Three dawns in one day

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Posted on January 24, 2016


The five of us began our walk in the thickness of night. The sky was the darkest of blues - perhaps the colour of ocean depths. We knew where we were, as we know this path well, but couldn’t make out the shapes of the surrounding fells. All was dark save for the pin picks of stars and planets, and the funnel of light from our head torches. It was as night as it could be. But we were on the cusp of change: the planet turning as it always does.

‘Astronomical Dawn’ is defined as the point in time when the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon. It came as we crunched uphill through snow. We stopped and switched off the torches. The deep dark was rimmed in the east with a crystalline blue. We were standing, feet planted in snow, involuntarily letting out collective ‘wow’s at the new blue, the first light of astronomical dawn.


We tilted our heads back to look at the stars, pointing to 'that one ' and 'that one ' as we found those we recognised. The Great Bear, the Pole Star and, where the sky was lightening to the south, Venus, a celebratory point of gold. To the south artificial orange from the lights of Morecambe blended with the dark.

While we were looking up, the light rising beyond the plateau of Ingleborough in the east was gathering a dusty gold and the sky's black was fading to pale. ‘Nautical Dawn’ had arrived – the time of day when the sky is no longer black, but still dark enough for the stars to be seen (and used for navigation). Nautical Dawn is calculated to be the point in time when the sun is 12 degrees below the horizon.


When it's well below freezing and there's snow all around it doesn't take long to cool down, so we headed on, and up. Another ten minutes and it was possible (although not entirely sensible, given all the ice and the stones hidden beneath snow) to switch off the torches.  I love walking in half light. Now, with stars disappearing, as if being pinched out, and the thin and mythical silence of the snow-clad fell, I was loving every minute. The snow was turning blue, very pale blue, at first, and then a soft turquoise. The wall to my right formed a black boundary. The going was tough though, with our feet unpredictably sinking through snow, knee or thigh deep, so we mostly walked with heads down.

All the stars had gone when we crested Shipman Knotts. The sky was a spectrum of golds and oranges fading to blue. To the north and west the ridge of Froswick, Ill Bell, Yoke and High Street shone a subtle grey-purple, the slightest touch of blueberries blended with cream. Nautical Dawn had passed and we were now in ‘Civil Dawn’, which occurs when the sun reaches 6 degrees below the horizon and lasts until it comes into sight at sunrise.


It may be that the sun had appeared over the horizon already in Norfolk, or even behind Ingleborough, but for now the sky held only the coming of its light, a whetting of visual appetite in moments of colour that cannot be captured any other way than with the eye. There’s a window of magical light that lasts about fifteen minutes, but only comes if the clouds, temperature and sun so conspire. Today it happened.

We stopped at the fell wall, around 600 metres up on the way to Kentmere Pike, to have a warming drink of tea and wait to see the orb of fire rise. In the east above the hills a band of cloud muddied the sun’s light to give a strata of grey-orange, like lava in rock. Watching the sun like this inevitably brings you into a state of awe. We didn't talk. We stood and we gazed. And when the sun broke out beyond the clouds we whooped. Nature's light show had lifted our eyes and our spirits. The sun made our cheeks glow and the fells behind us turned pink. A high start to another day in the mountains.


A word on Dusks

In case you’re wondering, there are also three dusks: Civil Dusk begins with sunset, when the sun disappears, and ends when the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon; Nautical Dusk occurs when the sun is 12 degrees below the horizon; Astronomical Dusk is the point in time when the centre of the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon – beyond this moment the sky becomes completely dark.

We walked through the dawns with Justin and Marina from Bramwell International, and another friend, Louise. Thanks Justin for suggesting we head out at such an early hour, and for telling me about the three dawns. Our walk continued – the other three heading along the ridge to Kentmere Pike and beyond, Rob and I heading down to the valley to spend the afternoon with the Kentmere Rowan, which is one of the seven stars of The Long View.


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