I have a thing for stars. I mean those beautiful, bright, twinkly things that look like diamonds in the night sky. I was spellbound by the beauty of the Milky Way from the very first time I saw it in Lake Tekapo, New Zealand and have been ever since.
When I lived there I had the opportunity to work for a company called Earth & Sky Ltd. They organise stargazing and observatory tours in Lake Tekapo. Earth & Sky Ltd and the Mt. John Observatory are home to the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve (I.D.S.R.). It was awarded Gold Tier Status in June 2012 by the International Dark Sky Association (I.D.A.). The I.D.A. is the first organisation that draws attention to the hazards of light pollution. Its mission is to preserve and protect the night time environment and our heritage of dark skies through environmentally responsible outdoor lighting. Their International Dark Sky Places programme aims to protect locations of exceptional night time visages for future generations. They award bronze, silver and gold designations to dark sky communities, parks and reserves, gold tier being the highest award.
Ever since I left Earth & Sky Ltd in 2015 I’ve had a hankering to see the stars on a clear night somewhere. There is the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh which offers some stargazing as part of their Public Astronomy Evenings during the winter. The Observatory site’s main specialty though is in technology. They design extremely sensitive cameras and other instruments for many of the world’s best telescopes and for the big telescopes of the future. I did attend one of the Public Astronomy events last year on a Friday evening and the sky was pretty clear but not as clear as you would get in a Gold Tier Status location. Haddington, to the east of Edinburgh, is a good spot apparently to see the stars but to get to the more remote areas you need a car and that’s something I don’t have.
There is a Gold Tier status Dark Sky Park in Scotland called the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park and within this park is the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory. It’s located near Dalmellington, on a hilltop site on the edge of the Galloway Forest Park, which would take nearly all day to get to by public transport from Edinburgh. The other Gold Tier Status Dark Sky Park in the UK is Northumberland International Dark Sky Park which is home to the Kielder Observatory. This was closer to get to from Edinburgh, just a few miles from the Scottish border. So I had a look at the Kielder Observatory website to see what sort of stargazing events they had and I booked the last seat for the Night Sky Safari event on the 4th February. Kielder Observatory is a public outreach astronomical facility located in Kielder Forest. The primary function of this amazing observatory is outreach via public events. They offer a wide range of events such as the Family Astronomy session, the Late Night Explorer, the Full Moon Party, A Universe Full of Stars and Aurora Nights to name just a few. The Night Sky Safari session, which I booked, is specifically geared towards maximising observing time through the telescopes, weather permitted. I enjoy looking through the telescopes at star clusters, planets etc but what I was really hoping for on this visit was a clear sky, so I could see the Milky Way and all the thousands of other stars in our galaxy with my naked eyes.
On the 3rd February 2018 I made my way down to Kielder. It took four hours to get from Edinburgh to Kielder Village: two trains from Edinburgh to Hexham via Newcastle, a 680 Go North East bus from Hexham to Bellingham and finally a taxi from Bellingham to Kielder Village. It was well worth the long journey though. I stayed at Twenty Seven B & B in the village. This is a great dark-sky-friendly B & B. It was clean and quiet, with a very helpful and welcoming host. It’s also a good location to explore Northumberland and other areas. Twenty Seven B & B is the only bed and breakfast in Kielder Village but there is a wide variety of accommodation in Kielder Water & Forest Park and surrounding areas. From lodges to campsites, caravan parks and cottages, B & Bs to fancy hotels, there is no shortage of good accommodation to choose from.
Home to Northern Europe’s largest man-made lake and over two hundred and fifty square miles of working forest, Kielder Water & Forest Park has plenty of activities to keep you occupied. A ten minute walk from Kielder Village will take you to the start of the Lakeside Way, a very good walking trail around the shore of the lake. The track is suitable for walkers, cyclists, horse riders and wheelchair users. Many people come to visit the Park to see its unique collection of visual art and architecture. These pieces of art are located in the forest, around the lake and within Northumberland National Park.
I followed the North Shore track on Sunday morning. It was a beautiful day. The sun was out and I came across some lovely open vistas through the forest path which really showed off the beauty of the lake. One thing I did notice is that there was a lot of moss creeping up the trees and walls in the area. That’s always a good sign that the air quality is good and clear. I love the crisp, alpine chill in the air in mountain areas. Another thing I like about small villages like this, especially in the winter time, is the smell of wood burning stoves. To me it makes a place feel very homely.
I had a long walk around the lake, the village and surrounding area. Kielder Castle is a good spot to explore. It was the former hunting lodge for the Duke of Northumberland. Now it houses both the Kielder Forest and Birds of Kielder exhibitions, as well as local collections of artwork at the Duchess Art gallery and the Kielder Café. Unfortunately the Café and exhibitions were closed when I was there due to renovations. Because of this I was a regular visitor to The Anglers Arms, the local pub in Kielder Village.
