Peter Owen Jones’ nature column: January

Morning sun shining over South Downs National Park and Ouse River

Morning sun shining over South Downs National Park and Ouse River - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

January can be a noisy month, winter storms battering the windows. But it’s also a time when the skies can seem alive with shifting clouds, mists and fog

I always try to sit in a window seat if I can on trains and – especially – on planes. On this particular flight the plane had just started its descent into Rome and the pilot’s voice came across the intercom. But instead of the usual rundown of what the temperature was on the ground and how long it would be before we landed he announced he was going to play some classical music. The reason for this, he said, was that the cloud formations today were so beautiful. He was right: the engines slowed to a hum as we floated into a wonderland of pavilions and cathedrals lit in yellow, bronze and pink, through corridors and between great seas. It is impossible to forget – what a gift.

The plane was moving through a great gathering of cumulonimbus clouds, which can reach towering heights of 18,000 feet, the same height as cirrocumulus which is a strata cloud that forms the waves of a mackerel sky. In the winter months on this island the cloud base regulary sinks down towards the earth and the highest hills of Sussex are often rendered woollen, the trees empty and the fields under the slopes sleeping in a lowly green.

There are several different types of mist and fog, each with their own beauty. In early spring and late summer there are one or two days where Sussex is smothered in advection fog. This forms when cooler air lowers the air temperature close to the dew point which is normally lower down. The best way to see advection fog is before breakfast. You will need to rise early and walk through this moving mist up into the sunlight, the blue sky above it. Up onto Butser hill or Mount Caburn from where the waking world beneath you, cars, trains are invisible now, almost unimaginable under a white and shifting sea. DON’T MISS: Peter’s November column on Sussex’s 18,000 ponds

Radiation fog is an evening fog that slips into the dusk and muffles the street lights. You can often see upslope fog emerging over the wooded slopes of the Downs. It forms when moist winds are blown towards these hills and as the air is forced upwards it cools into ribbons of mist. Then of course there are the sea frets, the thick sea mist tumbling in over the water. When they arrive the temperature can drop ten degrees in five minutes and empty a beach in ten. But there is another side to the sea fret. Once several years ago an evening fret poured in from the coast, spilling over the tops of the Downs, the mist flowing into Firle. Above it a full moon hung in a clear sky lighting up every single droplet turning the trees, the houses and the church into silver.

‘Haitchy’ is an old Sussex word for misty. The weather forecasters however are inclined to be dour, almost downcast when it comes to describing mist. Mist is murk, it dulls, it broods with a melancholia or it is freezing fog and comes with a weather warning. January can be a noisy month, the winter storms gritting the windows, the wind bringing a rough sea into the trees. But when an anticyclone arrives, an area of high pressure, everything calms and maybe there will be a few light blue days and white set frosts. My favourite January days are the grey days: the days when the land, fields and woods are still, blurred in mist. It is an in-between time, the dreamtime.

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