The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space


moon through trees in our gardenAway from the city lights, the sky here is crystal clear and you can easily see the moon and stars. Years ago, living in London during the week, I used to work 18/5 and drive home to the country late on a Friday night. I’d reverse into the drive, and leap out to stand and gaze at the stars, drinking in the stillness and the gigantic moon.

Eventually my dog, Fly, would get bored and whine and we’d go inside to lay a fire. I’d make sure that all breaking of twigs took place out of his earshot. He was gunshy and frightened of snaps.

We’d stay up late. Sitting in the old armchair beside the fire, watching the flames trickling over the logs and share a sandwich and a packet of crisps, happy to be home.

Commuting fuelled my fascination with the stars. They were interwoven with that Friday night freedom rush. As I drove through the city and pointed my car towards the cottage, the motorway lights gradually fizzled out and I was driving through velvety black darkness towards two days of peace. Fly loved it too. Standing on the passenger seat, he would beat his paws impatiently on the dashboard until we were cruising a speed that he considered reasonable. We shot home, the car a teeny dot beneath a vast night sky and familiar scatter of stars. Finally Fly would relax and snooze beside me and I could slow down a bit and enjoy the view.

One memorable Christmas I was presented with a large wooden box. It was a Russian telescope. Large, white and bulky. Just how I imagined a proper telescope should be. It even had tiny brushes to remove dust from the lenses. The telescope had to be assembled and this was a bit of a Krypton Factor as the instructions were minimal. It took us two days to work out which part to look through.

Several evenings later we glimpsed the moon briefly. Observed at great magnification, the moon moves swiftly. It doesn’t just hang about in the air, as it appears to naked eye. Although I’d seen fabulous pictures of the moon’s surface before, this glimpse was truly exciting. I could feel the hairs stand up on the back of my neck as we stood in the driveway and studied the pockmarked surface through our own telescope. I was hooked.

I made plans to adapt a garden shed into a home observatory (I didn’t have a shed at the time). I bought a shelf load of books that covered everything from observing the night sky with binoculars (I might want to do this in London) to star maps (beautiful in their simplicity). I even read a novel based on life around the Hubble telescope.

Gradually I lost interest in the telescope. Finally taking it to pieces and squeezing it under the spare bed when Danny arrived. The plan was to keep it for the future. A less busy time.

Last week Mike Murphy carried his telescope out into his garden in Saffron Walden, adjusted the legs and within seconds was calling me out to look at the moon. His is a more compact affair, I’d been eying it enviously for the previous two days as it stood by the French windows in their kitchen. I rushed out and peeped in.

The domestic telescope has made gigantic leaps in the last twelve years. The pockmarks were now craters, some flat, others deep. There were mountains, valleys and ridges. As I gawped, Mike told me that the tiny ones are over sixty miles wide. The image was so clear that I could pick the ideal parking space for my moon buggy. The rugged silent loneliness hit home when Mike murmured, ˜It’s so still up there, not even a breeze.’

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