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Stonehenge winter solstice celebrated

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image captionRollo Maughfling, Archdruid of Stonehenge, conducts the ceremony

Thousands of people gathered at Stonehenge to witness the sunrise on the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.

Crowds arrived at the Wiltshire landmark before dawn with many others travelling to the Avebury stone circle, which is also in the county.

The winter solstice marks the point when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun.

The solstice occurred at 04:49 GMT, with the sun rising at 08:04.

Senior Druid, King Arthur Pendragon said the solstice celebrates the coming of the new sun.

"This is the dawn we've been waiting for, this is the dawn the ancients cared about so much," he said.

media captionThousands of people gather at Stonehenge to witness the sunrise on the shortest day of the year, amid unseasonably mild weather.
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image captionAlthough the weather was cloudy, the sun eventually made an appearance

"After this they knew the days were going to get longer and the return of hope and renewal."

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image captionPeople celebrated the solstice however they saw fit

The ceremony took place on what may have been the mildest 22 December since records began.

The Met Office said it was "finely balanced", but sunshine in the afternoon could put the heat on the 105-year record for the warmest 22 December.

A spokesman said: "Generally speaking there's been quite a bit of cloud, but if the sun peeps through the clouds in early afternoon, it could just push the temperature up to 16C or something like that."

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image captionThe Shakti Sings choir joined druids, pagans and the otherwise curious
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image captionUnicorns are not unheard of at winter solstice celebrations
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image captionThe sun made a brief appearance through the clouds
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image captionAn estimated 7,000 people made the journey to the ancient site
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image captionCrowds arrived at the stones in darkness to witness the sunrise

England Heritage said people travel to Stonehenge because of its alignment with the sun on the winter solstice.

"One of the most important and well-known features of Stonehenge is its alignment on the midwinter sunset-midsummer sunrise solstitial axis," a spokesman for the organisation said.

"The midwinter sun sets between the two upright stones of the great trilithon.

"We do not know which solstice was more important to the users of Stonehenge, but several pieces of evidence suggest that midwinter was very important."

The shortest day of the year often falls on 21 December but this year the druid and pagan community marked the first day of winter on 22 December.

That is because the Gregorian calendar of 365 days a year - with an extra day every four years - does not correspond exactly to the solar year of 365.2422 days.

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