One Night Stand

Bleary-eyed this morning, I buttered the bread for my boys’ packed lunches.

Like the porridge pot on the hob, Radio 4’s Today programme bubbled away in the background.

Maybe you heard it? Evan Davies was talking over the phone to a reporter about the largest Northern Lights display in England for ten years.

Once again, Evan had missed seeing it — cloud cover or something…

“So, do you think there’ll be a repeat performance tonight, or was it more of a one night stand?” asked Evan.

“No. It was certainly more of a one night stand!” the reporter replied.

If I hadn’t have been there for that particular one night stand (to use their words), I’d have been kicking myself…

— Strange Day

In hindsight, yesterday was a strange day; a day loaded with noteworthy events and coincidences.

Two years ago, I wrote about my first sighting of the Northern Lights, a post that I recently published on these pages.

Grasping a lead from my Aurora-chasing friend, Reed Ingram Weir, I’d headed up to the wilds of Northumberland to be greeted by wondrous sights.

He made a beautiful photograph of the event, one that still makes the news today.

I made the edition prints of it for him and, as a memento, Reed kindly gifted one to me, which I stowed in my plan chest at the time for safe-keeping.

Yesterday, over 700 days later, I stumbled across the print and spent a moment marvelling at it all over again. I took it straight down to Bruce (the framer downstairs from my studio) so I could hang it on my studio wall.

At that point, I wasn’t to know about the events to follow that very evening.

— Achy Eyeballs

Last night, as ever, I had a few domestic commitments. I combined them with a small trip to the supermarket.

Now, I’m a pretty driven chap and sometimes, when I have an idea that I want to pursue, it consumes me like a hunger.

At times, I can find it a little tricky to slow my mind down and relax. Sometimes, I even feel the adrenalin gently building up, creating a dull ache behind my eyes.

The usual cure is to go for a run or walk the dog to break those chemicals down and restore order.

As I wondered around the supermarket last night I felt distinctly odd — really energised and excited. My eyes were aching like mad with just this kind of adrenalin surge.

I couldn’t work it out — all my current ideas are well underway and in-hand. 😉

I got home, sat at the kitchen table and tried to massage my eyes better. A long dog walk was surely on the cards.

Briefly, it popped into my head that this was exactly how I felt two years ago with all that extreme solar activity. The thought was enough for me to get my phone out and look at the geomagnetic data that we monitor on these occasions, published by the Tromsø Geophysical Observatory.

I couldn’t believe my aching eyes.

Tromsø Geophysical Observatory

I started navigating to the keypad to call Reed and see if he’d noticed too.

He beat me to it and his name flashed up on my screen. I answered the call.

“Reed, I know what this is about.”

“Yes, Jack, I’m standing outside my own home looking at the Aurora!”

The decision was made. Within 40 minutes, I’d rallied four friends from my Aurora List and that was it, we were blasting up the A1 once more.

— Never Say Never

By 11pm, we arrived at my favourite vantage point, high up over the coast with a huge view of the northern sky.

Without the moon, the night sky was very dark and truly extraordinary. We admired the constellations and marvelled at Jupiter’s moons through our binoculars.

And, yes, the Northern Lights were there as a bright mercurial blue — gently pulsing like the light of a sleeping Mac.

However, there was no sensational structure at that stage. The architectural grandeur I’d witnessed two years ago was missing.

My friends, though, had now seen the Northern Lights for the first time, albeit on the third time of asking.

They were happy and all was good. So, at 12:45am, it was time to head home. It was a school night after all.

At this stage, it’s true that I was a little disappointed. I’d now made my third 130 mile round trip without much luck since my emotional first experience in 2012.

As we sped home through the cold, cutting air, I gradually heard words like bright and stronger being voiced in the back of the car.

I glanced in my rear view mirror and — wow — the Aurora seemed to be coming alive in a whole new way.

I pulled over into the nearest layby and we stepped out of the car into a whole new level of cold.

The night freight rumbled by us at close quarters. We constantly had to look away from the bright headlights to shield our eyes and protect our precious night vision.

Then at 1:01am sharp — as the icy air frisked us for skin — the show began.

Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights, Northumberland, North East England

The characteristic needles of light sprung out of nowhere, not as strongly as 2012 but there nonetheless…

Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights, Northumberland, North East England

The folding, fabric-like movement was just about discernible…

Accompanied by our ground-level oohs and aahs, the silent spectacle eventually faded and retreated north once more.

Retreated north until the next time — another occasion, like this, when I hope we’ll be able to say that we were there

Chasing Shadows

We find ourselves in the midst of an extremely topical Northern Lights season once again, with comparisons potentially being made to The Great Solar Storm of 1859.

Aurora Borealis, Great Solar Storm of 1859, Boulogne Pier, Northern Lights

‘The Aurora Borealis, seen from the pier, Boulogne’, an etching I found on eBay a while back made around the time of The Great Solar Storm of 1859…

If that were to happen again, it would surely look pretty but it would also wreak havoc in a world that now relies so heavily on an electronic infrastructure.

As I was reminded last night, chasing the Aurora Borealis can be hard work — sometimes like chasing shadows rather than fantastical laser light shows.

The lure of glorious rewards keeps me motivated but, as hope fizzled out once again in the small hours, I’m glad I appreciated my beginner’s luck chasing the Aurora in 2012.

Here’s are the words I wrote at the time on another site o’ mine

 

Holy Aurora! The Northern Lights Venture South

[23rd January 2012]

 

Last night, I received a phone call from my Aurora-chasing friend, Reed Ingram Weir.

Apparently, the facts and figures were all pointing to a stellar show by The Northern Lights.

If I was to finally witness this natural phenomenon, now would be the time to jump in the car and make the sixty five mile journey north on the A1.

It would have been all too easy to settle in for the night on a Sunday evening but I was soon experiencing an intense urge to make the trip.

Aware that digital cameras can pick up early signs of the Aurora much more easily than the human eye, I quickly nipped to the top of the house to photograph the Northern sky.

The giveaway green haze hovering above the Newcastle horizon convinced me that it was time to go and meet Reed on the Holy Island causeway:

aurora borealis, northern lights, newcastle upon tyne, north east england

A faint green haze above the city, the moment I knew I had to drive North…

I grabbed a friend who I knew would also cherish the experience, though neither of us could ever have been prepared for the scene that greeted us.

Nearing the turn-off for Holy Island, the sky had become alive with huge columns of light, folding and weaving like waves of fabric.

Words can barely describe the emotion that overcame me — it was all I could do to keep the car on the road with such a spectacle taking place in the cold air above us.

Vast slabs of vertical green light gave the Northumberland night sky an epic cathedral-like appearance and all for a fleeting fifteen minutes or so…

As we arrived on the dark causeway, I must confess to feeling a little jittery.

The light show was beginning to fade already but it still looked sensational as it receded.  I managed to capture these images while the performance played out:

aurora borealis, northern lights, northumberland, holy island, north east england

Gentle scenes from the Holy Island causeway as we arrived…

aurora borealis, northern lights, northumberland, holy island, north east england

Vertical shafts of light began to appear once more…

aurora borealis, northern lights, northumberland, holy island, north east england

…the sky then appeared to fold and crease like fabric above the glow of Berwick upon Tweed.

In all honesty, the intensity of green captured by my camera surprised me.  However, it seemed to match up with the photographs of others.

When watching this beautiful show, I didn’t see green, I saw a bluey-silvery-grey. I thought that reciprocity failure might have come into play, so I tried some very short exposures.

Yes, the images were very under-exposed but the green colour still prevailed.  Even the ‘quick and dirty’ capture made at ISO 3200 (the image at the top of this post) immediately showed the Aurora-green piercing through the urban haze.

It seems that more intense displays further north, in and around locations such as Tromsø, literally drench the surroundings in a glorious green light.

Thankfully, at times, we were able to see the green for ourselves during pinpricks of higher intensity.

Indeed, as we were arriving, I’ve already mentioned the great slabs of green light standing tall like huge, futuristic, architectural pillars in the sky.

So, this sparked a further spine-tingling question in my mind: When the intensity levels of the Aurora are reduced further South, why is that we observe a bluey-silvery-grey colour, yet we point a digital camera at the Aurora and the intense green prevails?

Is the camera able to render information that we cannot perceive at these lower intensities?  I’m sure there will be answers to this but I simply enjoyed pondering them while standing in that icy cold theatre.

I expect Professor Brian Cox would know the answer. If you know, feel free to enlighten us by leaving a comment in the box at the end of this post!

And so, the curtain gradually fell on the performance. The graceful, pulsing light faded away yet still lingered, maintaining a hold on us and making it very difficult to set off home.

aurora borealis, northern lights, northumberland, holy island, north east england

The performance draws to a close with one last needle of brilliant light.

And let’s not forget the beautiful sky to the South, so dense that Orion (often obvious at this time of year) is almost lost among its neighbours:

night sky, stars, orion, northumberland, holy island, north east england

The stunning Northumberland night sky with Orion in the centre.

Some say that viewing the Aurora Borealis is life-changing.

Would I agree? Yes, without a doubt.

I haven’t been able to shake the experiences of last night from my mind, not that I’ve wanted to.

Furthermore, it’s taken me most of the day in grabbed moments here and there to attempt to put those experiences into words.

I’m still not sure that I’ve succeeded.

As I put my boys to bed this evening, I peered North from the window once more. Nothing.

The Aurora Borealis was gone for the moment but I shall never look at the sky in the same way again, day or night.

I love this video clip below, the Aurora Borealis and Australis as seen from the International Space Station.

It seems appropriate to sign off from this post by leaving you with this beautiful footage…

England, Scotland and Berwick

Almost as far North as you can possibly journey within the bounds of England lies Berwick upon Tweed, nestled just a couple of miles from the Scottish border.

On Saturday, I made the 65 mile rail journey north with a friend to see Paul Kenny’s latest show open at The Berwick Watchtower.

As we wandered the streets of this garrison town, the sensations we experienced were odd and uneasy, enough for us to discuss it regularly throughout the day…

The mouth of the River Tweed — Berwick on the left to the North East and Tweedmouth on the right to the South West...

The mouth of the River Tweed — Berwick on the left to the North East and Tweedmouth on the right to the South West…

On the face of it, Berwick is pretty. However, it doesn’t take too long to sense a melancholy and fatigue hanging over the town.

There are small pockets where this isn’t the case but, overall, Berwick certainly appears to be a very northern outpost burdened with a tangible raw edge, perhaps the bleeding edge of the ongoing economic crisis.

Buildings look tired with many high street shops closing or, indeed, closed down. Local estate agents, too, seem awash with property for sale.

There is, however, plenty to admire as some of the architecture is stunning, not least the beautifully named Royal Border Bridge — a vital artery carrying the East Coast Mainline, connecting this remote town at high speed with the rest of the country.

The Royal Tweed bridge over the River Tweed, joining Berwick upon Tweed with Tweedmouth

The Royal Tweed road bridge — an East Coast Mainline train heads to London over the Royal Border Bridge in the distance…

To my mind, Berwick’s outpost feel is largely due to its geography, eclectic history and confused identity where, in the modern era, one can still be left wondering, “Is Berwick Scottish or English?”

Embroiled in bitter, bloody border wars for so many years, it’s hard to know.

The Tweed boils beneath the Old Bridge at Berwick upon Tweed

The Tweed boils beneath the Old Bridge…

Technically, Berwick is English after the most recent capture in 1482 but that’s not always been the case.

In fact, it was even recently pondered whether or not Berwick was technically at war with Russia after it was ‘left out’ of the conclusion to the Crimean War in the 1856 Treaty of Paris!

Perhaps you can now begin to see why I describe an eclectic history?

Not helping matters, Berwick Rangers FC remains the only English football club in the land to compete in the Scottish Football League.

Railway Street, Berwick upon Tweed

My kinda street…

All-in-all, an unconventional day out and one to get the cogs turning.

Paul’s show, of course, look resplendent — his Seaworks so appropriately on display at the coast.

Ultimately, though, it was time to journey home and leave this very northern outpost behind, carrying plenty of feelings to digest and thoughts to ponder about this quirky nation of ours…

Berwick upon Tweed Railway Station

Home time — a train rushes through the pretty railway station at Berwick upon Tweed…

Snow Business

Today, the sun’s been shining and the snowy weather is fast becoming a distant memory.

Some scenes captured over the last few weeks as I trudged around in the white stuff…

Wintery view of the snow in Newcastle upon Tyne from Heaton overlooking Jesmond Vale

Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne

Wintery view of the snow in Newcastle upon Tyne looking down the Byker Link

Snow clouds loom over the Byker Link, Newcastle upon Tyne

Wintery scene from Newcastle upon Tyne to Gateshead as seen from the Byker Link

High rise flats bathe in the skinny sunlight across the river in Gateshead

Wintery sunset from Newcastle upon Tyne to Gateshead as seen from Jack Lowe Studio

From my studio, another stunning wintery sunset over Gateshead

Wintery view of the snow in Newcastle upon Tyne from Heaton overlooking Jesmond Vale

From the sanctuary of our home…