A new weather condition requires a new word for the day …
Well I’ll Be Fogbow-led Over!
by Simon Whaley
Astounding? Awesome? Magnificent? Stunning? Thrilling?
Finding the right word was proving difficult, especially because the occasion warranted it. Finally, after three failed attempts over the past twenty years, I was finally witnessing the view from the summit of the Old Man of Coniston. The panorama stretched from the Howgills, right across Lancashire, Morecambe Bay and included the faint outline of the Isle of Man, parts of the Cumbrian coastline and Scotland. This momentous occasion deserved a word to reflect my success. But, which word?
My first attempt to spot the view from the Old Man’s crown was two decades ago with a school friend. We’d set off from Coniston with clear blue skies only to discover by the time we’d reached Low Water, that the cloud was building. By the time we reached the summit, visibility was less than a foot. We know we reached the summit cairn, because we shared chocolate digestives with other Old Man baggers, although we never saw the faces belonging to the biscuit offering arms.
My second attempt was about ten years later. Staying in accommodation overlooking Esthwaite Water meant that on a clear day, the Old Man’s summit was always beckoning. Once again, I drove to Coniston and began the ascent, but before climbing out of the Coppermines Valley, wisps of mist were gathering around the top and I knew I would be beaten once more. Ploughing onto the summit, low cloud began depositing snow, so whilst the views this time extended twenty feet or so, the summit cairn resembled a headless snowman.
Four years ago, I almost did it. I’d reached Low Water and the skies were still clear, but before I could make the final 100 metres, a depression crept up from the west side and enveloped me, both physically and emotionally. For the third time, I patted that summit cairn and wondered what sights I might see from here, if only the Old Man would allow it.
And then came my fourth attempt. By now, nothing was taken for granted. Cloudless winter skies guaranteed nothing as I set off from Coniston’s car park. I dallied in the Coppermines Valley taking photos and decided that I would not be rushed. Perhaps sneaking up on the summit and catching it out would be the best plan of action. As I snapped away at the ruined mine buildings, another photographer joined me, and I explained my cunning plan.
“You’ll be fine,” he said, “you’ll get a great view today, no problem.”
I wasn’t going to get my hopes up. I’ve been walking enough times to know that fate can deal a tough blow when you least expect it. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve taken out my lunch box from my rucksack expecting to find chocolate Hob Nobs only to be greeted with Rich Teas.
“Of course, the best view I’ve seen from the top was a few months ago,” my fellow photographer continued. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was a curve of cloud, brilliantly white against a pure blue sky. A white arc, like the Wembley Arch.”
Now I was listening. I knew the views from the summit were good, but Wembley Stadium from South Cumbria? This I had to see! My photographer friend clarified his statement.
“I took a picture of it and sent it to the Met Office. They told me that what I’d witnessed was a fogbow.”
Apparently, these are like rainbows, only without the colour. Uncommon in this country, because of the different factors that need to align themselves to create a fogbow, the summit of the Old Man of Coniston happens to be one place where this can happen. It’s also possible to see them in Scotland. To create a fogbow, you need:
• Low sun (usually a winter sun) at an angle of less than 28 degrees,
• Clear skies with thin mist or fog,
• Geological conditions to create the right air currents,
• Meteorological conditions to push warmer moist air into a cooler body of air to create the water vapour.
The result is a white, brilliant arc. The whiteness is because the water molecules in fog are far smaller than rain. Rain molecules are big enough to refract the sunlight, generating the spectrum of colours. Fog molecules aren’t big enough to do that.
It was amazing to think that the Old Man had these tricks up his sleeve, particularly when all I’d witnessed was a fog blanket on my three previous climbs. Enlightened with a new word for the day, I continued my climb, bathed in glorious winter sunshine, as I clambered above Low Water for the final ascent.
As I took those final few steps, I couldn’t believe that, at last, I was about to witness what the Old Man had been hiding from me for all of these years – a vista of sheer beauty and wonderment. I marvelled at the sights. I gazed across counties, seas and even countries. And this is why I wanted a word to encapsulate this moment. A word that would enable me to remember these sights forever in my mind. Something to trigger an image of everything that lay before me.
And that’s when I realised what I was doing wrong. No word could describe everything that I could see. There was just far too much going on in my 360-degree panorama for one word to cope with. Perhaps I should be looking for a word that described something that I couldn’t see instead. And that’s when the answer became as clear as the view before me. My panorama could be neatly summed up by one word. Fogbow-less.
Walking along the ridge towards Swirl Howe, there was a spring in my step. The Old Man of Coniston had finally revealed what he’d been keeping under his hat from me for two decades. And today, I’d also learnt two new words. Fogbow and Fogbowless.
© Simon Whaley