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Patience rewarded…

As many of you reading this will know, I’m not a religious person. In fact, there’s not a religious bone in my body (that I know of). If there was a God I’d have married Farrah Fawcett Majors when I was twelve, as I wanted to. That’s not to say I don’t have beliefs. I believe in friends, and family. I believe in the triumph of science over superstition and woo-woo’ism. And I believe in The Doctor’s ability to ruin the plans of the Daleks at every opportunity. I don’t believe in the whole Karma “What goes around comes around” thing, either. If that was true some very evil people in the world wouldn’t be around today…

But I do believe that patience is rewarded, especially when it comes to astronomy. I don’t think there’s some godlike entity Out There, watching over us, but I do think that if we take the time to appreciate the universe, and show understanding when it doesn’t do what we want it to, when it keeps things from us, we are eventually rewarded. So, recently, when members of my astroomical society and I gthered up at Kendal Castle to watch a total lunar eclipse, only to have our plans thwarted by the weather, I accepted it with a disappointed but not gutted shrug.”Relax,” I told everyone, “we’ll see something else, something better, you’ll see…”

In the early hours of this morning, I was proved right, when the thrd display of noctilucent clouds in as many days boiled up above Kendal’s northern horizon, putting to shame the two that had come before, and bathing the Auld Grey Town in an icy, glacial blue light for fourhours ntil the rosy-blue glow of dawn banished it from the sky. As I watched the tendrils, waves, whirls and whorls of blue-white light glinting and glistening above the distant hills, again from the shadows of the ruins of Kendal’s ancient castle, I thought to myself  “This is it… this is my reward for all the missed eclipses, meteor showers and aurorae…

Let me tell you about my night.

Stella and I had a fantastic day out and about yesterday, just knocking around the Penrith area. Went to the market (poor, but bought a few things), then went to Haweswater to drk in the sunset view there, delighted by the sight of the lake and its steep, craggy surroundings drenched in the marmalade glow of a summer sunset, before heading back to Kendal. With the sky clear and blue I decided to grab an hour’s kip before heading up to the castle again in the hope of seeing NLC for the third night in a row. I thought I was maybe being a bit greedy, a bit optimistic, a bit arrogant even to expect to see something more after two good nights, but my golden rule, which I tell everyone, is “If you don’t look you’ll DEFINITELY see nothing”, so up I went to the castle, with my rucksack, camera and tripod.

By midnight I was half… well, a quarter, to be honest…convinced that there was a hint of a trace of a wisp of NLC activity over to the north, just above the hills, so I put out a tentative “heads up” on Twitter and settled down to wait…

After a few mnutes it was obvious that the bright lines were getting brighter, so I decided to take a photo to check – disaster!!! My tripod was broken! It wouldn’t keep the camera steady! I quickly took it apart, hoping for the best, but fearing the worst – and found it: a thread had been stripped. It was dead.

Great. Just great timing.

So, to Plan B: there’s a large, flat-topped observation table…thingy… up near the castle, with a map on it showing a labelled map of the view from there, and that became my camera support. Not ideal, but needs must. I set the camera down, aimed it at the northern fells… click… and saw this appear on the screen shortly after…

There could be no doubt: there were NLC coming into view above the faraway fells…So, we were on! Again! 🙂

I sent out a proper alerton Twitter – that’s the way of doing things now – and soon reports started coming back of nlc being visible elsewhere, too. And as the minutes passed, and the sky darkened, a surf-like wave of nlc broke over the far horizon and began to surge up the sky towards Capella, the unofficial “NLC Guide Star”. It didn’t take me long to sense that we were in for a major display, just because the nlc were so stretched out and already so bright. There was clearly a lot of nlc heading our way from the north. But how bright would it get? How much of the sky would it cover?

I settled back to wait and find out. And magic followed.

Here’s how the view changed as time passed. BY a quarter to one, this is how the northern sky looked…

By 01.30 I was finding it quite hard to believe what I was seeing…

Half an hour later, the amount of detail visible through binoculars inside the nlc was…humbling…

It was at about this time that I realised I had a chance to take some pictures I’ve wanted to take for a long, long time, almost seven years in fact. The first time I walked up to the castle after moving to Kendal, back in 2004, I stood in the centre of its ruins, looked north, and imagined being there, in dead of night, during a mjor aurora or nlc display. No aurora yet, but here was the nlc display I’d wanted…

I packed up my gear and turned my back on the nlc and headed for the castle itself, up the gravel path that leads to where its main gate used to be, over the hump and into its dark, quieter interior. Turning round again I saw the view I’d dreamed about – the castle ruins silhouetted against the burning blue glow of the nlc… I was going to get my pictures!!

