When all is dark on earth, look up to the skies
I can't remember when I first saw the stars and moon, but I know that from a very early age I was captivated by a clear night sky. My bed was situated fairly close to a window and I would always sneak out after 'lights out' to open the curtains just in case a gap in the clouds would afford me a star to fall to sleep by.
This random watching was intensified by two main events. The first was joining the Girl Guides whose badge system actively encouraged learning the various constellations. This was especially useful for those wanting to fill their arms with insignia or find their way home after dark! But the greatest influence was my Uncle Les.
He lived in America but was a frequent visitor to the UK and, infact, most of the world. The first time he came to stay, it was a fleeting hello, goodbye, but he left me with a piece of what looked like silvery foil on which was etched 'A section of the skin from Echo One'. I asked my Dad what this meant and, to demonstrate, he first tuned our radio to listen to some strange sounding blips and then took me outside to show me the slow moving pinpoint of light. I was hooked - and so was my brother. Shortly afterwards he was given a small telescope and, using a brownie box camera, spent many hours taking pictures of anything he could see of interest in the night sky.
A few years later, the trips 'over' from Uncle Les increased. He worked at The Goddard Space Center and was responsible for setting up the tracking of all the moonshots. My catalogue of goodies from him increased to incorporate pictures of the moon, including 'the dark side', rocket launches and the world from space. Our whole family stayed up all night to watch the night sky and the television on my brother's birthday, 20th July 1969 to see 'history in the making'. Yet more information from America arrived. This time it was templates of the Space Shuttle, educational books and wall charts plus a timetable which really caught my imagination. On it were listed all the dates for eclipses of the moon and sun and the best times to watch the many meteor showers both the in the northern and southern hemispheres. So, weather and events permitting, my days were interspersed with star-gazing nights.
One of the easiest showers for me to remember to watch, certainly for the last thirty odd years, has been the Perseids. Not only does the best night fall on 'The Glorious Twelfth1 but it also happens to be my eldest daughters' birthday. So, over the years, I have always tried to take a few hours after midnight to try and catch the show.
Up to now, the greatest ever night had been in 1991 when taking a short break on my Uncle Royston's boat. We were chugging gently up the Trent-Mersey canal and, for once, the weather was being kind. We moored overnight close by Shugborough Hall, the country pile of Lord Patrick Lichfield which, that night, was alive with some kind of mini music festival. We enjoyed the festivities and then returned to the boat for a nightcap. Once the party had finished a quiet calm fell over the area, punctuated only by the rustling of small furry animals and the occasional quack of a duck or moorhen. The sky was cloudless and extremely dark with no streetlights or light pollution of any kind to disrupt our viewing. So we lay back on the roof of the cabin and saw the most spectacular of meteor gymnastics so far.
Time passed, circumstances changed, and I found myself in the most illuminated country on earth. The Netherlands must lay claim to having more lighting than people! Thankfully we are on the second floor with a reasonable wall cutting us off from the necklaces of mushroom lights twinkling all night, every night. Even so, there is an overlying orangyness about the night sky here, rendering only the brightest objects visible. TM and myself managed a fair viewing for h2g2 way back in 2000 but, since then, sightings have been hampered by poor weather and overcast skies.
It seemed as if this year would be no exception. Our summer weather had lasted but a few days in early June and July and had now settled into a regime of a few hot but overcast days interrupted by tremendous thunder storms. Things did not bode well for my annual camping out on the terrace. The 9th-11th August were hopeless. There were gaps in the clouds but they were so small as to render it impossible to pick out Cassiopeia, Perseus, Cepheus and Pegasus (the best constellations to keep an eye on).
I poked my head out of the door a few times during the course of the evening of the 12th but the cloud cover remained. Then I decided around 1am that I may as well try just one more time. There is an old settee out on the terrace so I grabbed a sleeping bag, made a cup of tea, turned off all light in the house and ventured forth. The first thing which struck me, not literally, was the lightning. The whole sky was being illuminated by metallic blue flashes, accompanied by loud but distant thunder. But the sky overhead was clear. So clear that I had no trouble honing in on my viewpoint and even managing to see all of the Seven Sisters low down on the horizon. Then came the meteors. Frequent, bright and long-lasting. One was a vibrant green and almost stretched the entire width of my vision. Some were much fainter, but came in batches of two or three. Another one, brilliant white and finishing with a bold flash. More, more, more and all the time accompanied by the electrifying lightning and crashing thunder, a pure symphony of the heavens.
I stayed out watching for hours. Who could tear themselves away from the greatest show on earth/in the sky? The storm didn't abate, I could hear and see it circling, but it steered clear of my little patch of calm. I finally tore myself away when the first signs of dawn dimmed the stars. Later I learnt that the storm had been centred on Amsterdam, only a few miles away, with torrential rain and much damage spoiling their night. How lucky was I, then, to have witnessed my best Perseid Shower... so far?