As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to Northumberland National Park, Jo Keeling visits England's remotest protected area to explore Europe’s largest area of protected night sky.
It was my first night in Northumberland National Park and the clouds were beginning to clear. Our group of six stood expectant (and rather full) in Battlesteads Hotel's observatory, a wooden stargazing station in the pub garden. As we waited for the sky to darken our host, planetary physicist Roy Alexander, was spinning yarns about his childhood obsession with astronomy: “I used to put on as many layers as I could and sit on Norfolk beaches until I got cold,” he said, before talking about his current hobby of layering up and stargazing from the A1.
In 2013, 572 square miles of Northumberland was granted Gold Star Dark Sky Status, making this Europe’s largest area of protected night sky. With such low levels of light pollution, you can see the Milky Way with your bare eyes and, if you’re lucky, the northern lights.
At 55º north, it’s not just the aurora borealis you should be looking out for but the equally-sublime noctilucent clouds. A polar cloud on the edge of space, these ice crystals shine like spun silk in summer between latitudes 50º-70º. Roy explained them rather more poetically as, “water vapour mixed with the dust of shooting stars.”
Now that it was fully dark, we pushed the tempting red button and the roof pulled back to give the 11” telescope full view of the sky. As one unfamiliar with computer-controlled stargazing devices, I can tell you there’s something rather eerie about a spyglass that knows its location in time and space and moves on its own accord. Our group spoke to the telescope in the revered manner one would save for the HAL 9000 in Space Odyssey. “Show us the moon, HAL,” we said, as we typed the location into the handset, and it calmly slewed round to point at our nearest neighbour. With a catalogue of 40,000 objects, the moon was easy to find, but not as easy for us to see. “The moon is just past those clouds,” Roy said, laughing. “Welcome to astronomy!”
Once the clouds shifted, we began to notice things about the moon we’d never seen before. The white parts are more heavily cratered than the dark ‘seas’. Meteors hit evenly, Roy said, but the darker parts were once pools of lava which absorbed the shocks. As the rock hardened it formed ripples like cooling milk.
After practicing the basics of “smartphone astro-photography,” and viewing Saturn and its “innumerable moonlets” (one of many poetic celestial phrases we heard that evening), we retreated into the lecture room to drink hot chocolate and examine Roy’s handmade solar filter. Using one is vital; observe the sun without one and the UV light would boil your retinas. You wouldn’t notice you were blind until you looked away. “That’s when the screaming starts,” Roy said, as silence descended on the room. Then he smiled: “So who wants to see a scale model of the NASA space shuttle?”
Replete with stargazing facts, we made camp deep in the Dark Sky Zone at Wild Northumbrian Tipis & Yurts. Our home for the night was Merle Yurt, accessed via a rope bridge and hidden within a woodland, owner Rob Hersey promised, was “filled with owls”.
Rob has thoroughly embraced the National Park’s Dark Sky status, focusing on simple, joyful ways to experience Northumberland skies. He provides guests with a rug, star map and hamper of treats so they can explore the starlit landscape under their own steam. “We’re so far north that in summer, you can track the sun below the horizon,” he told us. “In winter, the moonlight reflects on the snow and it’s as bright as daylight.” We plied the log burner with wood, slow-cooked a sausage stew and listened to the rain on the roof, more aware than ever of all the astral objects skimming across the sky above us.
Jo stayed at: Battlesteads Hotel & Restaurant, a multi award-winning green hotel which organises dark sky events – from family stargazing evenings to 'Aurora hunting' workshops – from its own observatory.
Wild Northumbrian Tipis & Yurts, a tranquil tipi and yurt camp in the Tarset Valley, which runs regular stargazing discovery events throughout the year.