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Worst. Weekend. EVER.

Most of the time I love my hobby. I love astronomy. I love being out on a clear night, looking up at a sky full of stars. I love standing in the dark, watching shooting stars skip across the heavens like stones skimming across a pond. I love peering into my telescope eyepiece and seeing Saturn shimmering there, rings swimming in and out of focus. I *love* it.

But sometimes I hate it, with a blood-boiling, fist-clenching, teeth-grinding, scream-at-the-sky passion.

Last weekend was one of those times.

It was all the Sun’s fault. Well, partly the Sun’s fault. Blame will be handed out in good time. But it started last week, with the Sun, when the huge sunspot group –  which had been watched by amateur astronomers around the world ever since it appeared over the solar limb – you can see in the picture above, exploded with a huge, violent  solar flare,  projectile-vomiting an enormous cloud of twinkly Sun stuff towards the Earth like Linda Blair aiming at a priest, and then we all started to look forward to it hitting our planet’s magnetic field, triggering, we hoped, a big display of the northern lights which might even, fingers crossed, drift far enough south to become visible from mid-latitudes, i.e. places as far south as Kendal.

We counted off the hours, and days, eagerly scanning websites for the latest info, and slowly a very exciting picture built up: the “Coronal Mass Ejection” would reach Earth on Saturday morning, British time, and would be violent enough to trigger strong aurora. Yes! A chance to see the northern lights from here! After missing several minor displays over the past couple of years, we *deserved* this one.

Ah, but, what about the weather? That was the potential fly in the Mint Cake mix. This summer has been absolutely godawful here in the UK. Thanks to the stoopid Jetstream kinking south, dragging ten kinds of crap Atlantic weather south with it, sloshing it across the country like a bucket of sileage from a farm, the UK has had one of its wettest, windiest, most head-in-hands-miserable summers ever. Instead of going out in t-shirts and shorts, we’ve all had to wear waterproof coats and wellies, and there’s been more chance of getting trench foot than there has of getting sunburn. There have been floods by the dozen. So, no walks along a blindingly sunny, foot-burning beach eating ice cream. Instead, day after day after endless day of slogging around in the grey, overcast gloom, with rain dripping off your nose and passing cars drenching you with spray. Godawful. So as I stood in the drizzle in Kendal’s Abbot Hall Park at lunchtime, waiting for a glimpse of the Sun at a “Sunwatch” held by my astronomical society (which only I went to inthe end, everyone else saw sense and stayed well away!), you can understand I wasn’t feeling too optimistic –


Checking several weather forecast sites – some recommended to me by fellow Tweeters as being “reliable” (one even quoted as being the preferred site fishermen use before heading out to sea, and they are professionals, they don’t mess about, right? That has to be a trustworthy one, right?) – showed that after a rainy, cloudy day, the sky would clear enough in the late evening to allow me a good chance of seeing any auroral activity that was kicking off. Not one of them predicted more than 20% cloud, and not one of them predicted rain of any kind. YES!

So, I hatched a cunning plan worthy of Baldrick himself. I would go up to the castle, with a small tent, mid-evening, and basically camp up there and wait for the sky to darken and the Merrie Dancers to start their celestial jig. With some food, something to drink, my pocket TV and radio, and camera gear of course, it would put me in a front row seat to enjoy the show. No need for wet weather gear, none of the websites said there’d be rain. And worth the long stay, because all the websites agreed there would be more clear sky than cloudy. Sorted! 🙂

So, up I went to Kendal castle, hiking up the hill beneath a beautiful blue sky, reassured by the weather forecasts and ready to settle in for a long but hopefully good night. Reached the top… tent out… tent up… Base Camp established!

Now all I had to do was wait.

Of course, when I say “wait” I actually mean “Impatiently keep checking Twitter and Spaceweather.com and half a  dozen other websites, every few minutes, to see what was happening ‘up there’ “. And it all seemed very promising. The Kp Index was climbing, and other indicators were all looking favourable for an aurora visible from the UK. So I settled back, read my book and magazines, had a sandwich and packet of Nik Naks, and stared up at the blue sky, thinking “I’ve got a good feeling about this, this time…”

But then…

Around nine pm cloud started to run in from the west. Not just cloud, but dirty, thick, porridge-sludge cloud that would offer no breaks, no chance to see any auroral activity through it. By ten pm the whole sky was covered, completely overcast, and looking up as I stood outsode my tent it was like looking at the underside of a huge grey blanket. But even as I stood there I still had faith in those websites… it would clear, surely…

Then it started to rain.

Yes, as in “No rain was predicted by anyone“.

