On Monday evening's television, Fred the Weatherman was enthusing about the expected peak of the Leonids in the small hours, probably the last spectacular meteor display for many years to come. Fred's advice was to get the kids up and drag them outside around 3 or 4 am; they might moan, but they would thank you for it afterwards. Alternatively, you could sit at the window with a cup of cocoa, gazing out at the meteors as they flashed by in their dozens.
The sky was clear and we could see Jupiter rising when we went to bed, so encouraged by this as well as by Fred, I set my alarm for shortly after 3.30, and as Jupiter was still visible when it went off, out I went. Within seconds I saw my first meteor; next instant the sky was covered with big fluffy cottonwool clouds. Was that it?
The clouds were moving very fast, though; the sky was obscured one moment, clear the next. In the clear intervals I counted a total of fifteen meteors over the half-hour I stayed out. Not spectacular enough to go and rouse Harry and Philip, but more meteors than I've ever seen in one night in my life! Some were very bright; one so bright that it was visible through light cloud cover.
As a bonus, the ISS suddenly appeared in the south at 4.05 am, sailed across the sky at about 20 degrees altitude, then dived behind a cloud.
Later, on breakfast TV, they evidently hadn't managed to find a single person who had seen any meteors, so the matter was not referred to. The chances are that Fred received a large number of indignant E-mails from disappointed fans.
In Wednesday's Guardian Alan Pickup, reporting from Edinburgh, reckoned that meteor rates climbed sharply after about 3.45 and peaked at around 4.10, when "several meteors a minute were seen". I timed that right, then, for once, although my average was only one meteor every two minutes. It also seems that large swathes of Europe were under cloud while some parts of the UK were relatively clearthe opposite of what usually happens on these occasions.
Tuesday, 19th November 2002