Celestial spheres : The Bluebird Guide to Solstices and Equinoxes

I am often accused of being a far too city-centric person and am frequently on the receiving end of The Disapproving Eyebrow.  The Disapproving Eyebrow appears when accompanied with any of the following offhand comments : someone decides that I live in London because I refuse to live anywhere else, that I hate the countryside and that – no – I wouldn’t be interested in that Lake District beer quaffing and walking holiday because I am intrinsically wired against it / think The Wirral is a public house not an area / cannot achieve orgasm if taken beyond the M25 etc etc.   Well, for all the nay-sayers and those who think my world is too internally Londonified I say Ha!  I say Double Ha!  I say read on, as today we are going 149,600,600 km, which is longer than distance between John O’Groats and Clapham High Street.  Just.

Last Sunday the Autumn equinox occurred at 20:44hrs or, in UK parlance, shortly before Downton.   The evenings at this time of year are highly seductive, but ultimately a tease.  I say this because no sooner have you noticed the blissful violet radiance in the heavens above and prepared the candle and the glass of Venetian red in preparation for a swoon at the sexy sky in the mild temperature than it suddenly decides to switch off the lights and plunge you into deepest night.  This means that you are left, in dressing gown over optimistic spring-like outfit in deep darkness in your own garden, gesturing wildly in rage towards the night sky and blindly grabbing into black hellish nothingness for your wine glass.  And it’s only 7.30pm.  It’s like the promise of a beautiful stripper taking half of their clothes off, with a series of pouts and shoulder rolls to imply : “Feast your eyes, kiddo” and then suddenly deciding you won’t get any further than underwear, and he’s fucking off until next Spring.  You see?  Autumn.  Beautiful.  But a blatant seasonal tease.

My thoughts have turned celestial.  One night, you know the moment the planet turns.  It’s the moment you don’t want to drink white wine anymore.  It’s the moment you know a supper of fish and salad will no longer fortify.  It’s the moment you remember you haven’t got any tights.  If you’re self employed, you know its the moment you can no longer procrastinate when it comes to preparing this year’s books for your accountant’s meeting in mid-October.  Most of us though, don’t really rely on the planet to tell us this.  We just know this moment because Strictly starts.  However, I have become fascinated by the planetary activity that just sort of potters on in this magical planet of ours whilst we pettily provoke madnesses and silliness down here on terra firma,  keeping our small brains occupied with Sainsburys, booking waxes, cleaning bathrooms and topping up Oyster cards.  Exactly what is going on up there?  What has astronomy got in store for us through the year?   I have been researching this a little for you, and thought to produce a guide of equinoxes and solstices for you in layman’s terms and in Londoner’s terms.

Third Rock From The Sun

Yes, that is us.  We are on Earth, and we are 149,600,600km from the Sun.  That is the same distance as driving up and down the whole of the Finchley Road 21,371,515 times.  Earth is like an egg, that has been sat on for a bit and turned on its side.  The official word for this is ‘oblate spheroid’.  As it sits on its side, it is quite short.  It is bigger in width (equator) than it is in height (pole-to-pole).   It has a crust, a mantle and a core, and the top crust layer, on which we live,  varies in its thickness between 3 miles (Berwick Street to Essex Road) and 46 miles (Milton Keynes to London).

Ecliptic Plane

This is the path on which the Earth orbits the sun, together with the other planets in our solar system.  It is like an enormous M25 but as it is an imaginary plane I cannot tell you how much bigger than the M25 it really is.  But take it from me. It’s massive.  As imaginary lines go, the ecliptic is a big’un.  Unlike the M25 it is perfect, has no roadworks, you are unlikely to crash in a Vauxhall Astra on it, nor come across an enforced 40 mph three mile zone whilst on your way to a barmitzvah.   The ecliptic can be basically called the apparent path on the sun on the celestial sphere, or the imaginary line on which we move around the sun.

The Celestial WHAT?

The celestial sphere.  It’s a troublesome phrase, mainly because it sounds like a nightclub in Bushey.   Space is extremely large, and subsequently its tricky to place those things within it (moon!  stars!  planets!  Suzi Quatro!)  as they appear to be so remote.  The celestial sphere is best imagined as an enormous circle that we are all inside, and we see the stars and moon reflected on its domed underside.    Everything you can see in the night sky is reflected on what appears to be the inside of this enormous, imaginary circle.  The ecliptic plane also exists inside it.


Imagine you have a cocktail stick.  Perhaps it is a Thursday night and you are feeling jolly. You wish to make a martini.  You take a green olive (stoneless) and you spear the olive at a jaunty angle, going in from the top right corner and poking the cocktail stick out of the bottom left.   In fact, you are poking the cocktail stick through the olive at an angle of 23.5%.   That is the angle of the earth’s axis.  The distance from pole to pole is 12,416 miles, or the same distance as driving down the A406 from Chiswick to Beckton 786 times.   The planet spins at this angle, veering slightly to the right diagonal:

Earth Axis

Yes, but what has this to do with Autumn and why am I wearing thick tights?

