STONEHENGE, England (AP) _ Amid the beating of drums, the sound of cheers _ and, in fine English fashion, the pouring rain _ thousands of revelers celebrated the summer solstice at the prehistoric monument of Stonehenge on Wednesday.
For the first time since 1984, the organization that oversees Stonehenge allowed observers to watch the sun rise on the year’s longest day at the ancient monument, 80 miles southwest of London.
The sun was not forthcoming, but that didn’t seem to bother the 6,000-strong crowd of druids, New Age followers and curiosity-seekers. Samba drummers mixed with robed druids, and thousands of revelers packed the center of the stone circle as dawn came at 4:44 a.m.
``People came here to party, to celebrate,″ said Stephen Wilson of the Council of British Druids. ``It’s the first solstice of the millennium.
``It’s been an astonishing experience.″
In contrast to previous years, there were no arrests or reports of disturbances. Police praised the ``carnival-like″ atmosphere.
Revelers were banned from holding solstice ceremonies at the 5,000-year-old site in 1985 after clashes with police.
In 1998, English Heritage allowed 100 people to gather within the encircling rocks at dawn to celebrate the summer solstice as part of a step toward admitting larger crowds.
Last year, Stonehenge was opened to 150 druids who planned a sunrise ceremony. But about two hundred people crashed the event, clambered on the stones and clashed with police.
Sixteen people were arrested, and others remained there in defiance of police, prompting the cancellation of the druid celebration.
The stones are the remnants of the last in a sequence of circular monuments aligned along the rising of the sun at the midsummer solstice _ the longest day of the year.
There has always been intense debate over exactly what purpose Stonehenge served and how it came to be built. 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.
Others theorize that Stonehenge was a druid temple.
English Heritage, which manages the site, said the success of the event augured well.