Saturday night stargazing in Friston Forest

I have always loved staring at the stars. I feel a primal connection to these luminous plasma spheroids, suspended in our night sky only by a magical force known as gravity. Or lack of gravity? I’m not sure I actually know how they stay in one place and don’t just float off. Google provided a lot of information on orbiting, rotating and flying through space at high speeds which gave me motion sickness just reading about it.

Regardless of whatever the mystical force is that has kept our constellations the same for the past 3,000 years, a particularly stressful week in the office meant all I wanted to do was run away. So when Ben suggested that instead of fleeing the country, we head out to Seven Sisters Country Park for a hike under the night sky, it felt like a pretty good alternative. We packed a bag comprising mainly of snacks, coffee and photography gear before heading out towards Friston Forest.

In the daytime, Seven Sisters Country Park is usually pretty busy, especially on a sunny autumnal weekend. However, the moment the sun goes down, the forest becomes dark and foreboding and the fair weather walkers making a bee line for the nearest country pub. Personally, this is one of my favourite times to be out. It’s very hard for any part of the South East of England to feel wild in any sense of the word. So when night falls, covering all the industrial scars we’ve left across our landscape in a velvety black blanket, you could easily mistake yourself for being somewhere far more remote. 

The moon was hanging lazily low in the clear night sky when we arrived and parked up the car. After reading a bunch of articles on astrophotography, I was eager to get the tripod set up and to start taking some nighttime images of the stars. We did a quick recce of the area and selected a strong vantage point with a view of the treeline. To my immediate frustration, I realised I had left the tripod mount plate on the photography shelf at home. Reluctant to be deterred I tried to take a long exposure shot of the moon without it and I think you’ll all agree, it was abstract at best. 

a blurry hand held long exposure shot of the moon in Friston Forest.
An unfortunate attempt at capturing the moon. 

Refusing to be too frustrated, after all, we were out and it was cold, quiet and blissfully peaceful, we pressed on into the woods in search of natures tripod. With each step I could feel my body relax and my mind start clearing. The worries I had about work were replaced with a combination of existential wonderings about the world and trying to avoid twisting my ankle on a hidden tree root.

Eventually we managed to find a decent gap in the woods. Balancing the camera precariously on its case, I stared to mess around with shutter speeds and aperture settings. Whilst the light pollution and my limited skills with a camera in the dark prevented any breath taking Milky Way shots, they were still pretty good!

Stars in the night sky above friston forest
30 second f/1.4 ISO400

Now officially able to claim that I was an astrophotographer, we continued our hike. The forest was uninterrupted by humans, reclaimed entirely by animals and nature. Deer grazing, foxes hunting, stoats playing in the undergrowth, we felt like gracious guests in these creatures homes. They seemed completely unperturbed by our presence, lulling us into an ethereal place where time, pressure and the stress of daily life doesn’t exist.

When we arrived back at the car I couldn’t believe that it was gone 01:30am and we’d been out for over 6 hours. The internal tiredness that had been left by a week of office confinement and miserable commuterdom had been replaced with an electric inner calm. I felt more awake and alert than I had done in a long time. Hopefully come Monday morning, when I rejoin the thousands of other office-bound Brit’s, this energy will see me through until our next wild adventure. Or at least not immediately be stamped out on the 6:44 train to Victoria.

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