Hang on. I’ll get there.  You have to know your ecliptic plane, axis and your celestial sphere to understand how the seasons work, because these things are called the celestial coordinate system.   The celestial sphere may be imaginary but it provides a framework for us to understand the earth’s axis and orbit, and also to understand how the sun shines.  This will go some way to describing why it is cold in winter and hot in summer.  You get seasons because of the axis I mentioned above. If the earth was perpendicular to the ecliptic plane, and did not have this axis,  it would not have the opportunity to experience seasons.

Celestial Sphere

Here is a picture of Earth as the small black circle in the middle.  The blue circle is the celestial sphere. See, I told you it was bigger than the London Orbital.  So, you can see from this picture how the South Celestial Pole is just a continued line directly into space towards the celestial sphere from the South Pole on Earth and how the North Celestial Pole is a continued line directly into space towards the celestial sphere from the North Pole on Earth.  Simples.

So, what is a Solstice?

A solstice occurs twice a year.  The Northern Solstice is when the Sun sits over the North Pole.  It also seems as if the sun is higher in the sky at this time.  This occurs on June 21st.  So, for us in the Northern Hemisphere it is our longest day of the year.  Note the Northern Solstice is not the Northern Line.  The Northern Line exists only several hundred feet beneath the Earth’s crust and has no up escalator at Tottenham Court Road due to Crossrail.

The Southern Solstice is when the sun sits over the South Pole and that’s when the lovely people in the southern hemisphere get to have their longest day. This occurs on approximately Dec 21st.  Most of us in the northern hemisphere do not notice it however, as it’s impossible to spot the shortest day in the dark when we are mainly drunk and wrapping Christmas presents.

Solstice comes from the Latin “sol” (sun) and “sistere” (to stand still).

Why can’t the Autumn and Spring ones be called Solstices too?  Why do we have to call them Equinoxes?

Because they aren’t the same thing.  Solstices indicate the extremes of night / day and cold / warm.  The sun is polar during solstices.  But on a equinox the sun appears to cross the equator.  It is always on its way between north and south poles and the equinox marks the half way route.  That’s why it happens in Spring and Autumn.  It’s genius!   The word Equinox is also Latin, translating roughly as “equal night”.  So during the Equinoxes we should have 12 hours each of dark and light respectively.   So, that’s March 21st and September 21st, although it differs by a day or two.

So, when is my smear test due?

I’m sorry.  The sun cannot tell you this.  But if it’s been more than 6 solstices you ought to get yourself to the GP.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed today’s educational astronomical insights.  We update every two weeks so look forward to seeing you on Thursday 10th October

Half a mile and disjointed Pilates

The early autumn equinox is upon us and the latest push for exercise has been ramped up a gear or three by yours truly.  As such, I thought I’d give my reflections on the terrible physical circumstances of having to deal with the bodies of other humans (yuk) in the deep end of the swimming pool or on life’s yoga mat. I have realised that when dealing with the universe, or the insolent ugliness of other people’s bodies, there is nowhere any of us can hide when we’re all lying on yoga mats wearing pairs of £15 grey tracksuit bottoms from JD Sports.

The rest of London seems to get out of bed at 6am.  I know this because by the time I lower myself gingerly into the slow lane of the pool at Marshall Street at 7.30am, most of London is already in it.  It’s a kind of floating M25, with traffic divided into three lanes, and everyone rushing to cover their mileage before getting to work. As with driving along the imperial, flippant majestic route that is the M25, if you don’t ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’ someone is going to get hurt.  The pool operates a strict clockwise swimming motion system in the slow lane and an anti-clockwise one in the middle lane, but in the pre-office splashabout, the rules are often discarded in a manner that I, from underneath my Speedo lunatic swimhat, can only describe as cavalier.  They overtake, rippling front crawls into your breaststroke, goggled up like floating Martians, overtaking on the inside lane. This is not acceptable, mainly because it runs a 64% risk of drowning, primarily because if you overtake me illegally and put me right off my stride I will probably make you drown, especially if I am pre-menstrual, in which case you have no one to blame but yourself for getting caught on the spikiest spoke of my menstrual cycle.  You have to swim in the rotation.  If it says go clockwise, then go clockwise.  If you swim faster than everyone else (show off) then bugger off to the middle lane.

Other etiquette rules are adhered to – very few people, excepting those with a deathwish, choose to run alongside the side of the slippery pool.  Most people have the consideration to shower before going into the pool.  Usually the 12 year old lifeguard who happens to be on the rota that morning is not looking down the tops of swimming costumes as they loom towards him threateningly down the length of the pool.  But there is on cardinal sin that isn’t being addressed at Marshall Street : the odious, arch appearance of back hair.

