Dreamy time of midsummer

This is the time of year to see noctilucent clouds.
This is the time of year to see noctilucent clouds.

On Friday it’s the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Our sun will reach its northern limit where it will hang around for a day or two, before heading south again.

Midsummer Day on June 24 marks the end of the period when the sun stands still. Our ancestors celebrated with bonfires and grand civic processions, which often included effigies of giants.

Medieval legends told of giants who were responsible for many features in the landscape, such as islands, hills and earthworks. They were still living in Albion when Brutus came here from Troy; his champion killed their leader, Gogmagog. Today, the giants Gog and Magog are the guardians of the City of London and appear every year in the Lord Mayor’s parade.

The ancient midsummer bonfires lasted until the Puritan reforms of the 16th and 17th centuries. However, folklorists found people making merry around bonfires in England’s rural north and west in the 1850s. Like their ancestors they were eating, drinking and dancing, but the old belief in the purifying power of fire and smoke was being replaced by the notion of good, clean fun.

Midsummer Eve was a popular time for young women to try love divination. One method was to go outside at midnight and look into a bucket of spring water; instead of her reflection, the woman would see the face of her future husband.

This 19th century custom is a little more romantic. Pick the most beautiful rose — it mustn’t be wet — then wrap it in white paper and put it carefully in a drawer. The rose must not be disturbed until Christmas Day, when it will still be lovely. Wear the rose and your future partner will come to claim it.

If you’ve ever longed to disappear, then all you need is a fern and a pewter plate. For a few moments around midnight on Midsummer Eve the fern’s dust-like spores become visible. Catch this fern “seed” on the plate before it touches the ground and you’ll become invisible, but only while you are carrying it.

Magical moon

This Midsummer Eve promises to be especially magical; it’s the time of the full moon.

On June 23 the moon will come as near as it ever does to earth, thanks to its slightly elliptical orbit. This won’t make it look especially large, but the “moon illusion” will. This is that odd trick of our minds that makes the full moon look bigger when it’s low down in the sky. The closer the lunar disc is to the horizon the more enormous it seems to be.

During the hour after sunset it’s worth looking out for another amazing sight — noctilucent, or night-shining, clouds. These are not common but there have been sightings reported this month in the UK.

While everyday clouds look grey in the twilight, noctilucent clouds appear as ripples and fronds of shimmering silvery-blue. That’s because they are 50 miles up near the edge of space, where they form around particles left by burning meteors. The resulting ice crystals reflect the rays of the sun below the horizon.

Twilight lasts until dawn in the dreamy time between solstice and midsummer; we may even forget that the days will slowly become shorter again.