It’s the first warm weekend in May, and as it’s England, the first temperate night of the year. Nerd internet is a buzz with natural wonder. Not because the space weather wierdos have emerged to preach the gospel of “coronal mass ejection”. No, nerd net is abuzz because aurora borealis is going to be unusually strong tonight. Strong enough to be seen from urban London. Initially I’m not that fussed. As previously mentioned, I live in a country that grows 64.3% of the world’s cloud cover.

However after me an the wife have finished the bedtime procedure (she goes to bed first, plays shitty games on the iPad, gets angry that I’m late to bed, passively aggressively suggested a tv show to watch) we have a look out the window for evidence of solar weather.

The sky has the faint yellow azure glow of a clear night. I hem and haw. Finally I think “fuck it, it’s not going to happen again anytime soon” and resolve to go out and take pictures. The significant life partner begins the mocking procedure. “Are you really going to go out? It looks cold. Just don’t be too late.”

I live in suburban London. This normally is a handicap for observing the nights sky. I therefore plot a route to the nearest dark place. (Dark being a relative term here)

The place I have selected for tonight’s observations is a former explosives establishment. The Victorian’s chose it because it was:

1) in the middle of nowhere
2) highly moist.

Currently it’s an informal rubbish tip, quarry and rifle range. It is, therefore a perfect place to wonder around at midnight. I turn off the main road and drive into a surprisingly well kept country road. As I travel deeper into the marsh, both the wildlife and signs telling me I’m being watched become more apparent.

Every other passing place has a motion activated flood light, complete with flashing “CCTV” cameras. Finally I pass a sign saying “warning: active shooting area. Please be aware of falling shot”. I pull in at the next passing place and turn off the car.

As soon as press the “off” button, the interior lights come on full blast. Sod you and your night vision, please do not attempt to turn off the lights, they’ll only stay on longer out of spite. I curse inwardly as I try and join my oversized camera to an undersized tripod. It requires close coordination of both eyes and hands. All I can see are the silhouettes of the two interior lights. Bastard thing.

Finally, having joined the parts together, I open the car door. A wall of noise washes over me. Specifically, The noise of avian and amphibian fucking. Being British, I didn’t think that kind of thing happened here. I suppose that’s the youth of today for you.

I find north and begin looking for the aurora. I don’t immediately see anything much. I see the remnants of today’s clouds. I don’t see anything aurora shaped.

The only thing I see is a black foreground, containing, from what I can hear, horny frogs. The inky expanse spreads forwards to the industrial lights of the quarry. Immediately above the quarry illumination hangs a toenail sliver of the moon, in pleasing fungus yellow. “If all else fails, I’ll have some good moon photos” I think.

I take my first few pictures. They are blurry. The autofocus doesn’t work (understandably) and I forget that the tripod wobbles when it touch it. I can hear the choir of space photography nerds tutting. “DELAY THE SHUTTER YOU PRICK” I hear them chant. So I follow the photo nerd’s advice and put the delayed action shutter on.

I finally manage configure the camera, set the focus and exposure. I’m about to give up, the photos of the moon are over exposed, the sky is meh. Turns out I’m shit at night photography, which is deeply unsurprising.

I hear a particularly horny bird fly past me and look up. I see vertical clouds. They look a bit odd, but then it strikes me: fucking astral light show innit.

As you might know if you watch avatar in 3D at a shit cinema, colour perception drops off as the light levels decrease. I didn’t immediately clock the aurora, as it wasn’t blue or red. What I did see was structure, lots of fine detail. It just looked like odd clouds. Perhaps I had seen Aurora before, but because its not coloured, I hadn’t realised.

The battery is dying on my camera, and I have the wrong lens for this kind of work. So I begin to pack up. As I’m putting the last of my things in the car I hear an engine noise. As I jump into the car, a drain pumping van zooms past at “I’m not really a drug dealer, so please don’t follow me down this country road” speed.

I decide it’s time to return home.

As I emerge from the country road into the “vestibule” that joins the main junction, I catch a glance at what I assume were failed doggers in a Prius. Great moustache, poor choice of car for sexy time.

Note: these have only had exposure and contrast changed. everything else is as the camera imagined it.