I don’t mean in the women (I’m waxed monthly you know) but in this age it is completely unacceptable for men to have this silverback look, an age in which women cannot have any suggestion of pubic hair poking out of the Debenhams sale swimsuit.  We ladies have to pretend that we don’t know what it is.  “Pubic hair?  What?  How do you get it?  What is it?”  In the last 15 years the bikini wax has gone from merely tidying up the borders to making it all completely disappear, in a kind of vaginal vanishing magic act.  This means that when women who have had a Hollywood are in the altogether there is little indication to show where their vaginas actually are, which is very confusing for husbands, unless they have excellent aiming skills and 20/20 vision.  We ladies do what we are meant to do.  Having said that, why the Hollywood bikini wax is named after Britain’s hairiest baker, I shall never know. Does Paul Hollywood have a Hollywood?  Methinks not.  I think he has a back like half of the patrons of the Marshall Street Leisure Centre.  But he has had the decency to stay away from my swimming pool. I fake tan my arms and legs purely for swimming.  I arrange my leg-shaving regime around my swimming routine.  There is no excuse for a man to have a hairy back.  Line ’em up.  Wax the bastards.  This is an abhorrence.

I also had the unpleasant sensation yesterday morning, when completing my half mile, that I had wondered into a suspiciously warm patch.  I shudder to think at the awfulness that may lurk beyond the surface of the pool or the dire bodily emissions that may be found within it.  I’m just hoping the chlorine ravages the nastiness just like it’s ravaging my cuticles.  Once I’d floated about in the pool and done my day’s work, I headed off to a drafty Hampstead church hall for an Introduction to Pilates.

Pi-Fartis, more like. Never before have such a series of stretches been devised solely to make your bowels feel that they are on some sort of temporary holiday from their ordinary, socially acceptable behaviour.  If you try to move your right leg up and down in a seesaw motion without moving your pelvis whilst lying down on a borrowed blue mat in Frognal, you too will feel the overwhelming urge to break wind for England.  Or indeed, any other United Nations country.  Or all of them.  The problem with discovering the initial muscular delight at getting bits of your body to do what they are organically designed to do is that the other bits of your body don’t comprehend what’s going on.  I carry a lot of tension in my buttocks, or as my teacher called them my buttOCKS, which makes them sound like an autumnal supper dish.  When realising that my buttocks are tensing for England, during a sustained series of hip-type jerks to nautical sounds of whales having a high old time on the portable stereo,  I naturally relaxed them.  The result was disastrous, and so potent that I think I managed to offend the whales.

A very old lady arrived for Pilates, and she went out of the room with her shoulders pushed back and her head held high.  This was a vast improvement because she had arrived an hour earlier bent over like a four foot tall broken concertina, so there is certainly a lot to be said for Pilates.  I just had trouble working out what the funny blue ball was that we were supposed to sort of squash under our top bottom / lower back area.  Mine couldn’t settle.  It ended up bolting out from underneath me and making a break for Finchley Road & Frognal Station, as if hoping to catch the 19:23 to Kew Gardens.   Eventually, the teacher noticed that the calm stretching atmostphere and slow breathing of the room, with its background of faint buses on the Finchley Road and the fragrant sound of happy whales was being compromised by my balls-anxiety.

We were told to centre ourselves (O2 Centre?) and it reminded me of Drama School.  There we did Alexander Technique on a Thursday morning with a gentle man called Michael.  He fascinated us because he was good looking but had a wife with very short grey hair and a terribly plain face who had mysteriously managed to lure him away from his first wife by her Alexander Technique semi-supine position-supported sexual prowess.  Either she was an irresistible sex pot or he was blind.  Either way, I’ll bet my Pilates-supported spine that she didn’t have a Hollywood.  I’d imagine she went au naturel, sitting there with her Hampstead Bazaar shapeless dresses and unplucked eyebrows, probably aiming to improve her vagina by feeding it with lentils and regularly giving it interesting articles to read from The Guardian.   But we were frequently told to relax and “find our centre” in Alexander Technique class then back in the mid 1990s too.  My centre hasn’t moved since then, apparently.  But the problem with college years was that we were too obsessed with the undercurrent of possible attraction and repulsion (or if you were really unlucky both in one night) from fellow students to bother about mutely tapping into our student centres.

“Leave the ball!  It doesn’t matter!”  my Pilates instructor chirruped last night, whilst casually lifting both feet off the ground and wrapping them around her own neck. Twice.

“It’s not the balls that are the problem,” I felt like shrieking.  “It’s the hairy BACKS.”

Join me in a fortnight, readers, when I shall be found weeping during a leg lift and ruining my chlorine-red eyes by that punishing 28th length….That’s if I’m not dead first, obviously.  But, if I am I bequeath you my Pilates ball, should you wish to shove it up your chakra.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we look forward to seeing you on September 26th!