Hampshire Skies

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So, did you see the Super Moon? Thanks to the closest orbit of a full moon to Earth in 70 years, on 13 November the moon appeared bigger and brighter than usual. With the South Downs National Park designated an International Dark Sky Reserve, we have opportunities in our own backyard for enjoying the night sky with minimal light pollution. Luckily, I was alerted to the Super Moon event by Charlie, the tabby, who for much of the evening refused to leave his observation post by the back door. I managed to sneak outside in my wellies and was rewarded by the spectacle of a huge, luminous golf ball of a moon, its mountains and craters clearly visible to the naked eye, and seemingly suspended just above the roof. I’m so glad I witnessed this beautiful phenomenon, because the next Super Moon isn’t expected until 2034.

Of course, with a little forward planning, I could have taken my amateur astronomy to a higher level, to an elevated spot in the Hampshire countryside where the sky opens up like a planetarium. Old Winchester Hill, near the village of Exton in the Meon Valley, is just such a place, recommended by the International Dark Sky Association as one of the South Downs’ best locations for star-gazing. Having recently explored the summit of Old Winchester Hill in daylight, I can only imagine how atmospheric it would be on a clear night.

This is a place to come for some of the best views in Hampshire. The hill dominates the landscape, offering a panoramic outlook across steep chalky slopes, springy grassland and a patchwork of fields. Summer brings orchids and cowslips, followed by ox-eye daisies and scabious, along with flotillas of chalkhill blue butterflies. But I was here in autumn, when oak leaves were turning to gold and holly trees were dotted with scarlet berries. As I followed the track from the car park, a sharp-eyed blackbird enjoyed tail-end berries among the brambles, and hedgerows were edged by desiccated stems of towering hogweed.
Looking down into the valley, the southern slopes were lit by afternoon sun; it glinted off the wings of a gang of cawing rooks circling overhead. But the damp coombes on the chilly northern side were deep in shadow, made yet darker by pockets of impenetrable woodland. Some of these craters resulted from the efforts of Second World War military exercises, but it’s thought that human activity here dates back as much as 4000 years.

It is certainly atmospheric. The land is shaped by a series of Bronze Age burial mounds, which loom like a pod of grassy whales on the crest of the hill. Just as striking, are the remains of an Iron Age settlement, fortified with a ditch and ramparts dug from the earth with ancient tools. How long it took them to do it, nobody knows. Old Winchester Hill has never been excavated and, for me, this mystery is part of its charm.

I continued on the path uphill and the sky opened up before me. We may not have the ‘big skies’ of East Anglia, but on this particular day the Hampshire horizon was spectacular! Stately cumulus clouds drifted across the bright blue sky like ships on the ocean. As I turned the corner, a string of teenagers loped by, bedrolls strapped to their rucksacks, billy cans swinging. Laughing and joking, their Duke of Edinburgh expedition clearly offered more than sore feet and aching shoulders.

Swinging open a gate, I was now on part of the South Downs Way. A couple wearing serious boots sat on a bench, unwrapping sandwiches and fruit. Proper hikers, not a Sunday stroller like me. I carried on towards the summit and noticed a solitary figure silhouetted against the skyline. The view here at almost 200 metres above sea level, stretched for miles, with a glimpse of the sparkling coast in the distance. I stopped to take a photograph, and when I looked again the stranger had gone. I shivered. Time to go home, but I’ll go back soon. Perhaps next time I’ll wait until after dark, and armed with blanket, torch and thermos, I’ll do some star-gazing.

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