Have you ever looked up into the inky dark skies and have your mind blown by the sheer number of stars that are illuminating from above? It can be easy to forget about the canopy of space over our heads and for those like us, who live in big cities and towns, and where light pollution trespasses on the natural environment, it can be even harder to enjoy any type of stargazing in the UK.
That’s where the North Pennines Dark Skies Stargazing Festival in Durham is looking to change all of that. Now in its second year – the Festival ran over two weeks with 30 different jam-packed events during 20 October – 4 November 2018. So stargazing in the UK has never been more celebrated and during our half term stay in Durham last month, we got to take part in some of the Dark Skies stargazing festivities.
Stargazing in the UK
I have only ever seen truly dark skies abroad – the three that spring to mind are in the outback of Australia, Iceland and the Maldives – but for those aspiring stargazers here in the UK, the best place is in the North Pennines, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, who has some of the darkest skies in England. And what is so fantastic is that aside from the act of looking up at the millions of bright stars and being mesmerised by their beauty, all the events are both educational and fun for the whole family.
From stargazing suppers to pop-up Planetarium days as well as stargazing talks from leading experts and plenty of opportunities to watch the skies all across the North Pennines, there is something for everyone and a great way to bring science alive for kids – as Monkey discovered…
Bowlees Visitor Centre, Teesdale
If you want to go stargazing in the UK and in the North Pennines then your first stop should be the Bowlees Visitor Centre in Teesdale. Set in stunning woodland amidst rolling hills and two waterfalls Low and High Force – it’s been designated a Dark Sky Discovery Site. And it was here at Bowlees Visitor Centre, that we took part in two activities.
We were supposed to come at night, to lie on the hammocks and marvel at the stars but while Monkey and I were really looking forward to being able to spot as many constellations as possible, the weather had a different idea. It was extremely windy and these conditions are to be avoided as the chances of seeing stars in their full capacity without swirls of air around them are non-existent – so I was told by a keen stargazer. Also, it wouldn’t have been very warm or pleasant…
Although we didn’t actually get to go stargazing at Bowlees Visitor Centre, we still had the opportunity to discover Bowlees’ wonderful and unspoiled landscape.
Solar System Trail
The first activity we took part in was the Solar System Trail. After picking up a sheet and the promise of a treat if Monkey completed it correctly, we all set off. This wasn’t a pram-friendly route, so we ditched it and let Peanut enjoy the walk, too.
It was wonderful for us to see how much Monkey’s reading has come on this year, as not only was he able to find all the planets dotted around the trail, but was able to read the interesting information about them along the way. Meanwhile, it was a stunning day, and the colours of autumn were resplendent under the sun, and we all enjoyed wandering the uphill path towards the waterfall.
Having completed the worksheet, we stopped back at the Centre and Monkey was thrilled to get a Stars and Galaxies book – perfect for him to learn more about stargazing in the UK. After some lunch at the busy café, Monkey and I went onto our next meeting, while Peanut went for a nap – this wasn’t an activity for toddlers.
In The Dark – Wild
Discovering the creatures that come out after dark was the key theme of the session, with a mix of craft activities and a mini-beast walk. Split into two groups, we were the first to go wandering with our worksheets on a similar route to the previous. It was a good opportunity for Monkey to interact with other children and he enjoyed discovering lots of facts about different nocturnal animals including bats, owls and mice.
After we’d finished, it was time to learn what it would feel like to be in the woods during pitch darkness. This was fantastic fun for the kids who were all blindfolded and led on a short course in the woods, which combined different elements to test the senses of touch and smell. There was much squealing and laughter and Monkey really enjoyed it. In The Dark – Wild was then concluded with a crafting session, where Halloween inspired creepy crawlies were created out of sticks from the wood and lots of crafty bits and bobs.
What struck me was the enthusiasm and knowledge from the Bowlees volunteers who led the group and made learning so much fun.
So while we didn’t actually get to do any formal stargazing in the North Pennines, it doesn’t mean we didn’t stop to enjoy them during our time in Durham. Monkey, having had his passion for astronomy and space ignited, was keen to admire. And luckily, where we were staying was quite out of the way so we did get to see plenty.
And I believe that is exactly what the organisers of The North Pennines Stargazing Festival want – for people to have more awareness of what is above us and for learning to be fun. The North Pennines Dark Skies Festival may only be held once a year, but the opportunity to go stargazing in the UK can be done all year round and Durham has plenty of Dark Sky Discovery Sites including Hamsterly Forest and Burhope Reservoir.
So happy stargazing, folks! Grab a picnic blanket, wrap up warm and look to the skies…
* Disclosure: This post is a paid collaboration with This Is Durham. As always, my thoughts and opinions are my own.