Perseids 2016: A night of moonlight, Milky Way, and meteors gallore

I was refreshing the weather forecast hoping for some kind of miracle. Metoffice, Brecon Beacons... cloudy. Elan Valley… cloudy. Pembrokeshire... cloudy. Oh why not? Snowdonia… cloudy. 

After only catching a few meteors the night before it looked like Wales was going to miss the peak of the 2016 Perseids meteor shower and what a show it was forecast to be with astronomers pointing towards an ‘outburst’ – nearly twice the average rates with almost 200 meteors per hour!

  Perseids meteors over Pontsticill Reservoir, Brecon Beacons

Perseids meteors over Pontsticill Reservoir, Brecon Beacons

I expanded my search out of curiosity to find that the only pocket of clear skies over the entire UK was down on the south coast of England at Dorset. I knew the skies were dark there and Durdle Door had been on my hit list for a while, but a 6-hour return trip with work in the morning!?

Hunting for motivation I put a call out on social media to see if anyone was as desperate as I was and not moments later Jack Sargent answered my call! I packed my stuff, we rendezvoused at Newport, and headed over the bridge towards the English coast without a second thought.

  Moonlight shimmering in the English Channel

Moonlight shimmering in the English Channel

We were stunned on arrival to see the moonlight shimmering away magnificently over the English Channel, providing us with some guiding light to explore the area and plan the night ahead.

Much like arriving at a cinema we were hunting the perfect seats and eagerly awaiting the fading of the light but tonight's screening was for one night only.

Being the only clear skies in the UK we expected the place to be busy and unsurprisingly, it was! Photographers and observers had come from far and wide but it was only typical that the first folk we chatted to responded in a thick South Welsh accent.

"Dew dew dew, there's a few quid we could have saved on petrol, butt!"

As the arriving photographers accumalated into a new coastal path fence our search for a place to setup base camp took us down towards the beach. The light of the moon was ever so delicately filling Man of War cove, the white chalk cliffs providing the perfect canvas to be illuminated but the shadows had begun to blanket the land. 

  Man of War Cove illuminated by moonlight

Man of War Cove illuminated by moonlight

We continued down the stairs to make the most of the dying moonlight but before I could even lay my first step on the sand I was stopped dead in my tracks by the light spilling through the arch of Durdle Door itself. 

Jaw dropped, I grabbed a few shots frantically, knowing that I had a special once-in-a-lifetime moment on my hands and I had to make the most of it. Once I had the settings dialled in I waited patiently as the moonlight dimmed and the Milky Way started to become more prominent in the night sky, but something was missing. That’s when I jumped into the shot...

  Moonlight spilling through Durdle Door as the Milky Way takes over the night sky

Moonlight spilling through Durdle Door as the Milky Way takes over the night sky

I love the way the night sky comes to life after a moonset and this image perfectly captures that moment for me; transcending through a portal of dying light and emerging in the wonderment of the cosmos. The night had barely begun and I had already been completely blown away.

As beautiful as it was on the beach with the gentle waves breaking softly we weren’t familiar with the area and so in fear of being caught in the tide we headed back up to hunt down a good viewpoint. My plan was to leave a timelapse running, taking photo after photo in hope of catching as many Perseids as possible. But before I locked my camera into its night shift I had a box to tick... the milky way at Durdle Door.

  The Milky Way and a display of green airglow above Durdle Door

The Milky Way and a display of green airglow above Durdle Door

Just to summarise how perfect a night this was, in the distance of the above shot you can see the Isle of Portland under a thin layer of fog. This helped reduce the light pollution that extra bit revealing stunning detail in the Milky Way and leaving the skies dark enough to see a stunning display of green airglow. (This image was later printed as a full-page sized image on page 3 of The Mirror)

  A Perseid meteor streaks along the milky way above Durdle Door

A Perseid meteor streaks along the milky way above Durdle Door

It was time to kick back, leave my camera running a timelapse, and enjoy the show. I somehow managed to pick the area of sky with the least meteors in the first hour I lay there. I faced the difficult decision of changing viewpoints or leaving it to go (you know how when you jump into a different queue and the original queue starts going down quickly!).

We took the risk and changed our positions to get a different angle. I pulled out the sleeping bag, got comfy on the grass, and drifted off counting shooting stars as my camera continued to collect the trails of the meteors...

  3 hours of Perseids meteors above Durdle Door, Dorset

3 hours of Perseids meteors above Durdle Door, Dorset

It was simply one of those perfect nights. Not a single cloud all night, no wind, and just the sound of the waves gently breaking on the shore as shooting star after shooting star continued to induce "oohs" and "ahhs". The night sky had absolutely spoilt us that night and it was worth every mile travelled and every sleepless hour.

All of the images in this article are available to purchase as print/canvas/digital image. Check out the gallery here.