The first time I saw Comet Neowise, it had just appeared low on the north western horizon after sunset; a space traveller speeding past planet Earth. Made of ice, water, rock and dust, and three miles wide, it was travelling at 40 miles per second, 70 million miles high. When it last sped by Earth 6,800 years ago, it would have passed a planet whose forest lungs were healthy and whose ocean corals were flourishing. But here it was again, and miraculously, there I was watching it.
Since that Sunday night in mid July, I waited longingly for the night skies to clear but all week, the evening clouds hung like blankets with only the odd star poking through the breaks. Having seen the comet in its finest hour, I couldn’t wait for my son to see it.
But at last came the following Friday night and the weather bode well. We walked out along the track to the ancient fort of Hambledon Hill; an enormous Neolithic earth works that dominates the North Dorset countryside. The first workings date back 5,500 years and long after the very same comet had adorned the skies above it.
Armed with our evening meal, blankets and binoculars, we set off on our own personal journey of celestial discovery.
Down the trailway, we met a roosting baby kestrel whose presence unnerved the nearby wrens who relentlessly chirred in disgust, and a barn owlet shrieking eerily from the sagging, aged barn. Nearing the hill fort, the sky suddenly dimmed into a myriad of blue hues; the last vestiges of light illuminating the wooded trail where once warriors would have climbed up to their hilltop village.
By twilight we reached the summit marked by two burial mounds. We pitched camp and ate our fare in silence waiting for time to pass and full darkness to fall and reveal its secrets.
Eventually there, in the constellation of The Great Bear, was a ball of light with a feathery tail. Taking the binoculars my grown-up son stands proud of the mound to marvel at this celestial traveller. His tall silhouette reminiscent of the once ten-year-old who gazed up at the wonder of the night sky on Dartmoor; an impressionable boy with a thirst for maths and physics. Where have the years rolled to I wondered; where does time go once it has been lived?
The Milky Way stretched its feathery arm from horizon to horizon, marking the clouds of stars at the centre of our universe. Satellites slipped high above the earth and the international space station spooked silently over our heads. All was still for a moment: us, time, the ancient hill fort, its people, the owls, the mesmerising night sky and the comet. Magical. Gathering our belongings we made for home; our path lit by tiny glow worms. This but a brief moment, a storyline in our time, a memory bottled forever in our hearts. Thank you comet Neowise.
Photographs of the comet courtesy of Neil Bundle (Thank you Neil!).