Eyes on the sky on a sultry solstice night

Long after midnight, with the temperature well above 20C and humidity high, I gave up attempting to sleep and checked what the night sky might offer in compensation. With the moon yet to rise, the village was in darkness, swathed in a murky blanket of haze that all but obscured the mountains to the east. Looking up, a few stars were just visible above the beech trees – whose leaves moved silkily together in the warm wind as though breathing, the only other sounds those of the stream and a few distant sheep.

Crescent moon

A crescent moon rises over the Cambrian Mountains. Photograph: John Gilbey

A brilliant, unmistakable point of light, Venus rose over the Cambrian mountains just before three o’clock, fading in and out of view as it was obscured by the lines of cloud that hung above the horizon. Half an hour later the planet was joined by the moon, a thin waning crescent against a morning sky now tinged with pink as the twilight grew.

As I watched, a few of our brown long-eared bats swooped low over the hedgerows hunting for a last moth or two before returning to the roost in the loft. A brief shower of rain, enough to cool the air only slightly, rattled the beech leaves before moving off across the valley.

The first of the blackbirds started their morning song as the light became brighter. Other birds began to join in, although many – especially the rooks – were far less tuneful. The summer solstice, the northern-most apparent position of the sun, was now only minutes away, and the orange glow from below the horizon was far into the north-east. On paper, sunrise was due at seven minutes to five but this calculation doesn’t take the topography of the landscape into account. A few moments “late”, the disk of the sun, framed by trees and a distant wind farm, threw the mountains into harsh silhouette, backed by streamers of brightly coloured cloud.

By the moment of the solstice, at 24 minutes past five, the depth of colour was already weakening and the banks of haze were building once more across the valley, the air heavy with the promise of thunder.

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