The Milky Way strode across the sky, a band of faint light spanning almost from horizon to horizon. In the distance, lights sparkled like ships on a dark ocean. Such a dark sky with a myriad twinkling stars is a sight that is becoming altogether too rare, or even beyond the experience of many.
This is the heart of the Fens at night. A natural planetarium with glorious low horizons in every direction and a pitch dark sky, just far enough from the sodium city lights of Peterborough and the market towns of Stamford and Spalding.
Indeed, this part of South Lincolnshire, an industrial farming and food-producing landscape by day, is by night one of Britain’s dwindling exceptions to our light-polluted lives.
According to the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), places with the ‘purest’ night-time darkness are - it almost goes without saying - among the least populated in the country.
Dartmoor, Exmoor and the Quantock Hills in the south west; Salisbury Plain and the top of the Chilterns in southern England; parts of Lincolnshire to the east; the Black Mountains and the Brecons in Wales; the Yorkshire moors and some of Northumberland; plus large swathes of Scotland, outside major cities and the Borders.
Early this year Sark – the smallest of the four Channel Islands at just a couple of square miles – became the world's first officially-designated ‘Dark Sky Island’. The US-based International Dark-Sky Association measured Sark's night-time illumination levels and assessed the degree of visibility of constellations in the night sky. And to assist Sark's claim, one of its government officers visited every outside light on the island and recommended measures to cut artificial light seeping into the sky.
Sark is not Britain's only dark success. In 2009 Galloway Forest in Scotland was designated Europe's first ‘Dark Sky Park’. As a result visitor numbers are booming, a new observatory is planned for the edge of the forest and neighbouring local councils have introduced restrictions on outside lighting to preserve the quality of darkness.
The Inner Hebrides’ island of Coll, 13 miles long and three miles wide with two main roads and a small airport, is another dark spot with no security lights on homes, or traffic or street lights.
Much closer to home, the Rutland village of Market Overton recently reduced its light pollution by replacing its old sodium street lights with modern light-emitting diode lamps. Its 39 lamps cost over £20,000 in total to convert but immediately produced an 80 per cent saving in electricity.
These locations, however, remain the exceptions to the light-pollution rule. And they are getting rarer thanks to the increasinegly ‘wasteful’ over-provision of domestic outside lighting by British householders.
CPRE has, for several years, urged government action to limit light pollution from street lamps, overnight illumination of shopping centres, office blocks and public buildings, stark upward lighting from floodlit sports complexes and, at the household level, outdoor lights that are unnecessarily bright or disperse their illumination. Of course it would also save a lot of money and energy too – Britain's street lamps alone cost an estimated £500 million a year to run.
The most common forms of such pollution are ‘light trespass’ when illumination from Britain's 22 million homes and 7.5 million street lights, even if designed with the intention of shining downwards, typically also extends upwards.
Two other common forms are ‘sky glow’ – that orange glow visible for tens of miles around towns and cities easily seen from the air or from distant roads – and ‘glare’, the harsh white light on some modern housing estates and golf driving ranges at night.
As October marches onwards, here in the northern hemisphere we are plunging headlong into days of less daylight, longer nights and the clocks going back – all marking the onset of winter. And, while we say we prefer it lighter for longer, in reality most of us only now experience a limited degree of darkness.
Modern electricity's triumph over the night keeps us all busier. We live in a fast-moving, fully lit world where night still happens but is more of an optional to experience. Our 24/7 supermarket culture has certainly done it’s best to phase out the night.
Yet slowness and silence – the different rhythm of the night – are a necessary correction to the day. And surely life is too short to be all daylight? Moments of life take on a different quality at night-time, where the moon reflects the light of the sun and we have time to reflect what life is to us. So why not turn down the lights and rest awhile? Make more, not less, of the dark evenings ahead.