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The Great Outdoors

Hunting meteors in a Rolls-Royce Phantom

In case of emergency, better take a Phantom with its own private constellation

  • The sky is on fire.

    Well, maybe not ‘on fire’ as such. More sort of smouldering. A bit more conscious than usual. Dammit, so I’ve fallen for a slinky little chunk of hyperbole: it would be more accurate to describe the dying embers I’m seeing flash briefly across the sky every half-minute or so as the dusty orbital leavings of 16-mile-wide comet Swift-Tuttle flash-frying themselves against the Earth’s atmosphere. But it’s not so poetic. Whatever, the star-speckled blanket of midnight is currently being slashed by little trails of superheated plasma smearing themselves across the firmament. It might not have the same effortless intensity as a man-made fireworks display, but knowing that we’re watching tiny pieces of space rock make the change from meteoroids (in space) to meteors (when they hit the atmosphere) to – occasionally – meteorites (if they actually make landfall) at 37 miles per second, it all just seems a little bit... grander.

    Photography: John Wycherley

    This feature was originally published in issue 289 of Top Gear magazine

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  • It helps that I’m perched on the edge of the Grand Canyon at 4am, staring out at a yawning, acoustically vampiric pit and leaning against the front wheel of a £350,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe, but there you go. I can’t actually see the Canyon, mind. Not really. The sky is so dark it looks like someone bolted a black velvet cape to the edges of the world, and the only light comes from stars that wink like tiny, spinning diamonds and a moon that waxes like a searchlight. It’s the annual Perseid meteor shower like you’ve never seen it, and there’s only one thing that keeps spinning a childish mantra in my head: the sky is filled with wishes.

  • I look back, and at the Rolls. It contains one of the features that I have been endlessly obsessed with ever since it was introduced in 2007 – the ‘Starlight Headliner’. One thousand six hundred handwoven fibre-optic lights embedded into the roof to recreate a clear night sky. Or the constellation of any significant date you care for, should you wish. Does it match the beauty of the real thing? Not quite. But it’s a damned good try. A feature that no other manufacturer could carry off with such delicacy and class. But just like the meteors above me, the Phantom is dying. A new version is due in a year, and it has one hell of a car to live up to. So we decided to bring the last of the Phantoms, and its incomparable roof, to compare it to the best night sky view on the planet. One last adventure, before the new Phantom becomes the old.

    It didn’t start well. Let me explain...

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  • Rewind 48 hours, and you’d have found us driving a battleship grey Phantom Coupe worth more than my entire life down an unmade road 40 miles from the nearest rescue option, easing the three-tonne avalanche of premium luxury automobile through a dry riverbed usually only traversed by stumpy little ATVs and lifted Jeeps. There is, please note, no spare wheel.

  • “But what if it’s... um... cloudy?” asks photographer John Wycherley.

    “It won’t be cloudy – we’re in Arizona. In summer,” I reply, wincing internally and trying desperately to think positively. “And if it is, I’ll deal with it.”

    “How? By changing the weather?” asks John, deadpan.

    The following silence is pregnant with accusation.

  • Things, as they say, have been a bit... odd. We have to find the best place to see the shower, and that meant scouting locations, shall we say, off the beaten path. In a Rolls. We’ve already been flagged down two or three times by quite serious off-roaders who simply cannot believe that we’re driving this car down trails, albeit with the kind of slow motion pace that makes getting anywhere significant a proper effort. So far, the car has remained undamaged and imperious – much to the absolute and utter disbelief of everyone we meet. Rock-crawler-spec jeeps keep informing me that I’m in a Rolls-Royce as if I’m suddenly going to glance down at the baby blue interior and abruptly realise that I brought the Roller into the back country rather than the Land Rover.

  • Timelines are also tight. We’ve come to Flagstaff in Arizona to hunt meteors, and the Perseids are at their most virulent between 11 and 12 August 2016. It is the afternoon of the 11th, and we’ve not yet found a place to watch it, and taking pictures of ephemeral meteors apparently requires painstaking time-lapse photography that I don’t really understand, apart from that it takes many, many hours. This year’s celestial drama is set to be the best in 20 years thanks to something scientific to do with Jupiter’s amorous gravity well. As long as it’s not cloudy. But there is a method to my madness, and a reason we flew all this way just to look up: since 2001, Flagstaff has actually been the world’s first ‘Dark Sky City’, a place that actively takes care of its night-time views. By law.

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  • You can see why Flagstaff has become so obsessed with preserving the dark whenever you fly over a city at night. A circulatory system mapped out in veins of streetlights, organs made up of clusters of shops and houses that pulse and strobe. It’s beautiful, in its way. A throbbing web of shimmering amoeba. But it’s also greedy, drowning the night sky with a flood of neon, outshining the stars and blinding us with artificial light. We make ourselves a false halo, and it means that we can’t see the real angels. But try as we might to find a suitable roost, not much seems to be working. We simply can’t find the right place to get car and sky together just so, and I can’t help thinking that this whole thing sounded much more simple when I was in Lincolnshire plotting. We’re constantly overlooked by giant red mesas, in the wrong place, or generally not getting the widescreen view we need. So we seek help. From the Dark Skies Coalition (DSC). I know, I know. It sounds like a movement that comes with an asthmatic leader called Vader and too many men dressed in white plastic armour, but the DSC is actually an organisation committed to preserving the night sky, free from artificial light pollution. We arrange to meet its local representative, Lance Diskan, in a car park.

