From Hadrian’s Wall we travelled on up towards Kielder Water and Kielder Forest where I had booked a place on a Public Observing Night at the stunning Kielder Observatory.
I had arrived early thinking to maybe look round the observatory and perhaps take in the views which as the observatory is high on a hill in the middle of a forest should be spectacular. But on arriving I found just a small rough car park, with a barred and locked barrier leading to an unmade forestry track and no real signs to say I was at the right place. So having parked I put up the satellite dish and sent an email, eliciting the response that they would do their best to reply within forty eight hours, which I felt might be a little late so upped sticks and headed on into Kielder village, and the information centre at Kielder Castle.
Kielder Castle was a hunting lodge built by The Duke of Northumberland in 1775, and although extended later is not particularly large for a ‘castle’ at least compared with the castles I have seen in the last month or so. There was no-one manning the information centre but the lady serving in the cafe explained whereabouts I should go, which is actually where I had just come from. So after a quick look round the castle which is now an information centre for the Forestry Commission and its work in the area I returned to wait for the gate to be opened.
The doctor from the university who was in charge of the group for the evening turned up at about six and I asked if I should take Thebus up the forest track or use the scooter, but as it was two miles up to the Observatory at the top I decided it would have to be Thebus, and in fact the track was perfectly wide enough, and arranging Thebus so we would not need to be reversing in the dark with other cars around I waited until just before the eight o’clock start
It is a stunning building the result of an open competition entered by two hundred and forty architects and won by Charles Barnes Architects of London. Built of local spruce and larch, designed on eco-friendly and self sustaining principles, it is administered and run by a group of volunteers. The main telescopes are housed in two revolving square towers, plus there are smaller telescopes all of which were available for us to look through after the fascinating introductory talk in the cosy meeting room with its log burner and hot chocolate.
As I had to book so far in so far in advance I had been anxiously scanning the weather forecasts for the last few days, and every time they told me to expect Heavy Rain All through the Day and the Night time right on till Tuesday morning, so I was not hopeful of our chances of seeing much. But in any case I was looking forward to the talk, and I was proved correct in that it was most interesting, and pitched at just the right level.
Whilst the talk was in progress two volunteers were setting up the telescopes and regularly reported back as to what, if anything was to be seen through the wet autumn sky. Then about nine o’clock the clouds and haze began to clear a little as the winds blew them away and we trooped out to the various telescopes and viewing platforms to take advantage of the amazingly dark skies above Kielder.
I had been hoping to have a good view of our own galaxy The Milky Way, as though over my lifetime I have seen it many times as the years go by and as light pollution increases there are less and less opportunities. And I was not disappointed . Part of the lecture had explained that we see it as a band as we are looking through the middle of the ‘disc’ of starw which form our galaxy. It is a barred spiral galaxy, over one hundred thousand light years in diameter and contains as many as four hundred billion stars, and our galaxy is just one of billions of other galaxies. One of the telescopes was set for Andromeda which is one of the closest spiral galaxies to our own at about two and a half million light years away (I hope I have got all my facts straight)
We were lucky to get a chance to see at least something before the moon rose, but by the time it did the night was clear, and sharp and cold and we then had a spectaular view of its surface through some of the smaller telescopes which had been set up for us.
Not only is Northumberland one of England’s most sparsely populated counties, and the observatory in the sited in middle of the largest forests in England, but it is built high on a hill, up two miles of deserted forestry track, so when you do get up there is it truly dark. All the lighting at Kielder Observatory is in the red spectrum which makes for better observation, and though I was far too busy seeing what I could of the night sky to take photos of the observatory there are some stunning ones on wikimedia which I have linked into
The evening was due to finish at eleven but everyone was so reluctant to leave that I think it was closer to twelve by the time I made it back down the forest track. I have to say I really enjoyed the evening, the whole experience from the countryside and views, the outstanding building and the boundless enthusiasm of those guiding the group made for a truly memorable night.
Thank you Kielder Observatory!
Beautiful Photo of Andromeda Galaxy
Not taken by me!