Then I remembered. I had no tripod. Oh –

But I was surrounded by slabs and plates and blocks of stone. Surely one of them had to be flat enough to balance a camera on and use as a makeshift platform..?

Eventually I found one large and flat enough – right on the far wall, across the other side of the ‘courtyard’. But not at ground level oh no, that would have been far too convenient. If the universe was going to give me this long-dreamed-of view, I was going to have to earn it.

So, like a kid exploring the castle for the first time, I clambered. In the dark, with a camera, I dug mboots into the rubble-stuffed wall and anchored myself into it as best I could, placing my camera on the slab of lichen-encrusted rock and lining it up with the nlc, pressing the shutter, counting off the time release seconds… Would it work? Did it work?

See for yourself…

🙂

And then I fell off the wall.

How I didn’ crack my head open like a boiled egg on the stones I’ll never know. But I’m still here! And, on the plus side, I think I can now pass the audition for a contortionist, should a travelling circus roll into town on a recruiting drive…

Images taken, I headed back to my original observing site, the map viewpoint, and took some morpictures of what I by now considered to be an “NLC storm” almost. Looking at it, just standing there between frames, just looking at it, was quite overwhelming…

It was… wrong, wonderfully, beautifully wrong, as if, during the daytime, when none of us could notice, the Earth had been transported many light years closer to the Orion Nebula and it was now rising up from behind the horizon. And in my raised binoculars countless streamers, tendrils, swirls and tears were crammed together, bathed in ion drive-blue light. At one point the nlc seemed to be almost flowing around a denser, darker mass, like water flowing around a boulder in a stream…

I knew what I had to do. I had to go back into the castle, to try for some more In My Wildest Dreams photos…

This time I didn’t fall over.

Through all this, of course, I had company. Not physically, there was no-one there with me – though Stella did come up to see the view for a short while – but virtually, online. I was just one of many people, up and down the UK, but mainly in the north, watching the show. Inbetween frames I read Tweets from people in Scotland, Ireland and other parts of Cumbria. I exchanged breathless “Can you believe it?!?!?” texts with Ray down in Barrow. I was alone, but there were many people there with me.

By now it had gone 3am, and the sky behind and around the nlc was starting to brighten with the approach of dawn, the icy, cold blues giving way to those welcome warmer, kinder, blue-orange pre-dawn hues. But still the nlc persisted, stubbornly refusing to surrender the sky to the Sun and the new day. I wasn’t done yet! It still had more to give! But the battle was already lost… as the Parish Church bells struck 03.30, the nlc was fading from my view…

I knew the show was over. My best photos were on the memory card already, the nlc was dying. Time to go home.

Shortly before 4am I was walking over the bridge I cross every time I trek to or back from the castle. I looked to the north, expecting to see nothing… and saw instead the last, lingering traces of the great glowing waves which hd crashed over the hills four hours earlier…

Back home I was desperate for sleep, but couldn’t resist going through my photos, just once, just to see if they’d turned out alright…

And that’s how I’ve spent most of today. Going through my photos, posting them on websites, submitting them to others, emailing people about them, replying to Tweets posted about them. It’s been a busy day after a magical night.

As I write this it’s almost 10pm here in the UK. The sky beyond the window is icy blue, clear, perfect. In another hour and a half I’ll be heading up to the castle again, wondering if the nlc will come out to play for the fourth night in a row. If it doesn’t, well, that’ll be okay. Last night’s display was one I never dreamed of seeing in my lifetime and probably never will again.

But you never know…

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3 Responses

  1. Wow! Like being there. Not only a terrific writer, but a teacher too. Really, I am inspired to try for NLCs here in Oregon. Been seen last two nights. Will “definitely” at least go look. Thank you ;D

  2. Your photographs and experiences are truly awesome in every sense of the word. A great big thank you for recording this phenomena with exceptional clarity. I have seen NLC on a number of occasions from where I live (Cape Cod) and always wondered about what I was looking at. Several years ago my son and I witnessed the “emerald green” version and lamented not having a camera.

  3. […] cumbriansky.wordpress.com/2011/07/03/patience-rewarded […]

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