Carl Klinkenborg, right, and his wife Gigha kiss during their wedding ceremony as people gather to celebrate the summer solstice at Stonehenge in west England, early Sunday, June 21, 2009. The monument attracted some 35 thousand people to mark the longest day of the year when the sunrise was expected at 4:58 am under the cloudy sky. (AP Photo/Akira Suemori)
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 antique 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 night-long 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.
Camera flashes bounced off the stones through the night until patchy rays of sunlight peeked through the clouds at 4:58 a.m. BST (0358GMT). 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.
Stonehenge, which sits on Salisbury Plain about 80 miles (130 kilometers) 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," Batchelor said.
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.
Libby Davy, 40, an Australian living in Brighton, southern England, was attending the solstice for the first time with friends and her 8-year-old daughter. She wore sparkling dust on her face and wrapped a monkey doll around her neck as she embraced the festive mood.
"It's kind of a pilgrimage," she said. "As a sculptor, I can't help being interested in the stones — they're historic, spiritual — people went to a huge effort to put them here not anywhere else. Why here? And why this configuration? It's fascinating."
The solstice is one of the few times during the year that visitors can get close enough to touch the rocks.
English Heritage closed the site at the solstice after clashes between police and revelers in 1985. It began allowing full access again in 2000 and the celebrations have been largely peaceful.
Police said Sunday they had made about 30 arrests for drug and public-order offenses.
With problems at a minimum, the crowd reverted to a carnival atmosphere. Some revelers used hula hoops to stay awake until the sunrise; other simply clapped and danced among the stones.
Gaisva Milinkeviciute, 30, a yoga instructor originally from Lithuania, came with two friends, who like many in the crowd, wore wreaths in their hair.
"This place actually gives people so much energy and thoughts, things that we kind of neglect in the daily lives and wish for," Milinkeviciute said. "We can come here and make them come true."