Kielder Observatory is located near Kielder Water in Northumberland National Park and is the creation of Gary Fildes who began a crusade to build an observatory in the park after experiencing it’s wonderful dark skies. The result is an architecturally unique wooden building in the middle of nowhere that attracts thousands of visitors each year. Northumberland National Park has also recently become a Dark Sky Park, and thanks to the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), dark sky parks are becoming more popular as more people are starting to realise that dark skies are a very precious asset. This is great news for astronomy and stargazers and it means dark sky places will hopefully be sustained for future generations.
I recently visited Northumberland Dark Sky Park for a family camping holiday in late May 2014 to see Kielder Observatory and enjoy the area. My first observatory visit was a three hour public observing session hosted by Daniel Monk who is a new full time astronomer at the observatory. There were also a few volunteer astronomers present from the Kielder Observatory Astronomical Society (KOAS) to help with the telescopes. Each session normally consists of about twenty to thirty visitors and ours involved a one hour slide show and talk followed by a tour of the scopes and a chance to observe through them if weather conditions are favourable. It’s not very often you get to look through such a great telescope, and we were fortunate on this occasion as the notoriously changeable British weather cleared just enough to provide glimpses of the planets. As it was late May and the session finished at 23:00 it was still dusk, so only bright targets like planets were really suitable. To view more distant and fainter astronomical objects it is best to visit Kielder Observatory when the nights are longer and darker. We were very lucky that the clouds parted to reveal Saturn, Mars, Mercury & Jupiter. I had already seen most of these but hadn’t got round to Mercury, so it was great to add that one to my list. Considering the weather, the guys at the observatory did a great job of making sure everyone got to see something.
We also visited a summer family stargazing event at Kielder Observatory later in the week, which our five year old son thoroughly enjoyed. His highlights being Saturn in a solar system scale demonstration, moving the big telescope and turning the observatory roof. I was really looking forward to looking through a hydrogen-alpha solar telescope for the first time, but we were not as lucky with the weather on this occasion. However Daniel did a great job entertaining the kids, and even though it was cloudy everyone had a great time and learnt lots about the observatory, the telescopes and astronomy.
Back at Kielder Waterside Park things were much tougher for stargazing. Not only was the caravan site surrounded by tall pine trees, but it was also a haven for midges. As is much of the area from late May to September. They tend to come out in the evening which makes stargazing more of a war zone than a peaceful hobby. Also at the end of May the Sun doesn’t set until 21:30 up here, so you can’t really start observing till late as it never gets fully dark at this time of year. Needless to say I only managed a glimpse of the crescent moon and of a setting Jupiter, and then had to abandon my session due to the midges. With this in mind I will make sure our next visit is between October and April when the skies are darker earlier and there are less insects.
On the whole I can definitely recommend making a visit to Kielder Observatory and Northumberland Dark Sky Park. It’s an inspiring experience for everyone and great place for stargazing. You have to be prepared for bad weather and it’s pot luck whether the sky will be clear for the night you’ve booked at the observatory. But it’s definitely worth a visit to see the observatory and the telescopes and to ponder our place in the universe, and a real bonus if you get to use the telescopes as well.
I managed to briefly demo Scope Nights during my visit, as I would like to think the staff and visitors at the observatory could benefit from using a dedicated astronomy weather forecast for planning their nightly sessions. The next version of Scope Nights will feature a dark sky map and the latest list of IDA dark sky places including Northumberland International Dark Sky Park, so this should help attract even more visitors to the area and to the observatory.
All in all a great experience and we will definitely be going back again. I really wish all dark sky parks had similar observatories. It seems Northumberland is blazing it’s own stargazing trail!