Druids, drugs and a very naked dawn. It was like the Sixties, man

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The Independent Online

At 4.43am yesterday, thousands of druids, pagans, travellers and the simply curious saw a spectacle denied them for 17 years.

At 4.43am yesterday, thousands of druids, pagans, travellers and the simply curious saw a spectacle denied them for 17 years.

The 14,000 people who gathered at Stonehenge were obliged by a sun that appeared over the stones, unobscured by cloud cover or drizzle.

Last year, when the monument opened to the public on the summer solstice for the first time since the festival was banned in 1984, rain and storms deprived the crowd a sight of the sunrise. But yesterday, there was no such disappointment.

The dawn was heralded by one pilgrim who was cheered by the rest as he flew over the World Heritage Site on a motorised paraglider and performed a display over the stones.

When it arrived, one over-zealous bare-chested reveller attempted to climb the stones, potentially jeopardising future events by breaching the rules of the occasion. Fortunately, he was easily coaxed down.

Although yesterday's crowd was more than double the 6,000 who gathered last year, when the ban on the Stonehenge Free Festival was lifted, it was trouble-free. Police made only five arrests for minor drugs offences. When the dawn was met by an outbreak of naked coupling around the stones, officers took a tolerant approach, with a force spokesman saying "naked bodies" were not for the police to sort out.

It was a world away from the riots of 1985, when the Battle of the Beanfield turned Stonehenge into something resembling a war zone. That led to a four-mile exclusion zone being imposed and it was not until 1998 that small groups were invited on to the site for the solstice by English Heritage.

When it was reopened fully last year, there were no arrests and it was judged a huge success. Negotiations between police, English Heritage, the National Trust, travellers, pagan and druid groups made a bigger gathering yesterday possible.

Crowds built up as the site was opened at 8pm on Wednesday. As they waited through the night, druids and pagans conducted ceremonies around the stone circle. By the time dawn came, the site was packed with New Age hippies, circus performers, drummers, jugglers, travellers and tourists.

"It was like the Sixties," said one visitor, John Taylor. "It was the most incredible atmosphere. Everyone was really going for it. People were stripping off, climbing on the stones, dancing and generally celebrating the sunrise."

Mark Graham, a druid priest from Loughborough, said: "We carry out ceremonies here for all sorts of reasons, such as the winter solstice and weddings, but there is something about being here for the summer solstice which makes it really special.

"There's been no trouble. Everyone's been friendly. There's a very high energy here."

English Heritage's chief executive, Pam Alexander, said the solstice celebrations were still sensitive but the success was a good omen. "It's been wonderful watching the sunrise. I felt the atmosphere was very much more relaxed this year. Everybody seems to have really understood how important it is."

Graham Chivers, spokesman for Wiltshire police, said there was no reason the festival should not become a regular event.