- The Washington Times - Monday, June 22, 2009

STONEHENGE, England | Pagans and partygoers drummed, danced or gyrated in hula hoops to stay awake through the night, as more than 35,000 people greeted the summer solstice Sunday at the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge.

Despite fears of trouble because of the record-sized crowd, police said the annual party at the mysterious monument was mostly peaceful.

“It’s the most magical place on the planet,” said antiques salesman Frank Somers, 43, dressed in the robes of his Druid faith.

“Inside when you touch the stones, you feel a warmth like you’re touching a tree, not a stone. There’s a genuine love; you feel called to it,” he said.

The prehistoric monument in southern England is the site of an annual nightlong party — or religious ceremony, depending on perspective — marking the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.

Warm weather and the fact that this year’s solstice fell on a weekend helped draw a record crowd.

“There has been a great atmosphere and where else would you want to be on midsummer’s day?” said Peter Carson of English Heritage, the body in charge of Stonehenge.

Camera flashes bounced off the stones through the night until patchy rays of sunlight peeked through the clouds at 4:58 a.m. A weak cheer went up as dawn broke over the Heel Stone, a pockmarked pillar at the edge of the stone circle that is aligned with the rising sun.

“You can feel the energy from your feet climb up your body,” said Diane Manuel, 50, a supply company director from Middlesbrough in northern England. “It’s like having heart palpitations.”

Stonehenge, which sits on Salisbury Plain about 80 miles southwest of London, is one of Britain’s most popular tourist attractions, visited by more than 750,000 people a year. It was built in three phases between 3,000 B.C. and 1,600 B.C.

Mystery surrounds the monument’s original purpose. Some theories hold that the stone circle was a grave site because 350 burial mounds surround the structure.

In May, archaeologists found evidence indicating that pilgrims perceived the stones to have healing powers. Some other experts assert that the structure was part of an ancient astronomical calendar.

But because it was built so long ago, there is no record of why the monument was erected, said archaeologist Dave Batchelor of English Heritage.

“All of that sort of stuff we don’t have, so when it comes to ascribing a modern-day reason depends on the viewpoint … that’s the fascination,” Mr. Batchelor said.

Police said Sunday that they had made about 30 arrests for drug and public order offenses.

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