Eclipsed over the Langdale Pikes
For a year I photographed the sun travelling along the horizon from the same viewpoint. I watched it set at different places on the Lake District mountains. Its zenith, at the height of summer, is the Langdale Pikes. These mountains were the focus of my article.
Each day I cannot help but I look out from my window and gaze across to the Langdale Pikes: the distinctive twin peaks that reach up into the sky like knucklebones. I have watched, over the course of a year, the sun setting behind conspicuous landmarks on the horizon.
Long winter nights
In December, during the long, dark, winter nights, the sun struggles to make an appearance. Riding low in the sky, it casts long shadows where frost remains throughout the day, and fails to bring much warmth to the earth. At the end of each celestial day it is drawn down to sleep behind Black Combe.
Spring comes and the days lengthen. The sun climbs higher into the sky and blazes a trail across the heavens. At night it makes its bed behind the low hills of the Duddon Valley. Summer approaches and its heavenly journey takes it high above the Coniston Fells. Now it rests at night behind Coniston Old Man and Wetherlam.
In June, on midsummers day, it reaches its zenith, sitting high above the Langdale Valley. It lingers there, fixed, reluctant to come down; blindingly bright, and shimmering through the haze of hot summer afternoons. The days, which in winter quickly turn into night, now linger on, bringing warmth and light into the late evening hours. The sun is reluctant to rest, and its descent to end the day is slow.
My project has been to photograph the Pikes throughout the year. From the same location, at different times of the day; in fact whenever they make a picture. I have often considered creating a photographic silhouette of ‘my’ horizon, and marking each place where the sun sets with the name of the month. It would become the perfect calendar, never shifting, always constant. I am reminded about those Bronze Age settlers who, thousands of years ago, built stone circles at Castlerigg, and other locations around the country, marking the seasons by the journey of the sun. It’s quite exciting to watch the same event happening today.
The sun’s journey
From my viewpoint the Pikes mark the end of the sun’s yearly journey, and it can never cross them. They mark the height of summer. I recall Gandalf’s command to the Balrog in ‘Lord of the Rings’: “You cannot pass,” and imagine the Pikes crying out this command to the sun. They are my marker, the place where the sun stops. The retreat of the seasons back into winter.
The Pikes are named Pike of Stickle and Harrison Stickle (stickle is the name given for a hill with a prominent rocky top). They are part of a small ridge that starts at Pike of Stickle, and ends at Pavey Ark. Harrison Stickle, at 2415ft (736m) is the highest of the two. Pike of Stickle is just a little lower at 2326ft (709). Around Pike of Stickle you can see evidence of probably the first significant human activity in Langdale. Workings of flints and axe-heads from a prolific Neolithic axe factory dated around 4000BC litter the slopes. The name Langdale, as with most names in Cumbria, derives from Nordic influence and means ‘long valley.’
Total lunar eclipse
The best photograph in my project came around 9am during a cold winters dawn on the 21 December, 2010, when a lunar eclipse took place above the Pikes. It was the first total lunar eclipse to have occurred on the day of the northern winter solstice since 1638, and only the second in last 2,000 years. I had set my alarm at 3am, the time the eclipse was due to start, but fell asleep again. I awoke about 6am and rushed to the window thinking I would have missed it. The earth’s shadow had already covered half of the moon, yet I was still in time to witness this amazing spectacle. The moon was setting just to the left of the Pikes, as the sun rose behind me, curving its rays around the earth and casting an orange hue over the surface of the moon. The mountains, covered in a blanket of snow, turned red in the light from the moon. The eclipse was total at about 9.30am; it was unusual to watch the moon become just a faint outline, leaving a ghostly image of itself hanging in the sky, and bathing the Pikes in a strange soft, surreal light; it also marked the end of my project.