TODAY, more than 30,000 people will have congregated at Stonehenge to welcome the longest day.

The Pagan element will have celebrated the summer solstice at around 4.30am and given thanks to the earth and the elements for their bounty.

No one knows the true origin of the stones on Salisbury Plain, which are now under the guardianship of English Heritage.

Some say it was a place of worship, gathering, learning or healing, while others think it may have a giant calendar.

Whatever its origin it remains a place of power and atmosphere, even when packed with tourists and the sound of skylarks drowned out by the rumble of coaches and cars.

The solstice celebrations run for a fortnight and last weekend initiates from the Dorset Grove Order of Druids travelled to Stonehenge for own celebration and thanksgiving.

Here Ruth Meech tells how she joined in the celebrations with the Dorset druids.

I HAD been invited along by The Grove’s Arch-Druid Ian Temple and had no idea what to expect, although wearing a voluminous green cloak and having my photograph taken by hundreds of foreign tourists was not originally part of my plan.

The Pagans were resplendent in ornate cloaks and floral garlands. Ian wore a white robe embroidered with oak leaves, a leather belt holding a ceremonial knife, a flowing red cloak and a silver, gem-studded circlet.

Glenn, the shaman, was eye-catching in a fringed hide jacket and headdress of antlers and feather.

Dressed and ready, we made our way through the car park and visitors’ centre to the henge, at every step papped by tourists.

“It makes the hairs stand up on my neck every time I come here,” said one Druid as we approached the massive, austere stones.

It had the same effect on mine – although whether that was due to atmosphere and occasion or the unseasonable chill and rain-flecked wind remains open to debate.

Once among the stones the spirits of the north, south, east and west were honoured and the gods Baphomet and Lilith invoked.

We chanted the Awens, the name of the force that created the universe, and made blessings and thanksgivings.

There was a laying-on of hands and a calling of names for the sick and the sharing of bread and orange juice.

Two students, Darren and Alice, were initiated into the Grove and performed a dance as Jack of the Green and Jack Frost, symbolising the eternal tussle between winter and spring.

There were many parallels with a Christian service but, as Ian pointed out, religions are a manmade phenomenon to help us make sense of the world so it follows that many will have the same rituals.

Once the service ended we had time to touch the stones and take photos and then on the dot of 2pm – English Heritage is a bit picky about its timings – Ian mustered his Druids we processed back to the cars for iced buns.

“Religions are a human concept, which is why they have different names, but they all have the same energy and the best way of explaining that is that it is love,” said Ian.

“We are part of the whole and we celebrate the energy of the earth.”

We live in a time of religious strife, so it was refreshing to hear Ian open the ceremony by saying that all were welcome, whatever their beliefs.

It is easy to dismiss Pagans as a bunch of old hippies with flowers in their hair, but at a time when the world’s religions preach peace and love yet seem hell-bent on persecuting anyone who thinks differently, maybe we should be more open to the thoughts and practises of a gentle belief that prizes love and careful guardianship of the earth so highly.