A night at The Observatory

The Observatory – ‘A Place to Look In. A Place to Look Out’.

‘Where are you going?’ asked a man on the ferry, as he rolled a cigarette.

‘Keyhaven,’ I said.

‘Keyhaven? That’s miles away.’

‘Twenty miles,’ I said.

Snow, ice and high winds had swept across the UK on Saturday the 21st of November. Down on the south coast, the temperature fell by 12 C from the previous day. It was barely above freezing. Winter had indeed arrived.

We left our toasty warm house sometime after 6pm and rode off into the night along the coastal path to Southampton to catch the Hythe ferry. We missed the 6.30 crossing and took the 7 o’clock boat, where we met a group of men, hanging around the bicycle enclosure.

‘Are you staying the night?’ the man asked, seeing the kit on the bikes.

I nodded.

‘Whereabouts are you staying?’

‘On the marsh.’

‘You’re not camping, are you? Surely you haven’t got a tent in there.’

‘No tent, just camping.’

The man said that he’d camped out once in the Brecons and he’d never been so cold in all his life. I smiled and said I’d be fine. I was already feeling the air biting through my layers when he told me I was mad.

I was beginning to believe him by the time we’d reached the end of the pier where I stopped to put on my merino hat and buff.

Soon we crossed over the cattle grid marking the entrance to the New Forest and rode across the open heath, with the stars and half-moon above us. The bronze coloured bracken and faded purple heather appeared as grey and black blobs in the absence of light. My view of the world around me had shrunk to the zone filled by the spread of light from my bike lamp and head torch. The only sound I could hear was the wind rushing past my ears.

We sped down the hill into Beaulieu then hung a left towards the river and through an ancient forest to Buckler’s Hard. We stopped in the woods for a few minutes, watching and listening for wildlife. The wind dropped. We could hear distant crackles and leaves crunching under our feet as we simultaneously relieved ourselves.

‘Did you see any animals,’ asked Dan.

‘None,’ I said. ‘And I’ve been looking out for pairs of glowing eyes.’

‘You do move your head around a lot. The light from your head torch is constantly moving.’

‘I know,’ I said. ‘Everything looks different in the night. Nobody’s out here. I love it.’

Discovering The Observatory

We’d cycled the same route the previous weekend – Netley to Keyhaven and back – 50 miles in total and all in one day. That day was mild and drizzly, with a strong wind from the south west, making the first 25 miles feel like it was entirely uphill. The paths were chock-a-block with the usual dog walkers, and families and couples out for a Sunday stroll. Our plan was to ride to Hurst lighthouse, but that would have meant a two mile push along the shingle spit into a gale. And having learnt from a previous mistake, we knew that missing the ferry home would add an additional twenty miles to our ride. Instead we rode onto the salt marsh of the Lymington Keyhaven Nature Reserve, where we stumbled upon two wooden huts.

finding the observatory lymington

My first thoughts were that they were bird hides. On closer inspection, I discovered that one was an artist’s studio complete with a wood burning stove with the artist Jilly Morris in residence. She invited us in, told us about her work and the studio and asked us to participate in her latest project. We did, leaving inked fingerprints on luggage tags. She gave us a gift – a small brown envelope with the words Salty Days on the front. Inside the packet – salt.

It was the second structure that really grabbed my attention. An open-sided ‘workshop’, coaxing me in for closer inspection. I had discovered the look in look out project, The Observatory. Two pods, clad in charred Siberian larch to protect the wood from fire and insect infestation and designed to rotate 360 degrees on a chain drive. As I sat inside, looking out onto the water, I decided it was the perfect spot to watch the sun rise.

And that’s how we happened to be cycling towards the marsh on a freezing cold Saturday night.

When we arrived at our pop-up bothy, we used the turning wheel to position the building with the largest opening facing east. Dan got on with making the tea using our new AfterBurner stove and I blew up the airbeds using my nifty cork and bag technique, and took out the down bags and Alpkit bivvy bags.

It was at this point things went a bit wrong. We were short on methylated spirits so there wasn’t enough fuel to heat up our boil-in-the-bag Saag Aloo and Chana Masala. Dan ate the tepid meal while I made do with a cup of tea, half a dry bread roll and the last two muesli bars. We, or maybe I, made the decision to save enough fuel for a hot cup of tea in the morning. Going to bed hungry on a bitter cold night in the open isn’t the most sensible idea as I soon found out.

