The festive season, with all its sparkle, is soon to be upon us. But rather than become swept up in the chaos and commerce of it all, we have stepped away to look at the new rituals that are entering our twenty-first century lives. Rituals that involve snow, ice and stars – deep winter elements that we all long for at this time of year. We began with stargazing, then explored ice skating, now we follow Harriet Fraser's journey, as she walks through the snow on a winter's morning...
With the aim of watching the sun rise from the top of a snow-covered hill, we began our walk in the thickness of night, bundled into warm clothes to keep out the bite of frost. The sky was the darkest of blues - the colour of ocean depths. We know this path well, but couldn’t make out the shapes of the surrounding fells. All was black save for bright pricks of stars and planets, and the funnel of light from our head torches. It was as night as it could be. But we were on the cusp of change - the planet turning as it always does - heading into dawn. And I discovered today that there are not one, but three dawns.
‘Astronomical Dawn’ is the point in time when the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon. It came as we crunched uphill through snow. We stopped and switched off the torches and in the absence of their glare we could appreciate that not all was black. With our feet planted in deep snow, ourselves cloaked in darkness, we were stilled to a collective, breathless ‘Wow’ by the crystalline blue where the first light of astronomical dawn showed itself in the east.
We tilted our heads back to look at the stars and the constellations, pointing to 'that one' and 'that one'. Some we recognized: The Great Bear, the Pole Star and, where the sky was lightening to the south, Venus, glowing amber.
While we were looking up, the light in the east spread like a gold dust storm. ‘Nautical Dawn’ had arrived – the time of day when the sky is no longer black, but still dark enough for the stars to be seen (and to be used for navigation). The sun is 12 degrees below the horizon.
When it's well below freezing and there's snow all around it doesn't take long to cool down, so standing and staring doesn’t last long. We turned our torches back on and trudged onwards, gaining height and warming up. Another ten minutes and it was possible (although not entirely sensible, given all the ice and the stones hidden beneath snow) to switch off the torches. I love walking in half-light. Now, with stars disappearing, as if being pinched out, we could stop from time to time and take in the silence of the snow-clad fell. The snow was turning blue, very pale blue, at first, and then a soft turquoise. The going was tough though, with our feet unpredictably sinking through snow, sometimes thigh-deep, so we needed to focus, one foot in front of the other, and heads down.
By the time we were high enough to look across the spread of Lake District fells, the sky was a spectrum of golds and oranges and the stars had disappeared. The summits of Froswick, Ill Bell, Yoke and High Street, all draped in snow, were a grey-purple, like blueberries blended with cream. Nautical Dawn had passed and we were now in ‘Civil Dawn’, which begins when the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon, and lasts until the sun actually comes into sight. For about fifteen minutes, the sky held only the coming of light, a soft progression of colour that cannot be captured any other way than with the eye. I was unable to move, not because I was wedged in the snow, or too cold, but because it seemed the only way to be in the presence of this magical window of time when the mountains, the snow, the clouds and the sun worked in harmony.
A little further up the fell in the shelter of a wall we opened our flasks. Warm tea steamed into our rouged faces as we looked eastwards to catch true sunrise. We didn't talk. We simply stood and we gazed. And when the sun rose, an orb of fire that turned the snow from soft pinks to sparkling white, we whooped. How could you not?
Of course once you’ve climbed to the top of a mountain, you still need to come down, to exchange the breath-taking summits for the hush of the valley. We snaked our way down and towards the river where the grass was still green, and after a couple of hours we arrived at one of our favourite trees, the Kentmere Rowan, whose leafless branches hung limp in the cold air. It wasn’t long, though, before snow came in from the north, light as goose-down, and drew the valley into a white chill, sending us out of the valley and back towards the warmth of the house.
Words by Harriet Fraser. Photography by Rob Fraser.
Harriet and Rob Fraser work together at www.somewhere-nowhere.com. The Kentmere Rowan is one of seven trees featured in their project, The Long View.