Urban nature writer Lucy Anna Scott is enchanted by the celestial show in the skies above Exmoor, Europe’s first International Dark Sky Reserve
When Tim jokes that we might step outside for some star gazing, everybody laughs. Turning from my seat in the window, I search out into the night sky, its inky opacity a sign that the rain clouds we’d been under for hours still lingered in the air like sloths.
I’m not surprised we can’t see the stars that have made the Exmoor landscape unique on a worldwide scale. Earlier that day, as I debated whether to make the four-hour drive in the lashing rain from London, as star gazing events to celebrate Exmoor’s annual Dark Skies Festival were being cancelled. And on my phone was a message from Tim saying that it would be “a miracle” if the skies cleared later.
Tim didn’t want me to be disappointed. But I was eager to travel regardless. I had been invited to a party, at a coastal cottage in Somerset. Its owner, Lucy, had arranged for her neighbour Tim Wetherell – an artist and astronomer – to give a talk on the outstanding nocturnal beauty of their sky, a beauty that most of us no longer experience. Whether a celestial spectacle awaited me or not, the promise of being somewhere that possessed that rare quality of darkness was reason enough for me. So, I slung my bags in the boot and set off.
Exmoor – a place of Bronze Age burial mounds and deserted medieval settlements – was Europe’s first International Dark Skies Reserve, an accolade that recognises a landscape’s natural night-time environment and a distinguished quality of starry nights. Strict controls on light and human habitation are in place, meaning star gazers like Tim can hike to the ancient moor and find an ancient sky on the horizon; see star clusters and clouds of nebulae, the constellations of Pleiades, swirling planetary storms. On a clear night, the naked eye can view Andromeda – a spiral galaxy 2.5 million light years away.
Taking his telescope onto the moors, Tim has been able to observe the phases of Venus, the ice caps on Mars and the myriad of stars in the Milky Way. The retired scientist, who has been fascinated by astronomy since he was a teenager, has also seen vast storms on the planet Jupiter.
“We can have severe storms here on earth but some of the storms on Jupiter have been raging for centuries,” he tells us. “Seeing that makes you realise what nature can do and what it can be. You are reminded of how lucky we are to have the Earth with its relatively friendly climate and how important it is to protect that.”
This view of night is how we should all know it. It is how our ancestors saw it. Even the Victorians, Tim explains to us, only had the light of the moon to navigate the night. But in 2019 natural dark skies are exceptional experiences for human beings, only possible if we make pilgrimages like mine, or to places such as the French Pyrenees, where star trails are still visible over the Pic du Midi Observatory, or to Central Idaho, where the light of the Milky Way is reflected in its vast lakes.
Those pilgrimages are getting longer for urban-dwellers like me. But chatting over drinks before Tim begins, I sense from some that they don’t spend too many moments marvelling at their night sky; much like how I march the wild deer at my local South London park without a glance. But all of us are about to have things put in perspective.
Tim shows us a map of the whole world at night, lit by modern electricity – an unrelenting rash of synthetic luminosity spreading across the body of entire continents. In the UK, Pembrokeshire, Exmoor, Dartmoor and the Brecon Beacons are small portholes of pure dark through which one might escape all that starkness.
Next is a version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night over the Rhone, which Tim has manipulated; a reimagining of what the painter would have seen today. The cobalt blue and aquamarine sky and river, as it was depicted in 1888, and its golden yellow stars, have become a wash of muddy browns. The room erupts with disappointed sighs. ‘Seeing how things should be is half the battle in preserving it,’ he tells us. What is more, unlike other types of pollution, we can simply turn lights off and the problem disappears.
With that, we are all keen to step outside, and the room empties as we filter out the back door, wine glasses in hand. A breeze has set some clouds drifting, and a couple of stars have appeared. I head to my bedroom to grab my coat. By the time I get back, a miracle has occurred.
The crowd is gathered, and all are looking up. In the middle of the pack is Tim, shining his torch at the clusters appearing as fast as he can explain them. ‘You see that ‘W’ shape up there? That’s Cassiopeia the Queen’, he tells us. Nearby is Perseus; its main constellation of 19 stars catalogued by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd century. Then there’s Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus. Enraptured, we exclaim ‘oohh’, ‘aaahhh’ and ‘wow’ like kids at a firework display.
Lucy asks whether the inhabitants of her 300-year old house would have seen the same star formations. They would, Tim confirms. They shift but it takes thousands of years. We have, I think, much in common with those now-invisible people. But the words of cosmologist Lawrence M Krauss were as true then as they are now: ‘Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than the ones in your right…You are all star dust.’
I break from the party to find a spot of silence. The light, cool breeze is disorientating as I navigate the garden path in the deep black. But gazing upwards, I am grounded again. The sky is a dome of stars. I have lost that instinctive awareness. I had forgotten the sky’s depth: its contoured topography of light, which defines a time and history that remain beyond our comprehension.
Lucy Anna Scott was a guest of Exmoor Character Cottages. She is a freelance writer specialising in urban nature. This article was published in the January 2020 issue of Planet Mindful.