Northern lights down south

At over 75 you don’t expect many excitements that you haven’t had before. May 10 2024 proved to be one of the exceptions.

The northern lights have been an elusive fascination for many years.  I had seen the pictures in books, and of course there have been many TV celebrity excursions to Iceland, the Arctic Circle, and Northern Scandinavia; you know the ones where there is beautiful scenery of snow and blue skies, and night-time footage searching for the Aurora day after day.  It always seems to happen on the last night when they’ve given up hope of seeing it, but then the celebrity is immersed in wonderful blue, green and red waves of colour and flowing curtain effects.  It looks magical and indeed has been magically unattainable all my life.

A few years ago, we took a Christmas cruise from Kirkenes at the northern tip of Norway down the West Coast for a week with Hurtigruten.  There was no guarantee of seeing the Aurora. There was a special alert on your phone in the cabin so that you could be woken up if the northern lights were spotted.  Of course the nights were long with the sun not rising at all on the northernmost part of the voyage.  But the alert didn’t ring, no northern lights appeared.  And we disembarked with photos in a book but no actual reallife Aurora experience.

Back in UK, I noted there were special flights that circled northern climes, without actually landing, in which you could look out through those small aircraft windows and see the lights; they never sounded very convincing.

So it seemed the only hope would be one day to be in Scotland or Northern England on a clear night when there had been exceptional activity on the sun. 

Down in Sutton near London, I regularly send my family the Internet alerts for possible Aurora sightings, especially to my daughter who lives in Suffolk, our most northerly family territory.

On May 10 in the morning, it was in fact my daughter who sent us a possible Aurora sighting for that night.  Of course, it was going to be just one more in a series of no shows, wasn’t it.

The forecast for the night was for clear skies.   In the sunny evening I was out on a football field overseeing grandson while his parents were away. I exchanged texts with other amateur enthusiasts who told me that there was ‘a massive CMA a couple of days ago which has led to the prospect of widespread Aurora’.  Standing on the touchline, I passed it on to one of the other footballers’ parents who made the usual remark of incredulity ‘northern lights, they never come down to London, we’ll never see them down here’. 

Back home and with a tired grandson off to sleep, I remembered the advice and went into the back garden at 2230; it was indeed a clear night with good visibility of stars and no visibility of Moon; a warm night as opposed to those frozen winter viewing nights. By 2300 having seen no sign of Aurora I went back inside to go to bed.  Having turned out the downstairs lights and gone upstairs I thought I’d have one last glance out of the back bedroom windows.  I shall never forget the sight of that red band across the eastern sky.  It was not the familiar glow of urban pollution from Croydon.  There was no possibility of it being a reflection of the sunset by that time.  It can only be the long awaited Aurora. 

I have rarely run down the stairs so swiftly, thinking it might be fleeting and I would miss it.  But as my eyes grew accustomed in the back garden, there were shades of pink or red or purple bands across the sky. Colour streaks up above the rooftops and I was able to get photographs using my Samsung Galaxy 10 in night mode.  As they always say, cameras are far better at picking up the Aurora than the naked eye.  I alerted the family hoping some of them might be awake and was delighted to see on our family Whatsapp photos of purple and yellow bands from my daughter in Suffolk.

It was an amazing experience following the colours round the sky and sharing experience by mobile phone with others.  It was hard to know when to stop watching, the night was getting late and I was pleased to see my feeling confirmed by others saying ‘they seem to have faded now’.  Later that night and the next morning we were able to savour the photos, amateur and professional, from all over the country and from other people who never thought they would see the northern lights this far south.

The next day was Saturday, May 11.  Going out at the same time revealed no northern lights, but I was able to track 7 minutes of the ISS passing high overhead.  No possibility of taking its picture as it traversed northern lights but there was its constant speeding light…. so predictable, so precise.

What a contrast between the natural world and man made; the natural world impossible to forecast exactly even with the experts following the activities on the sun - so amazing when actually you are lucky enough to see them.  The man-made world predictable and precise - still amazing to witness even if somehow less magical.  

Back to News