You have got to be kidding me, I thought.

I retreated back inside my tent, zipped myself in, and listened to the sound of the rain hitting the canvas (actually, plastic, modern tent, but go with this, ok?). Outside the world was grey, like the post apocalypse world of “The Road”, with not a hint of blue sky anywhere. But, always one to make the best out of a situation, I just turned on my portable digital TV and watched the second half of a fantastic French film – about a famous French bank robber, Mesrine – which kept me occupied for the next hour and a half. When that finished it was still raining outside, and as reports of climbing auroral activity started to ripple through cyberspace there was nothing I could do except glower at the grey sky through the mesh of my tent. And text my friend Carol who, up in Orkney, was suffering a similarly frustrating experience. And text Stella, telling her not to bother coming up to the castle because there was nothing to see.

And, having finished the Nik Naks, start on the Wotsits.

The film finished, so I started to watch the final episode of Dr Brian Cox’s “Wonders of the Solar System” TV series, thinking how bizarre it was to be – in a weird kind of way – stranded on a Cumbrian hillside, in the rain, in a tent, with the good Dr Cox. Never expected that… 😉

Brian started telling me how fantastic and brilliant and amazing Jupiter’s moon Europa is – and then the TV died. And outside the rain grew heavier.

Soon after my main torch died too, plunging me into darkness.

And the rain kept falling.

To use a quaint text-speak term…


This definitely wasn’t following the script.

Stupid bloody websites. If I could sue them, I would. I now don’t believe a word any of them say.


Finally, around 1.30 in the morning – yes, Sunday morning – the rain stopped, the clouds started to rip apart, and there, in the north, was a clear patch. Not very big, but big enough to reveal what looked suspiciously like a greenish glow…????

If the rest of the sky cleared, I might get to see it after all! 🙂

So I took some photos, and yes, on them there is a green glow…

…and, amazingly – and not a little ironically – a very small patch of noctilucent cloud was visible in that gap too! Click on that image above and you’ll see it as a small area of white in the gap above and between the two bushes… Typical… when I wasn’t looking for NLC, they show up…!

By 2am the sky was half clear of cloud, but only the southern half, the northern sky remained stubbornly cloudy, and with Twitter suggesting there was no hint of activity levels increasing I decided to pack up and go home. Cold, damp, fed up with missing yet another Good Thing In The Sky.

Half an hour later I had my sodden tent stuffed into a bag, and, soaked through myself, after putting the tent away, I was trudging back down the hill, feeling really, really hacked off with the universe if I’m honest.


Next (or rather, later!) that morning, it started to become clear that the Big Aurora hadn’t actually happened during the UK night, so if it had been clear I wouldn’t have seen much anyway. In fact, the storm was starting to brew up that Sunday morning. Hey… maybe all wasn’t lost after all. Maybe the storm would persist through the day, allowing me to see something after dark on the Sunday instead???

Consequently, I spent the rest of the day with an eye on the sky, and, despite telling myself not to, because they were all untrustworthy lying ******s, the online weather forecasting sites too. The afternoon was a blustery, bright one, with big patches of spectacularly-blue sky shining between scudding banks of black and grey cloud. After taking a look at Staveley Carnival, Stella and I headed back up to the Castle, this time to take advantage of the gusting wind by flying some kites, which we haven’t done for a while. After that, back downhill, for something to eat, before I headed back up to the castle AGAIN to hopefully see some aurora.

By this time – ten thirty pm – it was clear from the online chatter that a major geomagnetic storm was raging around the Earth, with the Kp index climbing steadily towards a level where an aurora would DEFINITELY be visible from Kendal. And even though when I reached the Castle there was a lot of cloud travelling across town in a wide grey river, flowing from west to east, obliterating the northern sky as it went, I didn’t feel too bad, because but to the west I could see the sky was a lot clearer, and my friend from Barrow, Ray, reported that clear sky as indeed heading my way, so I settled back and, as the sky started to clear from the west, a big clear patch drifting painfully slowly towards the north, and with very encouraging reports of aurora being visible from  Germany (SOUTH of me!!!!) I waited to See  Something…

And then

Out of nowhere, as if Gandalf himself had summoned it up with a sorcerous spell, the sky above Kendal began to fill with low cloud. It boiled up out of the darkness, then swept across the sky from the west, like a sci fi movie special effect, obliterating everything, and soon the heavens were orange, as the light from the streetlights of the Auld Grey Town bounced off the underside of the cloudbank. I could see nothing. And as reports of aurorae being visible from across the east coast of England, and from places such as Morecambe (from local radio presenter Dan Beale) and Lincoln, both places further south than me, I was looking up at a sky the colour of a bruised Christmas satsuma.

