Almost everything we know about the universe has come from observation of the night sky but true darkness is becoming harder to find. Dark skies help to maintain our circadian rhythm – and enable us to sleep soundly. They also keep the natural behaviour of animals in line with the seasons. In terms of dark-sky spaces, there are now movements in place to preserve these areas, which are invaluable to astronomers. Among them is Dark Sky Discovery, a network of UK astronomy groups that lists and ranks around 100 sites across the country.
The North York Moors are home to three: the national park centres at Sutton Bank and Danby, as well as Dalby Observatory – where the galaxy is often visible to the naked eye. This week sees the start of the third North York Moors Dark Skies Festival (9-25 February) and I had a preview of some of the 100-plus events that are planned. There are also similar, simultaneous events in the Yorkshire Dales, Northumberland and the South Downs.
I stayed at family-run B&B The Farmhouse, in Goathland, a village best known as a location for the TV series Heartbeat. More recently its quaint station served as Hogsmeade in the Harry Potter films, but during my stay all eyes were focused on nature’s beauty – as guided by astronomer Andy Exton of Hidden Horizons. This Scarborough-based company specialises in science-related trips, including year-round astronomy sessions and fossil hunts.
Thanks to low light pollution, this area is renowned for views of the Milky Way. Sure enough the sky seemed split in half by a stream of light – a sight I’ll never enjoy in my street-lit garden. A look through a telescope revealed another smudge of light, that became clearer the longer I looked: the Andromeda galaxy, which is made up of one trillion stars. Taking a moment to pause and get my head around something 2.5 million light-years from Earth seemed to slow down time. I felt calmer. Could that be why public stargazing is on the rise? Hidden Horizons has doubled its stargazing evenings to four a month to keep up with demand.
I was brought back to Earth by Chris and Clare Carr, who run The Farmhouse, offering hot chocolate and marshmallows, while Andy passed round treasures including an amazingly heavy little lump of iron – the core from a meteorite. Then, just as we were about to call it a night, the sky delivered an encore – two shooting stars.
• Dark Skies Festival in the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors national parks. Doubles at The Farmhouse from £115 B&B, which has a Stay and Gaze package for an additional £105pp including a private two-hour stargazing session and two-course meal
Events include an aurora night, astro photography and a full-moon party.
• 9-25 February, visitnorthumberland.com
Featuring stargazing at Battle Abbey and Amberley Museum and a star party.
• 9-25 February, southdowns.gov.uk
Grizedale Forest, Cumbria
Local astronomers will be on hand to point out the wonders of the night sky, pus talks and advice on taking up stargazing as a hobby.
• 23 February, £10 adults, £5 children, eventbrite.co.uk
Events here are yet to be confirmed but last year included night swimming, dusk safaris and wildlife and stargazing walks.
• 20 October-4 November, exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk