Until the invention of reliable electric light, we relied on poor quality candles or some form of an oil-based lamp. No at the flick of a switch on my wall, I can have more light output from one lamp than most people had in a home 150 years ago. Whilst this saturation of artificial light may have some positive effects, there are also lots of negative ones too, it affects wildlife and migration, our own natural rhythms including sleep are heavily affected and we have also lost sight of one our fantastic natural displays, the night sky.
Matt Gaw wants to rediscover this lost part of our natural world, but his first night out is walking through the snow under a brooding cloudy sky! It has been a while since he has been out watching the sun drop below the horizon, just for the pure pleasure in doing so. As his eyes adjust to the gloaming, he notices that his other senses sharpen to compensate for the lower resolution of his vision. Night has always been a time to do other things, but for the first time, he realises that it is not a gloomy place but full of subtle experiences for the senses.
Buoyed by the success of his first venture outdoors at night he starts to come up with other plans to discover the other half of our day. Realising that he has never seen a moonrise, he heads to the beach at Covehithe to watch it rise one evening and is slightly staggered by the size of the moon as it sits just above the horizon.
When there is a full moon you will see very few stars as the light reflected from the surface washes them from the sky. There is the same problem in cities and towns because of the light pollution, to see the stars properly you need to head to a place with very little human habitation so his next visit is the Galloway Forest. Back in 2009, this became the UK’s first dark sky park. Now there are 62 of them and they are places where the night sky is protected for its scientific, natural, educational and cultural value. In reality, what this means is that you can fully appreciate the majesty of the night sky and the Milky Way and appreciate just how much light is visible from stars millions of light-years away.
This night has also been considered the time when dark things happen. The absence of light turns things that wouldn’t worry us, into disturbing forms. So Gaw decides that the best place to experience this in its most elemental state is up on Dartmoor. This bleak and often inhospitable moor is full of places that have an otherworldly feeling or haunted atmosphere, or gruesome stories and of course, there is the Wisht Hounds, the inspiration for Hound of the Baskervilles. Half the time though he is not sure if the unease is caused by the nefarious presences or the fear of getting lost…
To understand just how much light pollution there is in a city and to see how pervasive it is, he heads into London with his friend, Shaun. They get off the train at Liverpool Street, which in times past, is a place where the curfew bell was tolled. Curfews were bought in by the Norman invaders and people had to be inside and lights extinguished. There was a safety aspect to this, but it is thought that they were primarily to minimise political rebellion. On the street, though there is light everywhere, it is flooding out the windows of empty offices and from the constant stream of traffic passing. The sky is not visible and the darkest part is the glistening wet road. This pervasive light pollution is slowly starting to change as local authorities assess ways of changing light according to needs.
His final trip takes him back to Scotland and to the designated Dark Sky community on the Island of Coll. He is staggered by the number of stars that he can see and it takes him a little while to re-orientate himself with the constellations. This is the perfect place for him to introduce his children to the wonders of the Milky Way and the night sky.
I am fortunate to live just below Cranborne, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty and has applied to be Dark Sky reserve. I spent many evenings near there when my daughter was studying her Astronomy GCSE and have seen the Milky Way in its full glory. I was really looking forward to this book. This is another well-conceived and well-written book by Gaw. Like his first book, The Pull of the River, I like that he brings almost no personal baggage with him on these journeys. He is driven by his curiosity about a subject and wants to experience and discover for himself all about it. He is doing these things because he can and because he wants to. If you liked the sound of this I can also recommend Dark Skies by Tiffany Frances and Night Walks by Chris Yates.
Paul Cheney 4/4*
Under the Stars: A Journey Into Light by Matt Gaw
9781783964635 Elliott & Thompson Hardback February 2020