I first discovered nightwalking when my boyfriend was away on tour with his band. Not usually a poor sleeper, I would struggle to drift off without the comfort of knowing he was at home, so to clear my head and encourage peaceful thoughts I would make a flask of mint tea, hop in the car and drive up to Butser Hill, my favourite spot near my home in the South Downs National Park. I would then hike through elder trees and hazel copse, stumble over rabbit warrens and jump over cowpats to reach the top of the hill, until at last I was alone on the summit beneath a veil of glittering stars cascading over Hampshire and Sussex. On the far side of the hill lay an Iron Age burial mound, doughnut-shaped, strewn with mosses and wild flowers, and facing away from the sea. I would climb in and lie down with my back propped against the soil, with dirt and dock leaves pressed against the palms of my hands, undoubtedly disrespecting some poor ancient soul buried beneath me. Sipping hot tea in my hidden corner of the world, I would spend an hour watching each constellation tell its tale on the midnight stage, with foxes barking in the trees behind me, and the fresh night air filling my lungs.

Stephen Hawking once invited us to look up at the stars and not down at our feet, but most of us would struggle to remember the last time we stepped outside to admire the night sky. Time spent in Nature has been proven to benefit our minds and bodies, and while getting enough good-quality sleep is also vital for our wellbeing, studies suggest that being out in Nature after dark can offer further ways to feel more mindful and alleviate stress. A recent study published in the European Journal of Ecopsychology indicated that stargazing and nocturnal wildlife watching led to a heightened sense of participants’ personal growth and increased positive emotions. Long-term advocates of stargazing claim it can combat overthinking, help place our problems into a wider perspective, and allow us to see the ‘bigger picture’ of life in the universe.

In our anthropocentric, pressurised world, gazing into the heart of the universe helps me feel reassuringly insignificant – and my daily problems and worries even more so. But at the same time, I am empowered by how fortunate I am that the exact cluster of atoms came together to form me, with my exact mind and body, and how lucky I am to be alive on this Earth. I also love the sense of solitude it brings – the peace and serenity of experiencing the landscape when the rest of my species is asleep and so many others come to life. When I am no longer able to rely on my eyesight for guidance, my brain switches to survival mode, and every sound and scent is magnified to help me absorb and process my surroundings. There is fear, yes. Being outdoors at night, especially as a lone woman, challenges every social rule I’ve ingested since infancy – to be scared of the dark, of strangers, of solitude and unknown spaces. But forcing myself out of my comfort zone helps me feel liberated and adventurous, all of which allows me to move closer to Nature, to my primitive roots, and to live more harmoniously with the world around me.

I became happily addicted to the nightscape, and started travelling to new places around the UK and Europe in order to understand our relationship with the darkness. Over the course of a year, I experienced 24-hour daylight while swimming in the Gulf of Finland, and visited Arctic Norway to witness the Northern Lights and speak to people who live in darkness for three months each year. I hiked through the haunted yew forests of Kingley Vale, embarked on a nocturnal sail down the River Dart, and fed foxes on a south London estate. As the year passed and the seasons changed, I learned to observe the shifting hours of sunsets and sunrises, becoming more in tune with my circadian rhythm and appreciating the joy of first light and the velvet beauty of nightfall. In winter, although the days were short and cold, the nights drew in early and allowed me to catch a glimpse of the stars before bed. In summer the evening air was balmy and sweet, full of churring nightjars, hunting owls, and sparkling glow-worms in the long grass.

The modern world means our sleeping patterns have adapted to suit office hours and school runs, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to synchronise more closely with our natural rhythms. On a seasonal level, it’s worth recognising how behaviours change in the rest of the animal world. No other species goes gallivanting through January as if it were July, and yet, at work especially, we are expected to treat every month the same and never embrace the rhythm of the seasons. In summer we can rise early, use the dawn chorus as our alarm clock, and soak up the sunshine. But in winter there is a reason we feel more sluggish, more drawn to hibernation. Winter is the time for long nights, reflection, shelter and sleep – to prepare for the lighter half of the year while embracing the tranquillity of darkness.

Western civilisation may be largely diurnal, but to spend time outdoors after nightfall is a natural behaviour that we can all benefit from. A flask of coffee and a friend are all we need to venture out into the wilderness, surrendering to the darkness and tuning in to the sounds, smells and textures of the landscape. It’s a chance to break out of our comfort zones and liberate ourselves from the idea that the nightscape is a place for other creatures to enjoy without us. We may spend most of our waking hours in daylight, but a nocturnal excursion is also the perfect antidote to the bright lights, bustle and noise of modern life, the perfect excuse to put down our smartphones, step outside and watch the sunlight fade to a canopy of stars. So, as the night draws in this season, I’ll be watching the South Downs transform from the familiar into the unknown, allowing myself to escape once more into the secret world of Nature after dark.

Tiffany Francis is a Nature writer and artist. Her third book, Dark Skies, is published by Bloomsbury (September 2019). www.tiffanyfrancis.com