Monday 13 May 2024

Out of This World 10th May 2024

I was watching a football match involving Doncaster Rovers v Crewe Alexandra on the tv on Friday evening and my enjoyment (sic) was being frustrated by increasingly frequent interruptions of the transmission as the night drew on. This happens occasionally as reception for satellite tv can be idiosynchratic in the rural part of Oxfordshire where I live but normally rectifies itself within minutes. However this time was to prove to be very different as, unknown to me, a rare and very violent solar storm was the cause of the satellite's  intermittent malfunctions.

Grumbling about the satellite I finally got to the conclusion of the match after extra time and penalties which brought the time to just after eleven at night. My wife came into the room in a state of great excitement telling me to hurry outside into the garden as there was an ongoing  spectacular display of the Aurora Borealis more often  referred to as the Northern Lights.

Initially I was a trifle dismissive as Oxfordshire is not renowned for being a place to view such a phenomenon and there have been previous such alerts from Mrs U which failed to materialise. I reasoned that one normally has to travel at least to northern Scotland or even further to Scandinavia or the Arctic to view the Northern Lights - the clue being in the name surely?

At Mrs U's continued insistence I joined her in the garden and looked up.

The sight that greeted me was so unexpected I was unable to say anything! I was truly lost for words to both express and describe what confronted me. The sky was visibly pink and green for as far as I could see and I stood in sheer amazement. Our back garden faces open countryside so we had the advantage of no light pollution which served to enhance the vision. 

After absorbing this sight for some minutes we decided to drive a mile out of the village up onto higher ground where we were in total darkness and isolation. Stopping by a wood we left the car and looked northwest into the sky and over the open countryside of  Oxfordshire that stretched for miles in front of us. The sight that greeted us was even more spectacular than from our garden. It was benignly terrifying in its enormity as the colours stretched right across the heavens, charged with various shades of pink and green whilst  four broad shafts of paler pink which my wife told me were possibly called pillars, angled earthwards

The moon was dwarfed into insignificance, reduced to a crescent barely visible on the horizon.

Mrs U, encouraged by me was taking images as fast as she could on her superior i-phone and on a ten second exposure the colours were totally and utterly beautiful.and it is they that illustrate this blog. Never was the word heavenly more appropriate.The sheer enormity of what we were looking at and experiencing was difficult to adequately describe. Unique to both of us we could but just look and wonder and try to record what we were seeing whilst containing our excitement and amazement.

The colours subtley changed and moved across the sky, sometimes strong then fading before intensifying again. We knew this was probably a once in a lifetime moment and for my wife it was the culmination of an almost obsessive desire to see the Northern Lights.So many times she had been disappointed with false alarms but here, finally was success in spades and literally right on our doorstep.

I felt a spine tingling thrill at the sheer majesty and obvious enormity of what was happening in the firmanent above. It was humbling as I was made to realise how inconsequential I was in the grand scheme of things and how fragile was my existence and that of the planet on which I live 

What was happening in the night sky above me was on a scale beyond my mind to encompass. A conflict of emotions almost overwhelmed me - a primal fear of something almost incomprehensible and which probably struck similar fear into my ancestors long before science brought an explanation. At the same time an elation swept over me in waves at this spectacular affirmation of the overwhelming power and beauty of Nature.

An awesome and terrible beauty illuminating the vast loneliness of Space had tonight forever changed my outlook on the world

In the pitch darkness around us we could see nothing of the familiar landscape and so our eyes inevitably went to the sky. A muntjac barked from the wood behind us, loud and close and made me start.There came no other sound and we stood in the silence, awestruck at what was going on above us.

Professor Brian Cox commented on the aurora the next day, saying that by watching the aurora we got a rare direct glimpse of the power of Nature.The charged particles causing the atmosphere to glow came from a sunspot complex seventeen times the diameter of Earth and travelled across 90 million miles at a million miles per hour.Without the Earth's magnetic field to protect us our atmosphere would have been lost to the emptiness of space long ago.The colours in the sky was Nature reminding us that we are very lucky to be here amidst the terrifying violence of space. And perhaps therefore should also remind us not to continue to screw up our small insignificant planet as it is all we have.

Other people had stepped outside into this extraordinary night and took many photos.Social media was swamped with images from all over Britain and indeed worldwide.

A night I will never forget


  1. Hi Ewan. Great write up as usual,and I must agree with you that it was truly spectacular. I was talking to you this morning at the Indigo Bunting dip. It was me who dipped the Nighthawk in Ireland.

    1. Good to meet you too Dave.It was a shame it had to be under such unfortunate circumstances.Hope to see you again, sometime, somewhere