Belfast Telegraph

Friday 28 November 2014

My night with the stars ended with Z-list celebs

Frances Burscough
Frances Burscough

’The Perseid Meteor Shower: an annual phenomenon in the Northern Hemisphere in which particles of dust trailing behind the wake of the comet Swift-Tuttle enter the earth's atmosphere and burn up as a spectacular display of shooting stars.

So called, because they appear to emanate from within the constellation of Perseus, like sparks from the Greek god's mighty sword.

It happens right above us every year in the middle of August, and has done for centuries, but most of us in modern times miss it due to the glare of light pollution from our homes, cities and street lights. Or because we're watching Big Brother.

Although I've been lucky enough to see one or two meteors here and there in my lifetime, I've never witnessed the display en masse. This year it was going to fall on a weekend — last weekend, in fact — and so, come hell or high water, I was determined to see it for myself in all its celestial splendour.

So, first I did my research. Short of a window seat on the NASA International Space Station, one of the best places to view the stars in our area is a remote reservoir next to Ballyboley Forest in Co Antrim, equidistant between Larne and Ballymena. The Northern Ireland Amateur Astronomy website recommended it and it just so happened that the society were actually meeting there for a midnight barbecue and stargazing session on Saturday.

Eureka! So there was my weekend plan in a nutshell: to gatecrash a party of astronomical nerds and witness a spectacle so extraordinary that it will illuminate my memory forever. And make one humdinger of an article in the process.

Well, in theory at least.

In practice, what I was actually planning to do was to drive, on my own (in my capacity as a single, white female) to a very remote, unlit forest in the a******e of nowhere in the middle of the night and mingle with a lot of strange men.

Am I insane? Probably.

So, casting all caution to the wind (as usual) on Saturday night, as dusk drew its misty veil across the northern sky, I packed up my car and set off on my latest hair-brained scheme. (Don't try this at home — I'm doing it so you don't have to.)

In the boot of the car: one disposable barbecue; one picnic basket containing packet of frozen burgers plus all the usual accoutrements; one sunlounger; one pillow; one sleeping bag; one torch; one notebook with vague directions jotted down off the website; no map; no sat-nav; no sense of direction — indeed, no common sense whatsoever ...

Bangor A2, to Belfast M5, to Newtownabbey M2, to Larne A8 — so far so good. I was on a roll. Until I turned off the main road onto the A36 and got horribly lost.

So I did what no person in their right mind should ever do in such circumstances: I flashed my beams and flagged down a passing motorist. Now this bloke might have been a serial killer for all I knew, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

“‘Scuse me sir! Can you tell me the way to the reservoir?”

Now, he did reply something, but it sounded like Ulster Scots and I couldn't understand a single word he said. But he did point a few times in the vague direction of up a hill, so that's where I went next ... and drove around aimlessly, hopelessly lost for another 15 minutes.

Until I did the next crazy thing on my list, which was to pull up to a parked car in an even more remote layby and ask for directions a second time ... from a couple who were clearly having sex. “Sorry love, we're not from round here,” was all they could manage in between gasps and moans.

Finally, when I'd been driving up and down for an hour, scouring the roads for signposts, passing scuttling badgers and dodging foxes with gleaming eyes and bushy tails, I found myself at the entrance of a deserted country park.

By now I'd given up all hope of joining the astronomers’ party — God only knows where they were hiding — so I decided to get out here and gaze at the spectacle on my own. Now I really would have loved to be able to say that the journey was all worthwhile ... that at that moment as I looked up, the sky was like an inky black silk-screen ablaze with a billion brilliant lights. But, sadly, it wasn't.

Instead it was completely covered in a thick mist and not even the bloody moon was visible. Damn you Northern Ireland weather!

“Had I the Heaven's embroidered cloths ... aye right!” I mumbled to myself as I set off back home to watch Big Brother.

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