The stripe in the sky

Today I was working near Wycombe, about 15 miles away as the crow flies (I reckon) from the oil refinery fire out Hemel way.

Incidentally, I have a chequered relationship with Hemel Hempstead – I was fostered there for a while before I was adopted, and later as a schoolboy I lost control on the town's dry ski slope as we all practised for a school trip to Austria and woke up in hospital with a ruddy great gash on my head. Still got the scar, still can't ski.

Anyway, today I left the office to go to lunch and the sky looked like someone had taken a spraycan to it. Perfect blue, but with this dirty great badger's stripe of foul grey cloud coming straight up the middle of it from the general direction of Hertfordshire. I was in sunlight, but half a mile away it was dusk.

I had my lunch at a particular petrol station where the coffee's good and, as I sat in the window, the light went – just like that, as if someone had hastily turned it off with a dimmer switch as they rushed to leave. The wind had changed direction slightly and now I was under the cloud.

The light wasn't quite like anything I was familiar with. It wasn't like evening, it wasn't like the total eclipse back in 1999, it wasn't even like the midnight sun in northern Iceland. It was brown light with no warmth to it, the polluted light of the Apocalypse.

And this was 15 miles away – what must it be like in Hemel?

BBC Online has collated some great photos. Unfortunately they're in a pop-up, so they're difficult to link to, and the two best are from the notoriously litigious Getty Images so I'm not reposting them – you'll have to follow the links. This one looks like the war in Afghanistan, this one looks like a scene from Bosnia, and this one is straight out of a Hollywood disaster movie – London in its dying throes. Freaky.

In unrelated news, over at No Home-like Place has started a tribute to her father, who died recently. As befits her status as an author and illustrator, it's compelling stuff. Go visit.