The salt marsh is a mosaic of ponds, ditches, and lagoons that provide a winter home for wading birds including Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew and Lapwing, together with Wigeon and Brent Geese. The wedge shape of our wooden shelter amplified every bird call. And it wasn’t just the wildlife we heard. The ebbing tide sucked the water from the lagoon with a gurgle akin to the sound of a draining bath. By the time we’d settled into our bags all that remained was a huge mud flat.

I changed into merino wool long johns and kept the two long sleeved merino wool tops I’d been wearing on, along with a buff and a second fleece lined woollen hat. I shoved my down jacket around my bottom and thighs and tightened up the baffle on my sleeping bag. My legs refused to warm up so I moved a bit closer to Dan.

It wasn’t long before I heard slow rhythmical breathing and gentle snoring. Dan’s condensing breath was just about visible in the moonlight as I lay there licking salt from my lips and watching the sky. I couldn’t sleep. My belly rumbled and no matter how many times I turned or rubbed my thighs, slumber would not come. I reached for the hip flask and took a generous slug of sloe gin before burrowing deep inside my nest and pulling tight on the bivvy bag’s drawstring.

I must have fallen asleep eventually, because I woke up from a dream in which I was naked and slurping on a juicy pineapple. Preposterous, I know, and I wasn’t alone. There was a whole tribe of us – all women and all fantastically beautiful.

The observatory at dawnIt was still dark, so I reached across Dan’s cocooned body to grab the water bottle.

‘Are you alright?’ he asked.

‘I’m grand, just my mouth is completely dry and I’m bursting for a wee. What time do you think it is?’

‘I don’t know but I’m bursting too.’

Dan crawled out of his bag and I did the same.

That’s when I noticed the tide was coming in and realised that dawn couldn’t be too far away.

‘We should have our tea now,’ I said. ‘It must be morning.’

He fired up the stove and I shuffled down the path in his size 13 shoes, too lazy to squeeze into my boots.

‘It’s coming,’ said Dan. ‘Here comes the sun.’

I was tempted to sing the Beatles’ song.

microadventure at the observatory

Looking out from The Observatory

Instead, I sat down and cosied up to Dan, me with my arms wrapped around my knees, him making the tea and both of us watching the light change from slate, to silver to lemon and finally orange, pink, yellow and red. It was more than I’d hoped for. For two hours, we sat watching that sunrise.

Sunrise at Lymington Keyhaven salt marsh

A dog walker bade us good morning when he noticed us through the veil of the macramé curtain. And a photographer specialising in New Forest images, asked us if it had been a cold night. He also asked who we’d contacted to book our spot.

‘There’s no booking process. It belongs to everyone. The whole idea of the Observatory is to be a beacon for engagement and to encourage people to explore art, architecture and their environment,’ I said, quoting almost directly from the blurb I’d read earlier.

‘I never even thought of doing that. What a great idea.’

‘We came to see the sunrise and what a sunrise we got.’

Watching sunrise at the observatory keyhaven


sunrise reflection in the studio at the observatory

sunrise reflection in the studio at the observatory

Riding off for breakfast and one last look at the observatory.

Leaving the observatory

Dan’s Genesis Longitude loaded.

Genesis Longitude loaded for bikepacking

At the time of writing, The Observatory was to  remain at this location until the end of December 2015. However, due to funding issues, moving The Observatory to Dorset has been postponed.  Now, the organisers hope to move the structures to two more locations in Hampshire during 2016/17.

In the interim the studio will be staying in its current stunning location at Lymington Keyhaven and will be in use by local artists until mid-April 2016.

To check on the latest location of Look in Look Out, check the website here.

Meraid Griffin

Freelance writer, adventurer and public speaker. Descibed in the Sunday Times as a 'modest explorer'. Nothing modest about me.

One Comment:

  1. Another great posting Meraid. Just shows you that you can still enjoy Winter nights outside if your brave enough. Dan’s obviously still enjoying his new bike. Regards Ted

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