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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The time is now

The first part of this post was written on Tue 31st Dec.

Susie has found herself making a 40 Before 40 list. Being the same age, I'm tempted to hop aboard the bandwagon, but I won't because I find lists oppressive. All the same, there are a few things that I've long wanted or intended to do and that occur at a point in the future called "one day". My fortieth year strikes me as a time to ask, If not now, then when?

Some of these are lifestyle changes. I believe that my life would be improved if I took up yoga or meditation, or preferably both. I've wanted to learn hang gliding, or paragliding, for as long as I can remember. Other things are (probably) one-off events. I would love to see both a total eclipse of the sun (I did try, on 11 August 1999, but Cornwall was cloudy that day) and the Aurora Borealis.

This may look like a bucket list or new year's resolutions, but it lacks that sense of obligation. This is me looking at things I want and asking myself, quite straightforwardly, Why not? What's stopping me? If the answer is money, I'll ask further, Is there a cheaper way of doing it? Could I save up for it? The answer may still be no, but I'd at least like to think it through.

As I type, I am sitting in a holiday cottage in the north of Scotland. The weather is cold and miserable and there isn't much daylight. The last of those is part of the reason we're here. Other factors include the new moon, sunspots, and the fact that Scotland is cheaper to get to than Norway or Iceland (both places I'd love to visit). Yes, we've come here for a chance to see the northern lights.

It really is only a chance, as it's necessary for the right solar weather (stormy) to occur shortly before the right terrestrial weather (clear), and both are fairly unpredictable, certainly on the sort of timescale involved in booking a holiday. For the first few days of our stay we've had some clear weather, but solar activity has been low. However, it's forecast to increase later in the week and the local weather forecast is for 'partial' cloud on Thursday. It may not be a very good chance, but it's a chance. We shall pack a thermos of soup, put on our thickest socks, head out somewhere with a clear view of the northern horizon, and wait.

By the time I next have internet connection to post this, I may be able to tell you whether the gamble paid off.

---

Well, here I am, back in Wales, with internet connection. So did we see them? Were we treated to one of the most spectacular cosmic displays visible from Earth? Yes and no. Yes, we saw them... no, they weren't spectacular.

We'd headed north from our cottage to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on the UK mainland. We figured that if the chance of seeing the lights was slim, we'd better make sure we had the best possible view of the northern horizon, so that's where we went. We got there at about 4:30 pm due to a petrol panic. That is, we had only just enough petrol to get to Thurso (town near Dunnet Head) - probably - and on a bank holiday we didn't reckon on finding a petrol station open in the rural area closer to the cottage. We gambled on finding one open in Thurso, but thought we'd better not leave it too late. If there hadn't been, we'd have been stranded there for the night and probably not made it to the headland, but there was, just one, luckily.

So... petrol panic over, we parked up at the top of Dunnet Head and settled down to wait, though it wasn't even fully dark when we arrived. We weren't the only ones with this idea. The first couple who arrived thought that the lights were pretty much constant when active, and would be visible as soon as it got dark enough. They were disappointed, and left after a couple of hours. The next couple arrived in a smart looking Audi, but got out to watch the sky. It was way too cold for that kind of behaviour. They didn't stay long. The third couple arrived at around 10 pm, with a tent. This was their third trip to see the lights, the previous two having been unsuccessful. Shielding our eyes from their bright torchlight as they erected their tent, settled themselves down, checked the tent, added more guy ropes, we began to see why. They never turned the torch off for long enough to let their eyes adjust to the darkness.

At 10:20 pm, nearly six hours after we'd arrived, we saw something. It wasn't much, but it was definitely light in the northern sky that hadn't been there a moment earlier. We got out of the car and watched for about ten minutes, until we got too cold and retreated. Hmm, definitely northern lights, but not exactly the dancing sprites we've seen photos of. About an hour later, they came again, this time a bit bigger. Although it was too windy to use a tripod outdoors, Ian managed to get some photos through the car windscreen.


The car belongs to the couple with the tent


To the bottom left you can see the lighthouse. Dunnet Head isn't completely without ambient light


If I'm quite honest, this looks better in the photo than it did in real life.

So there we are. We made the effort, we took the chance, and we saw the northern lights. I had the sense that there was one heck of a light display going on somewhere to the north of us, and we were seeing the very edge of it. I'd still like to see the lights properly, but I'm glad I've seen them at all. There's also a sense of satisfaction that the effort paid off. It took a bit of research and a lot of waiting to see this. If we hadn't done it right, we wouldn't have seen the lights. We might not have seen them as it was, but when there's only a small chance, it's worth making an effort to maximise that chance.

As for cosmic spectacles, there'd been a fabulous sunset while we were driving north, which we didn't stop to photograph because stopping and starting uses extra fuel. The moon was also stunning that evening.


This one looked better in real life.

Perhaps this should be a reminder to appreciate the more common spectacles, and not get too distracted by chasing the exotic.

6 comments:

  1. I think that things like the Northern Lights can't really be seen deliberately: that takes away a good deal of the magic involved. I have seen them only once, though never in the years I spent in Scotland. It was in Quebec in May of all times. The entire sky was this powdery pink, and they really did take up every inch of the sky. Only up there it was every centimeter. I watched it for as long as it lasted. It was truly amazing to experience, but in particular because I would never have guess I'd see them. That was the magic.

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    1. It must have been amazing to see something like that unexpectedly. On the other hand, I'd rather see these things deliberately than not at all, even if it does take some of the magic out of it.

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  2. On a somewhat more mundane note than flashing lights in the sky and solar storms... I'm shit at yoga but actually quite like the "yoga for all" class in the uni, 5pm, Fridays. Lasts 90 mins and makes a good end-to-the-week for me. If you're up for it, it could be motivational (for me at least) to meet there. Indeed, some weeks we could meet there and follow the class with either tea or wine depending upon mood?

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    1. That sounds like an excellent plan, Hannah! The kind of plan that would make the difference between me doing yoga and not doing it. Now all I need to do is figure out how to pay for it...

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  3. Gotta say, the sunset with the new moon is really spectacular.

    So here's my northern lights story - and I can say for absolute certain that there was ZERO planning involved.

    I was in college in upstate NY. One of my best friends and I had a "solo duet" in an upcoming choir concert and we were, ahem, not prepared. We were also both having a very bad day, and for some reason decided to steal a bottle of vodka from they guy in the room next door (whom we had both dated and both broken up with.)

    Sooo... there we were getting nice and drunk when we got the munchies - so we went down to the kitchen to raid the refrigerator and discovered that there were great acoustics down there when the room was empty. So we decided to practice our solo - because, you know, the best time to practice singing is when you're totally drunk and scarfing brownies.

    So we're happily singing along when all of a sudden we hear this incredible ruckus. Here I should explain that on the floor above us lived most of the science geeks in the school. Anyhow, they all came storming down the stairs and through the kitchen shouting something incomprehensible (at least incomprehensible to drunk singers.) They basically scooped us up and dumped us in the back of a station wagon and we all drove up to the top of the mountain where the school observatory was.

    I remember staggering out of the car being really confused when suddenly I looked up and it was like someone had painted the entire sky with red watercolors. It was really one of the most amazing experiences of my life - vodka notwithstanding. Apparently they are seldom visible that far south and never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd see them in NY when I never say anything in a whole year in Norway!

    So I think Reifyn is right - there is significant magic involved!

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    1. Significant magic... and science geeks ;-)

      That's a great story.

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