For centuries the stars have been our maps and our dark skies are a link to the people who mapped out our universe

Dark skies at Kielder
Dark skies at Kielder
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North Yorkshire is gearing up for its annual two-week Dark Skies Festival and, as Kielder Observatory’s George Pattinson explained our rare dark skies are something worth celebrating.

"Dark skies are genuinely important,” science communicator, Mr Pattinson said.

Dark skies at Kielder Observatory

Dark skies at Kielder Observatory

“Amongst all the other issues we have today, it often gets overlooked and our dark skies become fewer and further between but there is so much history connected to our skies.

“For centuries stars were our maps and in some places they are still relied on for navigation; being able to see our skies is a connection to that history and the people who plotted our universe.”

A dark sky is one which has very little or no light pollution, something that is hard to find in the UK and Kielder Observatory is one of only two in England which is located in an International Dark Sky Society designated dark sky site.

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Mr Pattinson has been a science communicator at the observatory since 2018. The site, set in the spectacular surroundings of Kielder Forest, is an astronomical outreach observatory, which means members of the public can visit to experience and be guided through the heavens.

“It is such a special place,” he said.

“We are in the middle of nowhere with lots of telescopes which people can look through and a great team who can bring the skies to life for visitors.”

Visiting the observatory site is an adventure in itself, the surrounding landscape is home to more than half the red squirrel population of the UK with deer, owls and other birds of prey in close proximity.

The building is designed to complement the scenery and skyscape.

When it was decided to build it, a competition was held to find the best design with Charles Barclay architects chosen from more than 230 entrants. “We try very hard to see the observatory through the eyes of our guests,” Mr Pattinson said. “And just getting here is interesting, visitors turn off the road and travel up a dirt track before being met by these wooden buildings.”

The observatory buildings are relatively new, having opened in March 2008, the vision of its original director, Gary Fildes. The aim was to host a few dozen events a year but they proved so popular, more than 700 events a year welcome around 20,000 visitors to the observatory.

But the history of star gazing at Kielder goes back much further with a local businessman, David Sinden, who ran Sinden Optical Co in Newcastle, volunteering his spare time to talk about his hobby, astronomy at the site.

It was Gary Fildes who was tasked by the Forestry Commission to promote ‘astro tourism’.

Astonished by the clarity of the skies, he instigated Kielder Star Camp which became one of the world’s top ten astro parties. Mr Pattinson said the skies at Kielder were exceptional.

“Like Yorkshire’s National Parks we are remote and so the light pollution is very low. I have been all over Europe but the view of the Milky Way from Kielder is the clearest I have seen.”

Mr Pattinson said the more science progresses the more we can link up to our observations of the stars.

“Most of our visitors have not seen dark skies like this before and particularly on a clear night, they get to see stuff which blows them away.

“They are also able to learn more about what they are seeing and the amount of knowledge which does exist about our skies can be a bit overwhelming.”

Many of the events at the observatory are themed such as the Milky Way or the Northern Lights.

While the Northern Lights are a rare phenomenon, they were reportedly spotted from Kielder in 2016 and Mr Pattinson said, can be seen on similar latitudes across the country.

“We also see lots of fainter objects from the observatory that may be hard to see elsewhere, star clusters are clearer and more prominent and we see satellites on a daily basis.”

The observatory also has a number of specialist solar telescopes for daytime observation during the summer months.

Mr Pattinson said its unique position meant visitors were often able to see the planets during that time of year.

“Generally, we don’t often see planets in the summer as they are low to the horizon, but as we are on top of a hill our horizon is low and there are no buildings or trees to obstruct the view.

“Last summer it was Jupiter and Saturn which were low down and we were able to see them.”

Mr Pattinson said he thought the Dark Skies Festival held by the North Yorkshire Moors and Yorkshire Dales National Park was a great event and would hopefully encourage people to look closer at our skies.

He said he had noticed an increased interest and awareness in dark skies over recent years and in Kielder itself astro tourism was a big draw.

“I think the importance of dark skies has shifted back into the public eye and people are more aware of the need to conserve them,” he said.