Sky gazing

The night sky was once a frightening place – its imagined terrors arose from black and white television programmes and the imaginings of local people.

The 1960s were the times of the space race. The stories of the Sputnik and Apollo programmes provided a background for science fiction programmes telling of travel to distant planets and alien invasions of the Earth. Expeditions to far off galaxies were not troubling to a boy watching them; the prospect of creatures arriving in flying saucers was much more troubling. Of course, should alien invaders have arrived, they might just as easily have come in the hours of daylight, but it was the night sky that seemed much more ominous. The presence of a naval air station in the district meant there were always aircraft coming and going – who knew if among the lights of the Fleet Air Arm flights there were not spaceships carrying Martians, or some other hostile species? Who knew that there were not silver craft armed with lasers flown by beings equipped with ray guns? It was said that Warminster in the neighbouring county of Wiltshire was the centre of the country for the sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects, in a spaceship the distance from Warminster to our village of High Ham might have been covered in a matter of seconds.

The threat of aliens coming from above combined with the dangers brought by unknown people within the community. Leaving our house one night, my uncle looked across to the sky in the north. There was a glow. “What’s that strange light?” he asked.

“Perhaps it’s the hippies in Glastonbury doing black magic,” my mother suggested.

Of course, it was simply the glow of streetlights, which were not so plentiful at the time, but it created a sense of fear. Hippies were strange and troubling figures for our deeply conservative community. Some were undoubtedly interested in what would now be considered the esoteric, but it was as much absolute nonsense then as it is now. It never occurred to me to ask why someone interested in black magic would wish to create a glow in the sky, wouldn’t such a public display have betrayed the presence of the practitioners?

The night sky is now a place of wonder. Above our village, which hasn’t a single streetlight, the sky is dark and immense, infinity fills the view and the thoughts. An occasional naval helicopter or high-flying airliner are all that passes below the stars.

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