Learning to understand the dark

Rob Smith – Senior Minerals Planner

That 2020 had been unusual hardly needs emphasising. The need for adaptation and restraint in our routines has, as we all know, continued into 2021. It’s frustrating, and we all wish it could end right now, but we have to be patient a while longer.

For me, back in April and May last year when the first lockdown was at its peak, the main consolation was the lengthening hours of daylight. Combined with the glorious spring weather and the absence of traffic, it was possible to get out for a walk, bike ride, or run and experience the National Park (or at least that little bit of it near my home) as never before. Some of the reasons we all love it – its diverse landscapes, the wide sweeps of heather moorland, its tranquillity and sense of remoteness, the valleys, forests, and of course it’s wildlife – were all brought into sharp focus in a way that I’d not quite experienced until then, and they seemed more valuable than ever. It wasn’t just the long hours of sunshine; more what the place meant to me during that difficult time.

Sometimes we know instinctively that something, or someone, is special even if we can’t put a finger on just why. But when it comes to a place, as for many things, getting to the bottom of this sometimes tricky question is a critical first step towards being able to look after it in way which ensures its intrinsic value is retained for the future.

The North York Moors National Park Authority has tried to identify exactly what it is that makes the area such a special place. These ‘special qualities’ help us describe and understand why it is so valuable and why it needs protecting. They include those qualities I was enjoying on my lockdown excursions in spring but there are many more, in fact twenty-eight in total. All are equally important, even if we each have our own favourites.

NYMNP Special Qualities (from 2012 Management Plan)

Importantly, promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the National Park by the public is one of the two main statutory purposes of a National Park Authority. Alongside the other main purpose, to conserve and enhance natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage, it drives much of what we do as an organisation.

Last year spring turned into summer and then autumn brought lockdown mark two, and this time it was different. The long days of sunshine seemed quite distant. It was dark before the end of the working day and opportunities to get into the outdoors were much harder to find. Chances are when daylight and opportunity coincided, the weather wasn’t cooperating. Which brings me back to the need for adaptation.

One of the National Park’s special qualities is its ‘dark skies at night and clear unpolluted air’. Recently the National Park Authority has been carrying out a lot of work on the dark skies theme and you can find out more about this in previous blog posts by my colleague Mike Hawtin.

Although I’ve always enjoyed looking at the night sky, and appreciate the way that a starscape on a clear winter’s night can be just as inspiring as a beautiful landscape, or a dramatic seascape, as seen during the day, I’ve never tried to carry on with my outdoor activity at night. The thought of going off for a run through the woods or across the moors after dark for my ‘daily’ activity is a bit unsettling, however much your head also tells you there’s no rational basis for this.  But recently, that’s just what I’ve been doing.

It’s been a revelatory experience in many ways. Firstly, that I was easily capable of overcoming that irrational worry that had deterred me from trying it before. Secondly, I wasn’t the only one doing it (in a socially distanced manner)! More importantly, it has opened my eyes to a whole new sphere of ‘understanding and enjoyment’ of some of the National Park’s special qualities – sights, sounds, smells, wildlife –  that wouldn’t have been noticeable through the sensory overload that full daylight can bring. A landscape reduced in scale perhaps, but enhanced in detail and refreshingly new, even in places I’ve visited many times before.

And of course there’s the night sky. Pause to look upwards on a clear night and it’s impossible not to be impressed and inspired. Yes there’s sheer enjoyment in this, but I also feel that each individual night time visit is another step on a journey towards a better understanding of my local countryside that happens to be on the edge of a National Park, and how its special qualities meld together to make a coherent whole. I know it won’t be for everyone, but I’m pretty sure my adaptation won’t be a temporary one this time.

(Cropped) Northern Lights at Saltwick Bay. Credit Andy Dawson Photography.

Always follow the latest Government advice in regards Covid-19.

To keep up to date with the latest National Park situation in regards Covid-19 – see here.  Hang On – Stay Local – Keep Positive.

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