Last week I went in search of darkness. In London.
You probably think this was a foolish idea and you’re right, but I still wanted to try. At night, London is a city filled with lights trying to reassure its citizens it is safe to go out. This has gone unnoticed to me for most of my life. But recently, I became aware of the concept of light pollution and city lights have begun to bother me. They disrupt wildlife and ecosystems, waste energy, and have banished the stars from most of our skies. They have also helped make people very uncomfortable with the dark.
I was recently walking home with my partner along the Thames Path and witnessed this apprehension. Her pace slowed and her arm tensed against mine as we reached Hammersmith Bridge on the south bank of the river. In front of us, tree branches concealed the path from the street lamps of the north bank. I didn’t care. This was a path we had trodden dozens of times and I knew it was safe, darkness having sent people away. But my partner did not hear my words and we switched to the north side of the Thames where pubs were full of noise and the streets full of lights.
So, when I proposed the challenge ‘Explore the Darkness’ for Jonathan‘s monthly microadventure challenge, the first idea that came to mind was to go back to Hammersmith Bridge and walk a stretch of the Thames Path after dusk. I wanted to see if it really was dark.
Standing below the bridge, I could see the same emptiness as before filling the space under the trees. I smiled. For a while now, night-time had come to feel safe and almost alluring but it didn’t use to be this way. As a child, I could barely go to the end of my street for fear a wolf would attack me. This was ridiculous and I knew it, but I couldn’t help being overwhelmed with dread. I would often try to fight this feeling, forcing my legs to slow down and not break into a run, but I would inevitably lose. For almost a year, I have been wild camping every month and have come to know the world after sunset. There is nothing to fear from it, not in Britain anyway. I took a step forward and advanced towards the trees. Colours faded almost instantly into shades of grey, their nuances deepening as my eyes adjusted to the low light. It wasn’t as dark as it had appeared from the bridge. The illuminated structure had made it seem sombre.
I went on, knowing the vegetation would get thicker around the Leg O’Mutton nature reserve. Branches densified on my left while on my right trees expanded in an effort to grow into a small wood. I couldn’t see into it. I stopped and focused my gaze on it but I could only distinguish the masses of trunks. I remained on the path, thinking anyone could sleep here without passers-by noticing.
A hiss echoed in the distance and I jumped, not immediately recognising the sound. I laughed when I realised it only came from a cat. Darkness still held a sway over me. I rolled my shoulders and took a deep breath. A man walked past me, his smartphone screen turned on. He was using it as a torch but it wasn’t more than a glimmer. His pace was brisk and within a few minutes I lost sight of his figure. He had been engulfed by the shadows.
I carried on for a while longer, listening to the crunch of my footsteps on the leaves and the occasional quack from a duck. But soon the trees began to recede and street lights reclaimed territory on my left, bringing colours back to the trees. I stopped and leaned against a wall overlooking the Thames. The river was flowing black as ink, and above it, trees were an outline, their features painted black. But I knew it wasn’t really that dark. It was only a trick of the lights, their pollution distorting the views.
I carried on along the path, making for home but the world didn’t fade to monochrome again. The flats flanking the river shared too much light with me. I ignored it, glad to have found some darkness in London. It hadn’t been all-encompassing, it hadn’t lasted for long, and it certainly hadn’t allowed for stars but it had been there, fighting for its right to exist.
If you want to learn more about light pollution and how you can help reduce it visit darksky.org. It’s easy and you can really help. Unlike many other forms of pollution, this one is reversible.