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Stonehenge: Home of the Year’s Shortest All-Night Party

The sun sets behind Stonehenge. Photo by Thinkstock.

While Stonehenge is open to the public throughout the year, only on rare occasions can visitors wander freely among the legendary sarsen stones. The solstice is one of those times — and we've got the druids to thank.

When the stones were roped off in 1977 because of erosion, an exception was made for druids, wiccans and witches on pagan holy days such as equinoxes and solstices.

"For us, the summer solstice marks the turning of the annual wheel," says King Arthur Pendragon, Battle Chieftain of the Council of British Druid Orders. "It is one of the largest gatherings of the year and is important in a number of ways, both social and spiritual."

Up to 20,000 people will assemble in the starkly beautiful Wiltshire countryside to view the solstice on June 20 — and few are full-time druids. In fact, despite their long beards and mythological names, Britain's druids are a surprisingly modern invention, with customs and ceremonies cobbled together from legends and guesswork.

No one really knows why Stonehenge was built — as a sun temple, a healing center or a burial place, perhaps — but amateur archeologists, history buffs and nature lovers all descend on Stonehenge for the shortest night of the year. Many simply come to rock out at one of the world's oldest party venues. Acoustic musicians play all night and performers entertain the crowd, culminating in cheering with the rising of the sun (at precisely 4:52 a.m. this year).

If you can't make it to Stonehenge for a solstice, there are limited opportunities to explore the Stone Circle throughout the year — no robes or bardic singing required. Book online at the English Heritage website.

As awe-inspiring as Stonehenge is, Britain is full of thousands of ancient monuments, many of them set in fantastic countryside and rarely visited, even by locals. Here are a few of our favorites, but always keep an eye out when driving across moorland or walking an ancient footpath. As King Arthur Pendragon says, "The best sites and stone circles are the ones you just happen upon, unplanned and unexpected."

Avebury

Near Stonehenge, you'll find three stone circles (including the largest in Europe) nestled incongruously in a quaint village of the same name. These stones are always open to the public, and there is no finer place to get a sense of Neolithic architecture. As well the stones themselves, there are banks and ditches to explore, as well as a historic pub sadly dating back to "only" the 17th century.

Avebury is an important site for contemporary pagans. Visit on a summer weekend and you might come across a pagan wedding or offerings of flowers and food at the foot of the slender stones.

Skara Brae

A tremendous storm in 1850 revealed this Neolithic village on the island of Orkney in Scotland. Older than the Egyptian pyramids, the sunken dwellings give a unique insight into the lives of our ancestors 5,000 years ago. They gave protection against Orkney's ferocious weather and housed stone furniture such as cupboards, seats and storage boxes. Intriguingly, Skara Brae might be home to some of the first writing in Europe: Stone balls found here have enigmatic carvings that have never been deciphered.

Uffington White Horse

Perhaps the most beautiful of Britain's ancient monuments, this 80-meter (262-foot) figure of a galloping horse dates back more than 3,000 years, to the Bronze Age. Its artists chose a stunning location overlooking a valley and used the landscape itself as a medium, carving away a layer of turf to reveal brilliant chalk beneath.

Until the end of the 19th century, the horse was maintained in regular scouring fairs by nearby villagers who scrubbed the figure until it regained it pure white form.

Before you leave the area, climb the Iron-Age Uffington Castle, a dramatic hill-fort whose protective bank and ditch are still visible. Wayland's Smithy, a Neolithic tomb nearby, also makes an eerie destination.

The Rollright Stones

Few ancient sites have inspired as many tall tales as these atmospheric megaliths near Oxford. Visit them on a misty winter's morning and you might almost believe local legends that tell of a king and his courtiers being turned to stone by a wicked witch. They were fictionalized in a children's book called "The Whispering Knights" and given a sci-fi twist by cult British TV show "Doctor Who," in which they are blood-sucking aliens who travel to Earth through hyperspace. The druids, apparently, have no monopoly on Neolithic nonsense.

By Mark Harris

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