Weatherwatch: night time navigation with only the moon to guide us

Paul Brown
How we were: a dark night at Seven Sisters Country Park, East Sussex, which is designated an “international dark sky reserve”. Photograph: South Downs National Park/PA

On a cloudy night in a city or large town there is so much stray light from street lamps and buildings reflected off the clouds that it is quite easy to walk about without the aid of a torch, even in unlit areas. The night is a lot darker at ground level if the sky is clear. This is exactly the reverse of the situation before street lamps, when a cloudy night must have been “pitch black”, making it almost impossible to walk or ride in safety.

The only way to travel at night would have been with the aid of the moon or cumbersome oily torches on poles. This is why many of the longcase clocks made for the well-off in the 18th and 19th centuries had prominent dials showing the phases of the moon, something that has now almost entirely disappeared from clocks. A clock restorer’s view was that in the winter, with short days, any long distance traveller planning a journey would need to consult his timepiece to see if the moon would be bright enough to light the beginning or the end of the trek. Unfortunately clocks could not forecast the weather so in a rainstorm even a full moon would be no help.

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