Memories · Notes from West London

Rays of sunshine

One of my favourite sights is rays of sunshine breaking through clouds. You see it surprisingly rarely, even though we have cloud and sunshine most days in the UK. The effect is copied in iconic buildings like St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and Grand Central Station New York. You can see beams of light work their way through the windows high above your head. They are impressive but the effect is man-made. The windows have been designed and positioned to allow the light to shine that way.

As we drove home from Cambridge along the A406 earlier today we could see the sun’s rays pierce a large grey cloud, somewhere north of Wembley Stadium. I pointed it out to my daughter and explained how much I like it. “Whenever you see sunbeams shining through a cloud, like that,” I told her, “Think of me.”

I told my son the same thing last autumn when we were in the viewing tower at Westminster Cathedral. There are interesting views from up there (210 feet high) but it’s not the full 360 degrees that you get from the Post Office Tower (as we still call it) or from the Empress State near Earl’s Court, if you’re lucky enough to get an invite to either place. Some of the views east and north are blocked by nearby buildings. As we looked west the sight of the sun’s rays piercing a big grey cloud was clearly visible for a full five minutes.

The first time I recall seeing this natural effect was in my childhood, aged eleven or twelve. We were in the car one Sunday afternoon, all five of us, heading out of London. This was a very rare thing for us. Day trips outside London with my brother, sister and both parents, aiming for a tourist attraction rather than to visit a family friend, happened maybe once a year. We set out for places like the Hog’s Back or the caves in West Wycombe and I don’t recall us ever getting there. It might have been on that unsuccessful trip to West Wycombe (to “The Hellfire Caves” as I later discovered they were called) that I noticed significant natural events in the sky. At one point we could see clouds in the distance and clearly discern the rain falling on some unidentified place five or ten miles away, another surprisingly rare sight. (The last time I saw it was at the beach in West Wittering in 2015.) Later, on that childhood trip west, somewhere on the M4 or the A40, the sun came out, piercing (there’s no other word for it) a different large grey cloud. It’s the kind of thing you’re most likely to see when driving, or on a tall building. You see more sky as you travel on A-roads and motorways, or when you’re hundreds of feet in the air, than you do ordinarily.

My mother enjoyed the sight too and would mention it to me if she saw it on the more frequent journeys that she took out of London in the last ten years of her life. She would see the sun breaking through the clouds and think of me. I see it now and think of her. I hope that when my children see it in the years ahead they’ll think of me too, wherever I may be.



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