It was around this time that I was joined by fellow EAS member Phil Walker, and together we – literally – cursed and swore at the sky. And it wasn’t just us. Down in Barrow, after a promising start, Ray was having cloud issues of his own, slowly losing heart as he lost his starry sky, and way further north, up in Orkney, Carol was clouded out too. I felt desperately sorry for her, imagining the kind of show she would have been seeing so far north, so much nearer the action, if her sky was clear… so unfair… so unfair…

For a while the cruel sky fooled us into thinking that all would be well after all. The cloud cover started to rip apart in the west, revealing an inky black sky spattered and scattered with stars, and the gaps started to drift north! Phil and I began to look forward to seeing some of the colours people over in Newcastle and Hartlepool, and up in Scotland, and down in Yorkshire, and even down in Germany, were seeing…

…but the gap closed up like a steel trap, and the sky returned to its default Cumbrian  state – a blank, orange dome, devoid of stars, hiding the aurora from our view.

Well, I can only take so much, you know? And at half past midnight I decided enough was enough, the sky and the universe had made a big enough mug out of me already, it was time to go home, and admit defeat. So that’s what I did. Sick of the whole bloody thing. Sick of the Cumbrian weather. Sick of *being* sick about missing cool things going on ‘up there’.

When I woke up this morning I went online, and saw, over on Spaceweather.com, breathtakingly beautiful images of the huge auroral display seen from the US. There are also, on that gallery, pictures taken from the UK, from places a little further north of me, and from places a little further south, each one a rusty nail jabbed into my heart, laughing “This is what you WOULD have seen if the cloud had gone away…”

As I said at the top – Worst Weekend Ever.

I know, I know, you can’t help the weather, it just does what it does. And this place isn’t called the Lake District because it’s dry and dusty. Water, large amounts of it, falls from the sky giving us lakes. It’s not rocket science. But hell, it doesn’t have to rain all the time, surely?

And as for those weather forecasting sites… well, they can only be so reliable, I know. But, well, come on… four different sites got it hopelessly wrong? Four?

And yet again we missed something beautiful “Up There” because of the frakking Cumbrian weather. I could scream, I really could. It’s just so damned unfair. I’ve paid my dues. I’ve stood alone in damp or frosty fields, waiting for meteor showers that were supposed to turn into storms but never did. I’ve stood shivering in my garden, in -9 deg C, watching the slow motion drag-out ‘glory’ of a total lunar eclipse. I’ve shown tens of thousands of people the night sky at hundreds of Outreach events. I’ve walked for miles to find a dark sky site unblighted by light pollution, just to catch a glimpse, through binoculars, of a comet too faint to be seen by the naked eye. Yes, I’ve paid my dues, I think.

But I know, the universe doesn’t owe me a damned thing, because I’ve had the better side of the deal. I’ve stood in the centre of an ancient stone circle, watching Comet Hale-Bopp rising, tail-first, from behind a fell. I’ve seen Leonid fireballs plunging from the autumn sky like an artillery barrage straight out of a war film. I’ve seen tiny pinprick moons glinting close to Jupiter and Saturn in my own telescope. I’ve seen noctilucent clouds painting the northern  sky electric blue for hours on balmy summer nights. And I’ve stared up in wonder at a sky overflowing with the northern lights, turned as red as wine.

Yes,  I’ve seen amazing, incredible, soul-searing sights that others haven’t seen, so I shouldn’t ‘t feel too put out about one missed aurora, right? But somehow, this time, I do. This time hurt. And I can’t quite explain why it seems different. I just know that last night, as I came back down the hill from the castle, if the sky had been a person I’d have punched it, hard, I was so mad at it for letting me down.

There will be other things to see, including other aurorae, but this one will be my own personal “The one that got away” story.

Come on Universe, give us something – a bright naked eye comet, a sky-splitting fireball, a supernova… something… anything

We deserve it, you know? 😦

And I think, maybe, I need it.


4 Responses

  1. yep this is how we feel…bringing back lots of chocolate from Orkney shores…

  2. If you ask me, Astronomy is a lot like photography. I mean these two things have a lot in common. For one, good shots take a lot of time and patience. Just like in photography, if you want to really capture the moment, you need to just stand by your camera and wait for that picture perfect moment and press the trigger. Fortunately in Astronomy, you don’t have the stay on watch the whole time but you still have to check the skies frequently to get good shots of the stars and other heavenly bodies.

  3. Still waiting on Stu’s commentary on MSL’s landing.

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