24-inch telescope makes Grewelthorpe observatory astronomy hotspot

“A lot of people call it the Brian Cox effect,” says astronomer Martin Whipp of a growing fascination among the public at large about the night skies.

The Dark Skies Festival returns to some of North Yorkshire's very best dark sky locations this month. A series of events included a solar system tour for schoolchildren at Lime Tree Observatory in Grewelthorpe. Picture courtesy of Martin Whipp/Lime Tree Observatory.

Astronomy has been popularised by television coverage featuring the aforementioned celebrity physicist over recent years and capitalising on the resulting interest is the Dark Skies Festival, an event which returns to some of the best dark sky locations in the country this month.

The Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors, Northumberland and the South Downs national parks, with the help of local Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty such as Nidderdale and the Howardian Hills, are running the festival jointly from February 15 to March 3.

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The event was first held in 2015 and is all about discovering, learning and enjoying night skies.

Mr Whipp, a member of the York Astronomical Society, believes it is a great idea.

“I think astronomy is one of those things that everyone has at least a slight interest in,” he said.

“The festival is an opportunity to showcase areas like the Dales and the Moors. They are beautiful places to visit during the day but as it starts to get dark people head off home.

“It’s about sending them back out there when these areas can be at their most magical.”

Various events are lined up to get amateur astronomers stargazing in areas untouched by light pollution.

Lime Tree Observatory in Grewelthorpe, near Ripon, which Mr Whipp manages on behalf of York Astronomical Society and landowner Peter Foster, is taking part in the forthcoming festival.

Schoolchildren are being invited for a guided tour of the solar system and peak through the observatory’s powerful 24-inch telescope on February 26.

The observatory on Mr Foster’s farm is in its third winter season of events.

“Some of our events you could book out two or three times over,” Mr Whipp said of the observatory’s popularity. “We’re only eight miles from Ripon but people come out here and cannot believe how clear the night sky can be.”

The observatory’s telescope is the work of engineer, John Wall, who contacted the astronomical society when its previous home, an observatory near Kent, was set to be demolished to make way for a new housing development.

The society worked with Mr Foster to build Lime Tree Observatory three years ago and the telescope has remained there since.

Now, with visits so popular, plans are afoot to add to the facilities. A crowdfunding campaign has been launched to help raise £25,000 towards the cost of building a planetarium to teach astronomy, science, nature and ecology lessons.