The food in this pub was great, with big portions, fresh ingredients, at very reasonable prices. They have a cosy lounge area in the bar and a lovely restaurant that I was really impressed with. It was decorated mostly in red, with pictures of the area from local photographers on the walls. I loved the atmosphere in here and they had a really good choice of specials, starters, main courses and desserts. On top of that the staff were very friendly and helpful. I would highly recommend it.
That Sunday night the driver from Bellingham Taxis drove me up to Kielder Observatory, a fifteen minute drive from Kielder Village. The Night Sky Safari is a three hour event which in February started at 8pm and finished at 11pm. The first part of the evening was an introduction to the night’s planned observing schedule and a talk about the Observatory and the work they do there. Part of that talk was also about the various stars, clusters, galaxies etc that you would see on a clear night there. When I arrived at the Observatory the sky was totally clouded over. I’d heard though that the temperatures were due to drop steeply that night. This is usually a sign that the sky might become clear. I was really hoping that this would be the case.
Forty minutes into the talk a member of staff came in and told us that there were clear patches in the sky and it was looking promising for observing the stars. My heart skipped a few times when I heard the good news and about thirty of us were split into three groups. We were told that we would be taken to three observing stations, two of which had inside telescopes and the third was an outdoor viewing deck. In the first telescope turret we looked at Betelgeuse, the Orion nebula and saw the smudge of the Andromeda Galaxy through their 16inch telescope. It was amazing looking through these telescopes. Through the roof of the turret I could see thousands of stars and I couldn’t wait to get out onto the viewing deck.
It was still partially cloudy when we got outside but there were good gaps in the cloud to be able to see the night sky. While we were waiting for our eyes to adjust to the darkness, which can take up to ten minutes at least, the clouds slowly started to clear. There were two 12inch manual telescopes set up outside on the viewing deck. Becky, our astronomy guide, helped us look through both telescopes at numerous planets, nebulas and star clusters such as Sirius, Ursa Minor, Pleiades (The Seven Sisters), a double star cluster and some of the constellations. Sirius was beautiful and bright and Pleiades was stunning, with the seven stars gleaming like polished silver through the eyepiece. There was a bank of thick cloud on the horizon behind us in the West but that didn’t matter because for me, the most breathtaking thing in the night sky was right above us. The clouds had disappeared and the Milky Way was visible in all its glory, crystal clear against a pitch black sky. The thousands of stars that I saw through the roof of the turret were in full view out on the deck and my heart welled up with the beauty of it all. I loved it. I’m not surprised it was awarded Gold Tier status for its dark skies. (This photo here of the Night Sky is courtesy of Kielder Observatory)
After forty minutes of being outside on deck we were then led into the third inside station to look at a few more stars through a telescope and hot drinks were provided at the end of the tour. In total we looked at ten objects through the telescopes that night. Ironically just as our group was heading back inside, the sky clouded over again. We had just over half an hour of the most amazing view of the Milky Way and its myriad of stars and I considered myself extremely lucky to have seen it all. The Observatory staff and volunteers were very helpful and friendly and I would highly recommend a visit here. Early booking is advisable.
Monday morning I walked up to the Clear Sky Lodge Park in Kielder Village and had a look around there. The sun was out, making the frost which had covered all the grass and trees sparkle. It was beautiful up there too and I saw a couple of deer running off across one of the fields that I passed on the way. By 2pm the sky had clouded over again and I made my way back towards Edinburgh. The Kielder Water & Forest Park/Kielder Village is a lovely area to explore. It gets very busy there in the summer with lots of activities based around the lake. If you’re intending visiting at this time of year you should come prepared with insect repellent because there can be a lot of midges. It’s well worth the effort and journey though if you’re looking for a retreat from the city and daily life and one of THE best places in the UK to see the stars.
There are twelve International Dark Sky Reserves in the world at the moment and numerous Dark Sky Parks and Communities. The number of Dark Sky Places is ever increasing, which is a good thing. Having seen the Milky Way in New Zealand and also in Kielder I must admit that I’m hooked and I’d love to see more. You have to pick the right time of year though to get the best chance of seeing the stars. Weather is always an important factor but I would advise not to go when there’s a full moon as it can take away a lot of the brightness of the stars. It’s also advisable to give yourself at least three days in a location, to improve your chances of getting a clear night sky. Apart from visiting the Kerry I.D.S.R. in Ireland, I really would like to go to other Dark Sky Reserves such as Mont-Megantic in Quebec, Canada and also the NamibRand Nature Reserve in Namibia, Africa. You never know. Watch this space!