For some people, visiting England's Stonehenge to celebrate the summer solstice is one of the highlights of the year [GETTY]
For many parts of Europe it may have been rather damp and dismal over the last few weeks, but there’s no arguing with the fact that today’s summer solstice marks the beginning of the summer season.
The summer solstice occurs when the sun has reached the northernmost point in its journey across the celestial dome – the Tropic of Cancer. This lies at 23.5 degrees north, passing through Mexico, Saharan Africa and India.
Of course, for the southern hemisphere, it is the winter solstice. So, at one extreme, the North Pole experiences 24 hours of daylight, whilst much of Antarctica is in total darkness.
The word ‘solstice’ derives from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). In other words, for a few days the seasonal progression of the sun’s path halts before reversing direction.
The longest day has been marked by groups of pagans, hippies and the simply curious at sites across the northern hemisphere.
In the UK, large crowds gathered at Stonehenge, the prehistoric stone circle, in southern England. Unfortunately, as so often happens, the sunrise was obscured by low cloud and heavy rain. Other favoured gathering points at nearby Amesbury and Glastonbury Tor are likely to have faired no better.
Stonehenge, which is run by English Heritage, is accustomed to crowds of up to 20,000 at the solstices, but the poor weather is thought to have kept the numbers well down this year.
Solstice celebrations tend to be most keenly observed at higher latitudes, where they have greater significance as a result of the difference between winter and summer daylight.
For example, in Oslo, Norway, daylight at the summer solstice exceeds that of its winter counterpart by almost 12 hours. Yet, towards the equator in Lagos, Nigeria the difference between the two is a mere 22 minutes.
Yet as celebrations continue across the northern hemisphere, it is a slightly sobering thought that despite whatever fine summer weather awaits, the length of daylight will decrease from now on.