STONEHENGE, England – Thousands of partygoers, pagans and self-styled druids cheered and banged drums Saturday to greet the dawn at Stonehenge on the longest day of the year, the summer solstice.
Blowhorns signaled the rise of the sun over the ancient stone circle at 4:58 a.m. — although in typically English fashion, the sunrise was barely visible through the clouds.
Still, the mist and drizzle did not dampen the spirits of revelers who gathered under umbrellas, ponchos and plastic bags to greet the dawn.
"I've done this for the last three years," said Peter Rawcliffe, 26, who cycled the 50 miles from his home in the city of Oxford. "I suppose I'm a bit of a closet druid."
"It's a really magical experience," he said.
Police estimated 28,000 revelers had made the trip, one of the largest numbers in years. They said there were 15 arrests for theft and other minor offenses.
Trevor Wyatt, 55, described the historic site as his "cathedral."
"It's been a sacred place for 6,000 years for the people of this country," he said.
Wyatt, who lives in London, said he is neither pagan nor druid, "just English."
In ancient times, a druid was a member of the Celtic priesthood who would act as priest, arbitrator, scholar, magistrate and healer. They appeared in sagas and in Christian legends as magicians or wizards.
Solstice celebrations were a highlight of the pre-Christian calendar and in many countries bonfires, maypole dances and courtship rituals linger on as holdovers from Europe's pagan past.
Zoe Neale, 48, cheerfully admitted her visit to Stonehenge "is part of my mid-life crisis."
She left her West London office amid gentle teasing from her colleagues Friday afternoon to see a very English tradition.
"I've always thought it's just a bunch of old hippies. I'm just going to ignore the hippie things and think about Stonehenge and the sunrise," she said.
Throughout the night, visitors gathered in groups to dance around drummers and bagpipe players — or to swig from cans of beer to the beat of techno music.
"We heard about it through our really studious friends, but we're going to come and get drunk," said Alison Newcomer, a 21-year-old student from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain about 80 miles southwest of London, was built over three phases between 3000 B.C. and 1600 B.C. It is one of Britain's most popular tourist attractions, drawing more than 750,000 visitors a year.
The solstice is the one day of the year that visitors are allowed access throughout the night to the stone circle. Representatives of English Heritage, the monument's caretaker, were on hand to make sure no one climbed on or vandalized the stones.
Though the stone circle's alignment with the midsummer sunrise makes it an ideal location for celebrating the solstice, the event has a controversial past.
A clash between police and revelers at the solstice celebration in 1985 led to closure of the monument for the solstice for 15 years. During those years riot police and people determined to celebrate the solstice often clashed.
But in 2000, English Heritage reopened Stonehenge for the solstice, and celebrations since have been peaceful, with only a few arrests for minor offenses each year.
"People generally respect the stones and we don't have a problem," English Heritage spokeswoman Rebecca Milton said.
Exactly how and why Stonehenge was built remains a mystery. Some experts believe it is aligned with the sun simply because its builders came from a sun-worshipping culture, while others believe the site was part of a huge astronomical calendar.
In May, researchers said new evidence suggests the stone circle was used as a burial ground. Cremated remains found at the site date to 3000 B.C. and radiocarbon dating shows burials continued at the site for at least 500 years.