The sky at night comes into focus

Mark Barker, Recreation Ranger at Dalby Forest.
Mark Barker, Recreation Ranger at Dalby Forest.
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TO STAND and look up for a glimpse of the night skies is a natural wonder that has captured the imagination of people throughout the passing millennia.

But the 21st century scourge of light pollution from Britain’s urban sprawl has left an ever-dwindling number of places which provide a true chance to marvel at the celestial wonders above.

Yet there is hope that things are about to change – with Yorkshire at the forefront of the resurgence in stargazing.

Observatories in Dalby Forest, near Pickering, have been named as a new Dark Sky Discovery Site – one of only six in the UK announced this week and the only location in England, with the others in Wales and Scotland.

And the Government’s savage cutbacks to the public sector are having an unexpected bonus for star-gazers, as local councils are forced to turn off street lighting to save money while also reducing carbon emissions.

North Yorkshire County Council is alone hoping to slash its £1.7m annual energy bill for street lighting and illuminating signs by almost £400,000 following a review of all its 49,000 lights. So far, 7,500 lights have been switched to part-time use – about 6,000 in the Harrogate and Knaresborough areas and a further 1,500 in Scarborough.

Members of the Scarborough and Ryedale Astronomical Society run monthly stargazing events in the 8,600-acre Dalby Forest and also stage one of the UK’s biggest star camps, Starfest, every August.

The society’s secretary, Andy Exton, 33, took up the hobby when he moved to Scarborough four years ago from Doncaster.

The Open University student, who is studying for a degree in natural sciences, said: “I was amazed at what I could see, as the light pollution up here in Scarborough is so much less than in South Yorkshire. The fact that more street lights are being turned off is a good thing not only for astronomers, but for the natural habitat as a whole. It is returning things to how nature wanted, and it also means we can see the night skies a lot easier.”

There has been a surge in the popularity of astronomy buoyed in part by celebrity astro-physicist Prof Brian Cox, who is hosting the third series of the BBC’s Stargazing programme that began on Tuesday.

The region itself hit the headlines in January last year when the spectacular Northern Lights were seen from England’s highest pub, the Tan Hill Inn, in North Yorkshire.

Remote locations in the region’s national parks are carving out a burgeoning reputation for star-gazing and are at the forefront of a drive to promote night-time tourism. The Dalby Observatories have joined another site in the North York Moors National Park after Sutton Bank was named as a Dark Sky Discovery Site at the start of last year.

There are only 50 of the sites in the country, and York University also holds the accolade – although its Orion status is lower than the Milky Way designation which has been handed to both the Dalby Observatories and Sutton Bank.

The UK Dark Sky Discovery partnership, which awards the designations, is a network of astronomy and environmental organisations. Members include the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, the Institute of Physics, the British Astronomical Association and the Campaign for Dark Skies.

The late Sir Patrick Moore, who died last month at the age of 89, opened the first observatory in Dalby Forest in 2001, which was replaced by the existing purpose-built astronomical domes in front of the visitor centre five years ago.

Plans have also been considered to apply for Dark Sky status, which would give key planning guidance to help prevent further light pollution from future development.

The Yorkshire Post revealed last May that national park authority officials from both the Peak District and the North York Moors were in talks about seeking the status from the International Dark Skies Association (IDA), based in Tucson, Arizona.

The North York Moors National Park Authority’s assistant director of park services, Michael Graham, said yesterday that while a bid has yet to be progressed, he recognised the importance of the burgeoning night-time tourism sector.