More than 20,000 mark summer solstice at Stonehenge

More than 20,000 people gathered at Stonehenge early on Friday to celebrate the summer solstice, three days before the start of a ??27 million project to renovate the prehistoric site.

Pagans, modern druids, New Age travellers and tourists crowded around the ring of standing stones in Wiltshire to catch a glimpse of the sun rising on the longest day of the year, though cloud cover prevented them from basking in the morning's rays.

The festival, which dates back thousands of years, marks the onset of summer when the sun is at its maximum elevation.

The word solstice is derived from the Latin words "sol" (or sun) and "sistere" meaning to stand still.

Police said the gathering marked the event in a "positive, friendly atmosphere", though there were a total of 22 arrests mainly in relation to drugs offences after sniffer dogs were used.

A section of the road running alongside the neolithic monument, which archaeologists believe was erected between 3,000 and 2,000 BC, will be permanently closed on Monday June 24 as part of a long-awaited refurbishment of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The closure and grassing over of the A344 road is aimed at reconnecting Stonehenge with the landscape, allowing visitors to walk between the stone circle and the prehistoric avenue from which people would have once approached it.

The project, being carried out English Heritage who manage the site, will include the creation of a visitor centre around 1.5 miles away from the monument, with a cafe, shop and museum showing artefacts and exploring theories about Stonehenge.

Loraine Knowles, Stonehenge director at English Heritage, said the closure of the road was "a real milestone in terms of the history of the site".

She said that although Stonehenge never failed to impress visitors, the setting of the stones had marred people's appreciation and enjoyment of the site.