Clouds of glory

For some people, having their head in the clouds is a legitimate hobby. Martin Hickes reports on the rise of the cloudspotter.

While Rene Descartes, the French Jesuit philosopher, once described clouds as being the thrones of God, most of us find if difficult to muster the same enthusiasm for the white fluffy things which block out sun and bring us rain.

If pushed we could probably manage a half-hearted tribute about the central role they play in our ecosystem and maybe the odd word or too about the time we saw one shaped like an ice cream cone.

But it's that kind of apathy towards cloud which is prone to make Gavin Pretor-Pinney's blood reach boiling point.

Some might unkindly say that an Oxford philosophy graduate should be making better use of his time, but as it is, Gavin is a cloudspotter and proud of it.

"I've always loved looking at clouds; nothing in nature rivals their variety and drama," he says, adding that Yorkshire, with its broad acres, is a heaven for people like him. "Their beauty is so everyday as to be in danger of being overlooked.

"If a glorious sunset of altocumulus clouds were to spread across the heavens only once a generation, it would surely be amongst the principal legends of our time.

"Yet most people seem to barely notice the clouds or see them as impediments to the perfect summer's day. Nothing could be more depressing it seems than to have a 'cloud on the horizon'."

This distinct lack of respect for clouds started Gavin thinking. Other disadvantaged groups have dedicated support organisations, and so the Cloud Appreciation Society was born and Gavin began his one-man mission to convey the majesty of the cumulus, cirrus and Morning Glory to others.

"We can all learn a lot more by looking upwards," he says before quickly adding that cloudspotters are a different breed entirely to trainspotters and the two should never be confused.

Certainly the society's manifesto, which begins, "We love clouds and we're not ashamed to say it... we pledge to fight blue-sky thinking wherever we find it," is a lot more hard-hitting than the average anorak who spends his life on the end of station platforms.

"After deciding this sorry state of affairs could not possibly be allowed to continue, I knew someone needed to stand up for the clouds," says Gavin. "So in 2004 I founded the Cloud Appreciation Society and launched it at a lecture I gave in Cornwall. I was surprised to see a rush of people come up for some official badges I made for distribution at the end of the

day – and a few months later I launched the CAS as a website. Membership was free and word soon spread.

"An early trickle of submissions soon spread to a torrent and it soon became clear that the love of clouds seemed to transcend national and cultural boundaries.

"We got members from all across Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, America and Iraq. By the end of the first year we had over 1,800 members in 25 countries – a United Nations of the clouds."

This merry band of cloudspotters are nothing if not imaginative. A picture gallery on the wesbsite has photographs of clouds in the shape of "a snake which has just swallowed a football", "a sprite on horseback jumping over the trees" and

even more surreally, "an abominable snowman who is upset his sea horse is ignoring him."

Gavin, who incidentally is also the founder of The Idler magazine and the first man to import absinthe into Britain, admits that a lot of those who have signed up to the Cloud Appreciation Society's manifesto are day dreamers, but insists there is nothing wrong in the carefree, aimless and endlessly life-affirming pastime of cloud-spotting, so much so he has written a book about it.

"Hindus believed the clouds were spiritual cousins of the elephants – clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation feeds the soul," he says.

"Everyone is familiar with the fluffy sheep-like clouds of the cumulus family – often harbingers of rainfall – but few have seen the amazing Morning Glory cloud which is 'surfed' by pilots and gliders alike.

"Every September and October, in Queensland, Australia, a small group of individuals journey from all corners of the country for the appearance of a remarkable and dramatic cloud called the Morning Glory.

"Clouds don't usually have names, nor are they normally linked to a particular location, but then the Morning Glory is no normal cloud.

"Looking like a huge white roll of meringue, it stretches up to 600 miles (about the length of Britain) and sweeps over Burketown at speeds of up to 35mph.

"The visitors who come to marvel at this beautiful and awe-inspiring meteorological phenomenon are an intrepid group of glider pilots, for whom the cloud promises the most unique and thrilling flying conditions of anywhere in the world.

"Each year they come to this sleepy town in the hope of 'soaring' the Morning Glory, an exhilarating gliding adventure that can only be described as cloud-surfing."

"One of the great things about clouds is that they are the most egalitarian of nature's displays, since everyone can have a great view of them. But it is always good to have as few obstructions as possible between you and the sky.

"That is why the Yorkshire Moors is a great place to go cloudspotting. You can see a sunset for just that bit longer

than those in other parts of the country and, with such a expansive vista of sky, it is our own Big Sky County."

The Cloudspotters Guide is published by Sceptre, price 12.99. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop by calling free on 0800 0153232. Postage and packing costs 1.95. Order on-line at


n According to Gavin Pretor-Pinney, cloudspotting is an "activity best undertaken with time on your hands."

n Unlike trainspotting, it can be done almost anywhere, although a little elevation never goes amiss.

n Of greatest importance is the cloudspotter's frame of mind: "Standing on a hill with a notebook and pen poised will end in disappointment," says Gavin. "So will any attempt to write down serial numbers. A cloudspotter is not a cataloguer... it is a far more gentle pursuit one that will lead to a deeper understanding of the physical, emotional and spiritual world."

n The cloud symbols used for so long in BBC forecasts were created by Mark Allen, a 22-year-old graphic designer back in 1975.

n John Constable painted some of the very best clouds and, had the Cloud Appreciation Society been around in the early 19th century, he would have no doubt been a member. In a letter written to his closest friend John Fisher,

Constable famously wrote "skies must and always shall with me make an effectual part of the composition... the sky is the source of light in nature – and governs everything."