Astronomy may be the oldest science but it’s the latest trend. Becky Kay wraps up and heads outside to reach for the stars.
I'm lying in a warm, dark room with 20 strangers, zig-zagged under cosy duvets and gazing up at an amazing, space-themed film projected across a domed ceiling. It’s relaxing, fun and informative, if slightly surreal. I’m at the Dalby Forest Dark Sky Discovery Site on the southern slopes of the North York Moors National Park for an evening of stargazing. My host, Andy Exton, is an expert astronomer and runs the astral Hidden Horizons event I’m attending. Lasting from 7pm until 9pm, all you need to bring is a warm jacket, everything else is provided including hot chocolate, marshmallows and a cosy campfire on which to toast them.
The centre really has thought of everything and, despite it boasting some of the darkest skies and least light pollution, it’s mindful of UK weather and has an indoor ‘immersive star dome’ where you can watch a stunning show and virtual tour of the skies if it starts to cloud over.
Outside it’s chilly, but the sky is miraculously clear and I’ve just seen the Milky Way Galaxy live, with my naked eye, for the first time ever. For the uninitiated, such as me, it’s awe-inspiring; a river of light smudged across the sky, showing one of the spiral arms of our own galaxy. It’s very humbling and makes me feel reassuringly small and unimportant.
Peering through the large telescope under the tuition of Andy, I can make sense of the endless black map of stars. I have a helpful leaflet with a constellation guide, but Andy also blows my mind with facts such as the light from the star I’m seeing is travelling from millions of years ago, so I’m actually seeing it in the past, or that some stars are so dense, a teaspoon of one of them would equate to the weight of the earth’s whole population. Just grasping the idea that we’re an important and integral part of this huge galaxy is enough for me - fairly heavy stuff in my first hour of this new hobby.
The Yorkshire Dales National Park and the North York Moors National Park both have some of the darkest skies in the country, so they’re obvious places to have a stargazing centre. Word has already spread about the fact that on a clear night it’s possible to see not only the Milky Way, but up to 2000 stars, a meteor shower or two and our neighbouring planets. If you’re really lucky, you might even see the multi-hued, shimmering Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.
It’s rare to find an activity that appeals to all ages and all walks of life, but stargazing might just be one of them. Back inside the centre’s sky dome I can see young children, parents, teenage couples, grandparents, expert astronomers and complete novices all listening, rapt, as Andy helps us navigate the cosmos.
After the amazing dome experience, it’s time to get warm jackets back on and step outside again. The sky is definitely cloudier, but this isn’t just about trying to get a perfect view of the stars. Being outside at night makes me really aware of the nocturnal wildlife. I can see hundreds of tiny bats flitting about and hear several owls hooting very close by and the rustling of small night mammals in the undergrowth. I love the cosiness of the black all around me as I huddle next to the cosy campfire.
The dark forest seems a million miles from any town or city, but in reality, it’s no distance at all to the nearest town from here and this is what makes Yorkshire stand out for stargazing – the ease of access between the bright lights of the cities and the dark sky sites in the national parks. Discovering dark skies uncovers a buzzy world of events and enthusiasm in Yorkshire.
Children become enthralled by the natural world and interested in science and adults re-discover their childlike wonder. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy it and I’m even considering giving this year’s mini-break in Yorkshire with my chap a twist, with a bit of romantic star-gazing.
1. Dark Skies Festival The Yorkshire Dales National Park and the North York Moors National Park organise an annual Dark Skies Festival jointly. The festival runs in February and events include night runs, cycling, caving and talks by expert astronomers.
2. Dalby Forest Scarborough and Ryedale Astronomical Society (SARAS) holds stargazing events in Dalby Forest on the first Friday of most months between October and March between 8pm and 10pm.
3. Starfest An annual three night star camp run by SARAS at Dalby Forest (every August) which attracts amateur astronomers from around the UK (9-12 August).
4. Hidden Horizons Join Hidden Horizons for one of their stargazing events which start in September and run all winter. Booking is essential (Adults: £12; under 16s: £8, including hot chocolate/snacks); All under 16s must be accompanied by an adult.
This article was taken from This is Y 2018.