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Thursday, 21 June, 2001, 10:13 GMT 11:13 UK
Solstice dawns over Stonehenge
Stonehenge dawn 2001
Ten thousand people witnessed the dawn
Druids, New Agers and revellers have gathered at Stonehenge in Wiltshire to celebrate the arrival of the summer solstice.

About 10,000 people were there to witness the sun rising over Salisbury Plain at 0455BST on Thursday morning.

Revellers with fire torches
Fire eaters and druids celebrated the solstice
The sacred rocks of the World Heritage Site on Salisbury Plain had been closed off to solstice revellers for 16 years after pitched battles with police in the 1980s.

But as dawn broke in Wiltshire this year, BBC reporter Paul Greer described "an amazing scene" of druids, dancers, fire-eaters and paragliders encircling the ancient stones.

Mr Greer said the crowds had so far been well-behaved, but the stones were "not a place for quiet contemplation" as the summer solstice party continued in the early hours.

A four-mile exclusion zone was lifted last year and 8,000 people celebrated peacefully.

There was no sign of the tension that led to the infamous Battle Of The Beanfield in 1985, when police smashed vehicles that were home to New Age travellers.

A smaller crowd saw in the solstice at the giant stone circle at Avebury, across Salisbury Plain.

Free access

In recent years, a small number of pagan druids have been allowed to hold discreet dawn ceremonies at Stonehenge - regarded as Europe's most important Megalithic site.

Green man
Some see the Stonehenge dawn as the "spurt of life"
During the year, paying visitors are prevented from going up to the stones themselves, unless special arrangements are made.

Access was free between 2000 BST on Wednesday and 0900 on Thursday, with revellers able to go right to the stones.

English Heritage said earlier it would not allow anyone to climb on the stones, light fires or use fireworks.

It is also banning amplified music, pets, camping equipment, bottles and other glass objects.

Sun worship

Travellers who descend on Wiltshire Plain every Midsummer Day say the stones represent the "spurt of life".

Sun breaks through the stones
The stones are aligned with the solstice sunrise
They say their gatherings echo the acts of the ancient peoples of the British Isles until the 11th century, when King Canute banned worship of the sun and stars.

The Wiltshire stones are all that remain of a sequence of monuments on the site between about 3000 and 1600 BC.

Each was circular and aligned with the rising of the sun at the midsummer solstice - the longest day of the year.

Even with the help of recreational drugs - much in evidence last year - the mystery of the original purpose of the stones is unlikely to be solved at the celebrations.

Sex theory

Some say it was built by a sun-worshipping culture; others that it aligns with the sunrise because its banks were part of a huge astronomical calendar.

The prehistorian Aubrey Burl has claimed it was built by French invaders because it resembles stone circles in Brittany more than it does other British sites.

One other theory may be more attractive: that it was used for sex rites.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Paul Clifton
"Many people have come simply to have a party"
The BBC's Jane O'Brien
"Authorities organise first celebration of solstice since the eighties"

Gallery
Solstice snapshots
See also:

20 Jun 00 | UK
The lure of Stonehenge
21 Jun 99 | Europe
Clash at Stonehenge
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