Thursday, June 22, 2006
STONEHENGE, England -- Thousands of dancing and drumming spectators cheered the summer solstice at Stonehenge as an orange sliver of sun rose over the Heel Stone on Wednesday morning.
Cloudy skies, dense fog and spurts of rain did not seem to dampen the energy of smiling revelers who bobbed and swayed to cheerful beats with arms outstretched and shouts of "Feel the solstice!"
About 19,000 New Agers, present-day druids and partygoers gathered inside and around the ancient circle of towering stones to greet the longest day in the northern hemisphere as the sun struggled to peek out against a smoky gray sky at 4:58 a.m (0358GMT).
"This is the nearest thing I've got to religion," said Ray Meadows, 34, of Bristol, England. The solstice "is a way of giving thanks to the earth and the universe."
Meadows, wearing a wreath of pink carnations over long pink hair-wrapped braids, identified herself as a fairy of the Tribe of Frog.
Stonehenge, on the Salisbury Plain 80 miles (130 kilometers) southwest of London, was built between 3000 B.C. and 1600 B.C. The lichen-covered rocks are a major British tourist attraction and have spiritual significance for thousands of druids and New Age followers.
The crowd was generally peaceful overnight and in the early morning hours. Wiltshire police arrested two people for drunken and disorderly behavior and two for public order offenses, spokesman Dave Taylor said.
In 1985, revelers clashed violently with police at the solstice ceremony, resulting in a ban on the celebration. Following years saw clashes between riot police and revelers determined to welcome the solstice among the stones.
English Heritage, the monument's caretaker, began allowing full access to the site again in 2000.
Crowds of partygoers stumbled toward their cars an hour after sunrise, some clutching nearly empty bottles of mixed drinks or beer cans.
One described the crowd as 5 percent pagan and 95 percent partygoer.
"Some people here are really spoiling it," said Chris Sargent, 37, of Bournemouth. "Once upon a time it was really spiritual."
Sargent, clad in a long black jacket and pants, top hat and fighter pilot goggles, drank vodka and Coke from a two-liter soda bottle and confessed that he was "really stoned."
Jeanette Robinson, 71, of Burton-upon-Trent, England, was cold and tired as she watched the celebration from a low hill near the monument, but said it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"I don't suppose I'll be here to do it again at my age," she said.
Groups of tourists, some from France, Italy and Spain, joined British revelers. Daniel Estera, 25, flew from Barcelona for one night at the solstice with 15 friends.
"It is part of a family tradition to see a solstice monument from around the world," Estera said. "It is about respect for ancient cultures."
Some experts say the monument's builders aligned the stones with the sun as part of their sun-worshipping culture, although how and why the monument was built remains unknown. Others believe the monument was part of an astronomical calendar.