06 March 2019 by Roy Preece
Chinese legends often refer to the stars and their constellations, notably the story of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd. In the old days, stars were much more visible and familiar.
When I came to live in my present house nearly forty years ago, it was such a pleasure to find the sky at night was completely dark. This is very rare in England today. I grew up in an England where it was forbidden to show any light at night, even a match to light a cigarette, because of the risk of guiding enemy aeroplane bombers. It is difficult to imagine how magical the night sky was when many smaller stars, even the Milky Way, could be seen that are invisible in the modern glare. I could stare upwards and be overwhelmed by the wonder of the stars. When the sky is completely dark, the stars seem to be closer and they really twinkled.
I decided to learn the patterns and names of the stars. On a dark clear night, with no moon, I would try to memorize a part of the star chart and then go out to find it in the sky. It was very confusing at first, but gradually everything became clearer. As well as well-known constellations I discovered pretty little clusters like the Pleiades (the Seven Sisters), Coma Berenice (Berenice’s Hair) or Praesepe (the Beehive) which are difficult to see normally. I came to realise the truth of the advice, ‘Take your time learning because when you know it all it won’t be so much fun’. Discovering new stars was very exciting,
There were other things to see in the sky too. The main US Air force base in Europe was only ten miles away and sometimes I could see the powerful headlights, small and distant like stars, of the fighter bombers rising into the sky as they took off. The ‘Cold War’ was at its height then and the air base was a number one target for the Russians. Had World War Three started? The government told us we would have only four minutes warning of an attack. No time to get home then, but one morning I read in the paper that those planes had flown all the way to Libya and bombed Colonel Gaddafi in his tent.
The UFO scare was at its height just then too. Could these strange lights rise above the trees be flying saucers? I wondered how I would feel if one landed on the road beside me and I never returned home again.
There were more immediate dangers. Chipperfields, a famous circus, had its winter quarters only a half mile away, across three fields. Every night I could hear the lions roaring. What if one escaped? Someone in the village woke up one morning to see a pygmy hippopotamus in her garden; the incident was reported with a photo in the local newspaper. One night I sensed some large animals on the road in front of me, but the night was too dark to see anything. I heard a clatter of hooves; not lions then. I shone my torch and saw six young escaped cows, heads down and looking belligerent. Perhaps they were more scared of me than I was of them. I hoped so. I shouted and waved my stick and they swung their heads like arrogant teenagers and clattered away up the road. When I reached home I phoned the local farmer to let him know his animals were out.
You don’t need to go to a desert to experience remoteness. You don’t need to go far at all. Like Shaftesbury’s notion of the sublime – the experience of terror without actually being in danger – remoteness can be experienced without being remote. The English countryside used to offer that remoteness. But certain conditions have to be met.
So much has changed now. I see the glow of towns and lights of large road junctions all around the horizon. New residents who have moved out of London to ‘the countryside’ are afraid of the dark and leave outside lights on all night. They even want street lights and pavements. They want the village to be more ‘busy’. If that’s what they want they should go and live in a busy village; there are plenty of them. There are more cars. Forty years ago I could walk for miles and no car would pass me. Now there is (don’t laugh) one every five minutes. I know that’s not many, but even one with its noise and glare and fumes is an affront to the senses and spoils my ‘night vision’, the adaption of my eyes, and of my mind, to the darkness and the stars. Now there are few animals in the fields. Gaddafi, for good or ill, is no more. The US base is closed and derelict. And the Cold War is over …. Or is it?
For an account of English rural life in the 1940s please see this link: