Saturday, 21 June 2014

Frost and space

Midwinter is upon us, and those clear, frosty nights present opportunities for certain, peculiar creatures of the night...

Astrovan and, naturally, Astrohut.  (Photograph: Mark Mullen)
Prolific sociobiologist Desmond Morris describes teenagers as suffering from an almost irresistible urge to venture out at night and bond with their own kind, all for the ultimate purpose (as most of Morris’s work seems to circle back to) of enthusiastic procreation.
At that age, my friends and I were no different, or at least we didn’t think so. Strapping a comfortable mattress on to the roof rack of our van, we would set forth on a Saturday night to cruise for heavenly bodies.
I urge anyone feeling impressed or appalled to hesitate before sending your ‘‘man points’’ or outraged complaints: the objects of our intense interest really were in the heavens, and the mattress was simply a comfortable viewing platform – we were stargazers.

It’s difficult to remember exactly where the fascination began.  I suspect it came from preoccupation with two equally geeky branches of science; fiction and physics, back in our fourth form. But ultimately the nocturnal camaraderie shared over the remaining secondary school years led to friendships which last to this day.
We named ourselves the ‘Star League’: we had coffee in thermos flasks, telescopes in our vehicle (soon christened the ‘astrovan’), Queen tapes in the cassette player and absolutely no concept of cool.  None of us would ever be compared to a Greek God, but we knew just where to find Orion, Mars, Jupiter and even Venus. (And yes, I even know that those are actually the Roman names).

Most of my memories of these sessions, when the whole universe seemed to open up to us through the cold eye-piece of a telescope, took place in the icy, inky darkness of midwinter. Darkness fell early enough for us to star gaze on a school night and there would be no residual heat-haze in the upper atmosphere.
Eventually, an opportunity came our way that only a Star Leaguer could rapturise about.  We had been invited to spend a night at (the now defunct) Blackbirch observatory, perched high atop a snowy mountain near Blenheim.  We would be looking at the sky from inside a huge motorised dome – just like real astronomers.
It was the end of July, and there was so much snow on the summit that we doubted we would get up at all.  In fact, our vehicle was eventually abandoned at the snowline and we found ourselves crunching through heavy snow carrying, among other things, a very large telescope and a crate of milk.
We might have been science nerds, but snow was a rarity where we came from and a savage snow-fight was absolutely mandatory before anything serious could take place.

After an unidentified stew and a fuzzy high-altitude viewing of Ready to Roll (I seem to recall Elton John’s Lennon tribute ‘Empty Garden’ at number one that week), we donned, gloves, scarves, jackets, another jacket, balaclavas, and hit the sky hard.
On reflection, I believe this was the first time I ever stayed up all night, and possibly never for better reason.  The dome was our frosted Cathedral for worshipping the heavens, and we travelled spellbound through space like never before –and probably never again.  We skirted distant spiral galaxies and basked in the far-off glow of colossal gas nebulae. We explored shimmering star clusters and even briefly joined a recently-discovered comet on its unimaginably vast journey.  The entire cosmos was our playground, and our mothers weren’t there to call us in.

Sketch showing the interior of the Blackbirch dome. (27/6/82)
Many hours later, exhausted by cold and wonder, we sprawled on the nearby kitchen floor – under-floor heating being a recent and hugely welcome novelty.  But before long the eastern sky soon began to glow, and sunrise was yet another spectacle to be added to our visual embarrassment of riches.  In unspoken consent, we piled outside into the rapidly-dwindling darkness to watch.
The only cloud all night now provided a burning scarlet ribbon rippling across the sky, while the hushed, snowy landscape around us blushed pink in the dawn light, ringed by golden peaks etched with cold blue shadows.  It was indescribably beautiful, a Renaissance master’s vision of Heaven.  But alas, we were young, and our silent awe soon turned to another noisy snow-fight in an irreverently short period of time.

The Star League was to last for many years afterwards (some might argue that it still does).  We’d camp during the school holidays (‘astrocamps’, naturally) in the isolated wilds of Marlborough, still braving the cold while we communed with each other and the Universe at large. Studiously written and preserved ‘viewing’ reports and photographs pasted into albums have now become precious, tattered glimpses into our own pasts. What began as an astronomy club became an inseparable group of friends who weathered their often confusing, but sometimes utterly wonderful adolescence together in a beaten-up van with a mattress tied to the roof.  And while the constellations circled above us we gradually, irrevocably grew into adults. We sold the astrovan, left home, graduated, married, travelled - one of us even became a real astronomer and actually served at a new observatory right next to the one we stayed up all night in.

When some of us meet up, every few years or so, it’s inevitable that we’ll again feel that irresistible nocturnal compulsion which Desmond Morris didn’t mean. And eventually we end up outside in the cold, bundled up warmly and gazing up at the stars.

1 comment:

  1. I remember you guys returning from Blackbirch Observatory. Awesome.