Thursday, 21 June 2012

Setting myself a challenge Day 7 – Midsummer’s Day

In starting this challenge to write 1000 words a day while on a two week holiday, I thought I’d steer clear of writing about wildlife. Not that I had become weary of wildlife, far from it. It was more that the reason behind this challenge was to provide discipline and structure to my attempts to write; to develop an ability to write about anything that came into my head upon first waking. However an interesting observation is that many of my first waking thoughts began with the letter W; Walking, Wind, [walking] sticks; [writing] Mills and Boon. Undoubtedly a psychiatrist would make a reasoned study of this obsession with the 23rd letter of the English alphabet.

However today I mean to turn my ideas of not writing about wildlife around, as well as turning the W thought’s of the week about, to begin today’s 1000 words with the letter M: Midsummer’s Day.

At 04.52 British Summertime today, it was officially the Summer Solstice. I’ve written about my love of both the summer and winter solstices before on this blog. There is something to embrace, that constant turning of the Wheel of the Year, which we as sophisticated humans can neither control nor affect. For millennia our Planet has revolved around the Sun, and so each day either lengthens or shortens. This makes no two days the same and that uniqueness of daylight length is a fascination to me. The arrival of the Summer Solstice is a pivotal moment in the 12 month cycle, but unlike the Winter Solstice, which I find universally uplifting, I find the Summer Solstice both uplifting and sad.

I love these long days. Here as I write in Wiltshire it becomes light by about 4am and twilight still covers the sky at 11pm. Of course further north, in places like Shetland for a few weeks it will never really become dark at all. I recall watching otters on the Isle of Skye at midnight one Solstice evening. Sitting on my own on a coastal headland, I watched those otters playing and feeding amongst the kelp beds, as clear to me as if it had been full sunlight.

The summer solstice though can make me feel sad because, imperceptibly at first, I know that from today the daylength will begin to shorten and autumn then winter are ahead of me. I think this melancholic side must be due to my Scandinavian genes; the Nordic countries do make the most of the summer daylength, knowing that in a few months darkness will dominate their lives for the long winter ahead.

But this year as the days lengthened in early June I set myself another quest, that of seeing a glowing glow worm. In all my years of wandering about the countryside I had never seen a flightless glowing female advertising herself to a passing flying male. It is thought that glow worms are in decline nationally, although this may possibly be more a result of increasing light pollution causing their admittedly very bright light to be dulled and hard to see by anyone looking for them. In dark areas of the countryside, the female glow worm light is so bright it can easily be seen 20 meters away.

And so it was that last night on the night of the Summer Solstice, Julie and I set off to look for glow worms. I’d found a single female glowing the night before and intended to return to look for more. Before that we drove to a disused railway line at Wootton Rivers on the edge of the vast Savernake Forest. There have been historical reports of glow worms here and so with anticipation of seeing one we headed off down the railway line. It was 10 o’clock and there was still enough light to see the banks of this track were covered in wild flowers. Moths too danced about in amongst the shrubs, it was good to see them as this year has not been kind to moths and butterflies.

Suddenly I heard a noise and there right in front of us, a black and white striped face, a badger, just three or 4 feet away. I’m not sure who was the more startled. I called to Julie behind me but in doing so this gave old Brock enough time to disappear into the undergrowth. After walking a good length of the railway we had not seen any glow worms, so we returned to the car and drove to Great Bedwyn.

Driving around the empty lanes here in rural Wiltshire often brings us closer to wildlife. Near Crofton a polecat (or maybe polecat x ferret) ran across the road in front of the car towards a rabbit, but, seeing the car, turned and ran into the hedge. These mustelids with their ‘Lone Ranger’ mask are becoming quite common around here I believe and recently I found one dead by the road near Pewsey. If that wasn’t enough, as we arrived at the railway footpath crossing, the car headlight picked out a barn owl, which again seeing the car approach flew off.

About a quarter of all glow worm sightings are along railways or tracks and so as we got out of the car and with caution quickly crossed the main Plymouth to Paddington railway line, there in the same spot as the previous night, a bright green glow, the size and intensity of a L.E.D light on a hi-fi. Julie, like me, had never seen a glow worm until last night and, despite being gripped by hayfever, we were both mesmerised while I took a photograph. Returning to our car, I looked along the railway line. There not 20 feet away another glow by the side of the track. In dark areas like this they really do stand out and there may have been more, but this is a very fast line and it would be foolhardy to trespass, so I observed from the comparative safety of the footpath crossing.

But I shall remember this Midsummer’s night, looking for, and finding, glow worms in Wiltshire, a priceless memory for me as the days imperceptibly begin to shorten.


  1. A most interesting and absorbing read Andrew. It sounded like you spent a magical evening hunting for those little gems. I have seen them myself but it was a long time ago, very memorable though.

    I share your feeling of melancholy at the thought of the shortening days, most particularly this year when we have been so deprived of good weather. I have always found it rather odd that June 21st is officially the first day of Summer but June 24th is midsummer's day!!

    I also enjoyed yesterday's post about the walking stick. I was reminded of how, as children, my brother and I used to make bows and arrows in a similar but very childish way :-)

  2. What ever happened to Children playing with a stick and some water? Nowerdays ShySongbird they need financially expensive entertainment. Sad!