructed within the main stone circle.  Burl suggests that Ballynoe may have had trading or ritual connections with Swinside Stone Circle, across the Irish Sea in Cumbria.

Place to stay nearby: The Portaferry Hotel has doubles from £90.

Machrie Moor Standing Stones, Arran

Six stone circles stand proud at this popular site on the beautiful island of Arran, ideal for combining with an easy walk – with the pyramidal peak of Goat Fell in the distance. Fingal's Cauldron Seat is named after the legendary warrior-giant Fingal.

Place to stay nearby: The Douglas Hotel has doubles from £219.

Machrie Moor
The Machrie Moor Standing Stones are easy to combine with a walk nearby - Joe Dunckley / Photocatalyst.uk/Joe Dunckley / 500px

Druid’s Circle, Penmaenmawr, North Wales

An hour’s steep climb out of the coastal town of Penmaenmawr leads to thirty stones, eleven of which are still standing. The circle lies close to a pre-historic trackway. Excavations in 1957 found the cremated remains of a child and a food vessel. The so-called Stone of Sacrifice has a ledge at the top – placing a child there is said to bring good luck.

Place to stay nearby: The Kinmel Arms has doubles from £94.

Trippet Stones, Bodmin Moor, Cornwall

A moorland backdrop adds drama to any standing stones – and Bodmin Moor is magical under any light. Cattle roam freely around this 110-foot diameter circle and from a distance seem to be standing in for the fallen granite stones; they make use of the standing ones for a good scratch. Trippet is a folkloric reference to dancing, an activity associated with the names of many stone circles.

Place to stay nearby: The Bodmin Jail Hotel has doubles from £269. Plan a trip to Cornwall with our guide.

Nine Ladies, Stanton Moor, Derbyshire

English Heritage manage this early Bronze Age circle in the Peak District, said to depict nine ladies turned to stone as punishment for dancing on a Sunday. The site is part of a complex of ancient sandstone circles, standing stones and barrows (burial mounds) on Stanton Moor.

Place to stay nearby: Buxton Crescent Health Spa Hotel has doubles from £249. Plan a trip to the Peak District with our guide.

Nine Ladies
An early Bronze Age circle in the Peak District, Nine Ladies - Copyrighted to Dave Porter Photography /Dave Porter Peterborough Uk.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, near Keswick, Cumbria

Perhaps the oldest remaining stone circle in England is at Castlerigg, with 38 large stones standing up to 10 feet high. It’s thought it was originally an important site for prehistoric astronomers or early pagan rituals, as the stones are laid out in a solar alignment. For setting alone, this site is special, as it sits on a plateau ringed by soaring fells, including Skiddaw, Blencathra and High Seat.

Place to stay nearby: Inn on the Square has doubles from £210. Plan a trip to the Lake District with our guide.

Avebury Henge, Wiltshire

Avebury Henge, near Stonehenge, is just as impressive and offers a less crowded experience for visitors. Built between 2850 BC and 2200 BC, the surviving complex includes a circular bank and ditch, encircling an area that includes part of the village of Avebury. Inside the henge is the largest stone circle in Britain – originally containing 100 stones – with two smaller stone circles inside it.

Place to stay nearby: The Red Lion Freehouse has doubles from £160.

avebury henge
Avebury Henge is the quiet neighbour to Stonehenge - Credit: eye35 / Alamy Stock Photo/eye35 / Alamy Stock Photo

This article was first published in June 2020, and has been revised and updated.