Mark Barber goes boldly into a park designed to exploit the county’s vast light-free areas
What can you do in the biggest, yet also the most rural and sparsely populated county in England once the sun goes down? Look up, of course. Rugged, remote and largely undeveloped, Northumberland is one of the darkest places in Europe, with very little light pollution in large stretches of countryside, making it an ideal place to lie back and watch the universe go by.
As a result, in December 2013, almost a third of the county was designated the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park, the largest in Europe, after the International Dark Sky Association awarded the area its highest, gold tier, designation. It followed two years of painstaking work by the county council, Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water and Forest Park, which included thousands of light readings.
The 572 square miles of designated dark sky stretches along the western edge of the county, covers the whole of Northumberland National Park and takes in most of the adjacent Kielder Water and Forest Park, providing visitors with an abundance of viewing points.
A useful first stop for amateur astronomers and for many visitors generally is the Once Brewed National Park Centre on Military Road at Barden Mill, near Hexham. Alongside details of activities around the park and Hadrian’s Wall is an excellent dark sky park exhibition, with up to date information on what you can see in the night sky, where to go to see it, as well as a 16-inch telescope which provides much of the wow factor in the stargazing events the centre hosts.
The night sky can be viewed successfully from almost anywhere within the dark sky park, however, so attending an organised event or a recommended site is not essential. Many amateur astronomers have their own preferred remote locations.
But for those happy to share the experience, the park has a dozen easy-to-find sites (visit www.darkskydiscovery.org.uk for details). These spots are ideal for all levels of amateur astronomer. They are free from light pollution, provide excellent sight lines and are wheelchair accessible. Most also provide permanent star maps and 24-hour toilet facilities.
No stargazing trip would be complete without a visit to the Kielder Observatory. Situated in the heart of Kielder Forest Park, the contemporary wooden structure appears as a land pier jutting out from the rough Black Fell landscape. It comes to life at night when the ceilings and walls of the turrets rotate and open to reveal the two permanent residents: a computer controlled 14-inch telescope, which tracks objects across the sky automatically, and another, manual 20-inch.
The observatory runs daily public events, which must be booked online (kielderobservatory.org). Themes range from deep sky observing and astrophotography, to family stargazing and shooting star specials. There are also daytime events in holiday time to introduce younger people to astronomy. Local businesses have also embraced the observatory’s success and many are dark sky friendly.
Visitors renting Blacksmiths Cottage in Alnham, for example, are offered a “stargazing pack” that includes a telescope, binoculars, torch, guidebook, rugs and chairs and even an experienced group leader to help you get the most out of the evening.
The owners of Battlesteads in Wark are going one better and are constructing an observatory, having already added five eco-lodges to their 17-room hotel to meet the growing demand from astronomy tourists. Due to open in mid-March, the observatory will house an 11-inch Celestron C11 OTA telescope. Professional astronomers will run courses for all the family, including astronomy for absolute beginners and night sky tours.