  • Lance, as it turns out, is possibly one of the nicest men I’ve ever met. One of those rare individuals whose default tendency is to do good things, and be supportive to causes. I suspect he may have been an exceptionally good hippy – though there’s a steely undercurrent of vehemence around the beard area that makes me think for all the compassion, it would be wise not to underestimate him.

    “There are kids that don’t know what the stars look like,” says Lance with a slight moue of resignation “Kids from the cities, they have no idea what’s up there, how beautiful it is. We want to give that back to them."

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  • To make it happen, the coalition campaigns for what Lance describes as “the implementation and enforcement of quality outdoor lighting ordinance”. Which translates as “measures to keep the dark sky... dark”. Flagstaff itself has yellow streetlights, a distinct lack of neon and most businesses featuring reversed white-on-black signage instead of the more usual – and brighter – black-on-white. It keeps the city’s night-time aura to a manageable level for the two local observatories (Lowell and a US naval one) and, as a pleasant side effect, makes the whole place feel a bit more gentle, and romantic. It also helps with energy bills, limits the city’s ‘jet lag’ effect on local wildlife, and – according to Lance – can help balance people’s circadian rhythms and actually be beneficial to general human health.

  • The desert around Flagstaff, therefore, is one of the best places on Earth – apart from the poles – to see what’s up, up above. Lance advises us, helps us with some locations, educates me in the ways of the dark side. The very best places to view the night sky, apparently, are off the beaten path. We therefore beat the path, with the Rolls. You’d think a car like this would be phased by that sort of thing, but quite frankly the big Phantom couldn’t give a monkey’s. Decent ground clearance, air suspension and tall tyres mean that the biggest Royce simply covers ground, wearing away the miles with a hard-edged determination, engaged from inside a cocoon of soft illumination. You drift through space and time in a state room. The 6.75-litre V12 breathes the car across even the most challenging surfaces, the eight-speed gearbox butlerish in its attentions. It’s during the hours spent here that I realise some cars are better from a distance. You don’t see the panel gaps and paint blemishes, misfittings and rough edges, just the overall picture. A Rolls-Royce is the opposite. The closer you get, the better it is. Once you’re inside, it’s pretty much a perfect lifeboat from which to weather the storm of modern life.

  • We end up in the middle of nowhere in the desert, with no phone reception, taking pictures of both the sky and a brightly lit Rolls-Royce while being ravaged by mosquitoes resembling tiny ultra-carnivorous pterodactyls. It is possibly the most aggravating eight hours of my life. A tiny army that turns you traitor to yourself – slapping and smacking your own body against a swarm of insect ninjas whose war cry sounds like a miniature dentist’s drill. We’re both wearing hoods and coats, it’s still 28 degrees, and unfortunately I’m still wearing shorts. “Little B*******,” I shout, and punch myself hard in the face, trying to dislodge a mosquito that has just stuck his dirty little proboscis into my right eyelid. John looks at me warily. I haven’t slept much.

  • We get the shot, and drive back to the hotel bone-weary and massacred, only to be up three hours later looking for more locations. My legs look diseased. It’s a beautiful day, heavy and drowsy with heat and slow sunshine. We have not really slept. Swamped and split by massive yawns, things get blurred at the edges, slack and indistinct. We drive through meadows and prairies, white-trunked aspen forests and red-gold deserts, looking for a place to get that headliner and meteors in the same shot. We end up at night, after visiting the Grand Canyon and seeing the Perseids in all their silent glory, at the top of the Sunset Crater Volcano national monument somewhere near Flagstaff. The area is singed black, apocalyptic and bizarre – a burned and mottled take on the idea of scenic. We have travelled here via ‘primitive roads’, unpaved fire breaks and trails. The Phantom remains unperturbed.

  • It’s here – thank the Lord – that it all comes together. The constant breeze confuses the mosquitoes’ flight paths, the sky is clear, the moon setting and dimming its luminous eye. And there are meteors. A flock, a phalanx, a swarm and a squadron. From all corners of the night sky. The camera is pointed towards the constellation of Perseus where there should be the most (there’s an app for that, unsurprisingly), but the sky is flecked all over with the flashy deaths of inanimate dust. And it is endlessly beautiful. Crick in the neck, makes you feel tiny, and unimportant, beautiful. The Phantom is the only car that stands a chance against this casual magnificence. Stately. Grand. Splendid. Dignified. It’s not just a car, it’s an event. And how the hell do you follow something like that?

  • It’s about taking things for granted. The night sky is just the sky, the stars are just the stars, a Phantom is just a car. Except they aren’t. If you can’t see past a city’s lights, you’ll never know what the stars look like. And without cars like the Rolls-Royce Phantom, we’ll never have anything but plastic bling. Pure speed, these days, feels like cheap ambition. Throw enough horsepower at something and you’ll make it fast. Expensive, jewel-encrusted luxuries, pointless once-used technologies? They all make tiny mockeries of themselves. Making a car genuinely good however – making it sincerely special – that’s a talent Rolls-Royce has demonstrated admirably with the Phantom.

  • We leave Flagstaff having convinced ourselves that Rolls-Royce has a major job on its hands to recreate – and better – a car as convincing as this. To weave such a magical combination of opulence and reserve, class and subtlety. We found the only thing that seems to humble it, and discovered that the constellation roof is just one of the magical things that make it what it is. But we also leave refreshed and with a new understanding of the night, and why it’s important. We came hunting meteors, but we found a whole lot more than that. As Lance would put it: “Welcome, friends, to the dark side."

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