I am pleased to announce that I have made another change. This time it concerns how I view the sky – I now love it. Here, I refer only to daytime skies when all is visible and little is left to guesswork. At night, much goes unseen and what is visible is often mysterious, sometimes even perturbing. That is certainly how I feel when confronted by the vastness of the Milky Way.
Back to the daytime – as a child, I knew that grey clouds brought rain, the sun provided light and a ‘red sky at night’ meant a ‘shepherd’s delight’, and there was little more. Later I grew more interested and would often notice if a cloud resembled a face or a map, was always puzzled by rainbows and felt cold and apprehensive on the two occasions when the daytime sun disappeared – the total solar eclipses of 1961 and 1999. Whenever my wife, Rohan urged me to look at an unusual sky ‘scene’, I did so more out of politeness than interest.
During the last ten years I have spent most of my summer months living in a tiny Brittany village, and there, quite unlike my customary urban surrounds, the sky is everywhere. In Brittany, looking out of our bedroom window, or sitting on our terrace, the sky on a clear day is a boundless delight. It is a unending space that draws me in, fascinates and heartens.
Watching birds-of-prey, often in pairs, riding the thermals higher and higher is such a treat. Being able to look at the sky twenty kilometres upwind and see what weather to expect over the next hour is magical.
Then there is the magnificence of the summer sky’s colours. Sunrises on the horizon to our left, sunsets to our right, all invariably surprise and delight. They have always been loved by Rohan; now, too they are a feast for me. More extraordinary is the magnificent rich deep evening blue when looking west towards the sea. The silhouettes the colour forms as a background to the black branches of our neighbour’s tree has the atmosphere of a Magritte painting.
But for me, the oddest change is how I have grown to love a particular aspect of the sky’s traffic. In South West London, where we live close to one of the Heathrow flight paths, planes are so often noisy, ugly, invasive and threatening. On a bad day they roar past almost in touching distance where, just by existing, their sound and sight pollute, and the sky above is stolen.
From our garden in Brittany the traffic brings a completely different feel. Above us the planes are tiny, silent, silvery ‘dots’ almost lost high in the sky, and when seen like this they feel like a natural decoration of the sky’s furniture.
It is their white plumes that stay criss-crossing the sky for hours that give them away and, by the direction of the lines drawn, they tell us from where the planes have come and where they are heading. Well that is the game we play. We have been guessing airline provenance and destination for years, and have calculated that most are flying between Paris and North or Central America, or somewhere in Spain.
Guessing has given endless amusement but recently, when my sister Sarah was with us for her customary end-of-summer week, our calculations were challenged. It was mid-morning and we were looking south at a plane bound for Mexico or so I believed. “But surely it is not going to Mexico, much more likely to be São Paulo in Brazil”, she commented, and she was right.
In the past, arguments on the details of different plane routes could never be resolved but, in response to Sarah’s assertion, I had an idea – why not find an online, real-time, plane-tracking site to check details first hand. It would be simple – look up at the sky, decide on a dot of interest, match the dot and its plume with a yellow plane icon hopping like a flea across the screen and the job would be done. Within minutes we tapped on the plane’s icon and its details appeared; up in the sky we were watching KLM flight KL791 from Amsterdam to São Paulo; point made!
On several occasions over the next few days I checked the planes that passed and was soon forced to re-adjust my compass by about 30 degrees; planes I had thought were flying ‘north-south’, were actually going from ‘north-east to south-west’.
I now see the sky as a wonderful, vibrant and rewarding space; what a waste that its discovery has taken me so long. But in that there could be a disadvantage – if I were to become an obsessional plane spotter it would be awful!
The illustration shows a real time map of planes passing over Brittany. Our cottage is directly beneath the nose of the plane icon crossing the town called ‘Concarneau’.
For help with writing this blog I would like to thank Al, for his ongoing technical assistance, Sarah, Vivien and Rohan.