Catching the dawn

Civil dawn at Cofton Park this morning.

The great thing about winter is that you can actually get up at a reasonable hour to catch the dawn and see in the sunrise. When I first thought of doing this last year, it was in June and there was just no way I was going to get up at 4am.

Of course, what you want is the awesome sunset effect but in reverse: the bit where the skies glow red-gold before the sun actually rises. This, I learned after a bit of Duckduckgo research, is called the ‘civil twilight’ or ‘civil dawn’– when the sun is six degrees below the horizon, starting to light up the higher skies and giving enough light to see by. In Birmingham, UK, at 52 degrees north, in October, this starts around 35 minutes before sunrise. This is also normally the time I reach for my sleeping mask.

By the way, for sunrise nerds, civil dawn follows two other phases of pre-dawn twilight:

  • astronomical twilight – 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon, still dark but with the fainter stars starting to blink out
  • nautical twilight – 6 and 12 degrees below the horizon, with some light right on the horizon and main stars still visible enough to navigate by.

This morning, we enjoyed all three twilights and a waning gibbous moon (thanks Matthew, aged 3). I’d set up a ‘Ladies of the Sunrise’ message group and three of us, who were prepared to check the morning skies, called it ‘go’ at 6.30am.

We set out at 6.40am in astronomical darkness and drove along the beautifully empty, rain-wetted, neon-reflective streets of Stirchley, Kings Norton and Longbridge. Chiquitita by Abba was on the radio, singing “But the sun is still in the sky and shining above you – shining, shining, shining”.

I think I see Jonathan Livingston Seagull..

We pulled up at our chosen sunrise viewing spot, Cofton Park – at 7am as nautical twilight ended, and headed up the hill. Already a number of dogwalkers were there ahead of us. We laid out a cheery fleecy picnic mat on a wet bench, handed out hot water bottles and gloves, drank tea and hot chocolate from flasks, and cut up cinnamon and cardamom or chocolate buns for breakfast.

We watched civil twilight unfold – the brightest of the three twilights – with hints of orange in the purple-grey sky. Clouds drifted across the sky, hill fog threatening and clear blue sky momentarily tantalising. A flock of gulls swirled around the park, low-flying then marching en masse along the grass. The young dogs chased them, the older ones knew better. I stood up and my borrowed hot water bottle fell in the mud.

The sun rose at 7.39am somewhere beyond the hilly horizon.

Spot the gothic Ladies of the Sunrise, far right.

We decided to head to Beacon Hill, a Lickey Hills viewpoint five minutes drive up the road, to see the sun come up over the city. But it was so foggy we almost lost our way back.

Still, even the thick fog had its charms, providing a mystical journey among the spruce and pine trees. Broken red-and-white toadstools lay along the path, like fairymarkers. As a bunnymom, the plentiful rabbit droppings pleased me. A dumping of multiple silver canisters depressed me. This must be what despair looks like – or is this somebody’s winter fun times?

Misty treetops at Beacon Hill while the sun shone down in the valley.

Although we didn’t get the perfect sunrise this time around, I enjoyed reclaiming this time and space. At some point, someone suggested feeling like witches, perhaps as if in Macbeth, three wandering dark shapes on the misty moors. I definitely felt less anxious and more dominant in the environment for being in the company of two other women. Would I do this solo? Maybe, now I’ve done it once. As much as the park sunrise was the reason for getting up early, it was the fogbound summit of Beacon Hill that cast the magic spell for doing it again.

Dude, where’s the car park?

There will be a few more chances to catch the dawn/pre-sunrise before the clocks go back, and again around the Solstice in December. There have to be some good things about winter and the chance of seeing the sunrise is one of them.

Bemused modern witch.

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