Sunrise begins at 5.04am as a small, claret-coloured coin emerges, glowing through the heatwave haze on the horizon. There is something surreal about the sun’s lack of ferocity at this early hour. Seen from this height, it’s as if there is a red moon, or a strange planet, rising over the broad back of the North Pennines.
It is warm and windless on the summit plateau of the third highest mountain in England, Helvellyn. Open space is everywhere, but the atmosphere at this early hour is more like the cloistered stillness you might find in a church or a library. Raising our voices above a whisper would be disrespectful, even sacrilegious.
Most of humanity stopped attaching sacred significance to sun-worshipping stone arrangements sometime in the iron age, but there is still a kind of ritual in the way we watch sunrises and sunsets, a shared understanding that there is something to be revered in these thresholds between night and day. We were alone for our wild camp during the night, but now there are two or three other people perched across the rim of the plateau, and except for the soft clink of someone’s coffee flask, everyone is silent as the solar deity emerges.
As the sun strengthens, it pours starlight across the fells and flares brilliantly across the surface of Ullswater, aligning perfectly with its shape in a way that could almost be ceremonial. And as thousands of Herdwicks wake to the day across the mountains, the silence gives way to a huge dawn chorus of bahs and bleats, while the sounds of a farmer’s cries – somewhere around Hart Side, about three miles away – reach us through the perfectly still air. Even if, like me, the well-rehearsed ecological arguments around the impact of sheep farming cause you to be sceptical of the idealisation of this “Perfect republic of shepherds” (Wordsworth’s famous term), it is hard not to be moved.
Half an hour later, the sun reaches full strength, and the spell cast by the dawn is broken, giving way to the normality of day.