“There’s Jupiter over there,” said astronomer Douglas Rice, casually swivelling his cannon-like telescope to the south and inviting me to peer through the viewfinder.
Sure enough, there was the distinctive red orb, accompanied by three of its moons (the fourth was hidden behind the planet). Above us, a full moon pulled out from cloud cover. “Some astronomers don’t even bother going out when there’s a full moon; there’s too much light,” said Douglas. But though it does not make for ideal stargazing, the full moon was helping me by blotting out some of the fainter stars and making Jupiter clearer.
Douglas was in his element, and so was I; thrilled not just by Jupiter, but by being out late at night in a wild landscape, when I would normally expect to be settled in a cosy pub. The uninitiated, like me, might think you must travel to a far-flung desert island for a sensational view of the night sky. But here we were in deepest Exmoor (wild enough on a winter’s night), on a deserted caravan site above the Somerset village of Winsford, and the view above was stunning.
Douglas, chairman of the amateur Tiverton and mid-Devon Astronomy Society, turned his telescope again, this time towards the moon. “The moon is irresistible,” he admitted. “There’s so much on it. You see geological features, mountain peaks.”
Through the eyepiece, the glare was dazzling, and between squints I could clearly see Tycho, an impact crater near the south of the moon. We were gazing at the stars, Douglas pointed out, just like Galileo. “We’re actually using a telescope similar to the one he first pointed at the skies,” he said.
Stargazing can make you light-headed and heavy-footed: a nothingness with so many things in it. The stars of the night sky stretch through all points of the compass, far beyond the confines of the leafless oaks and the silhouetted, matchstick conifers on the rolling hills. A bonus owl flitted through the edge of the firs.
Our musings were interrupted by a shooting star that materialised out of that nothingness and dropped in a lingering, gentle arc before fading away. Despite their apparent size, shooting stars are little larger than a pebble, vaporised in the atmosphere.
“I’ve never seen one move so slowly,” exclaimed Douglas. “It was quite remarkable.”
Things calmed down after that. We looked at classic constellations such as Orion (look for the three-star belt), the Square of Pegasus (well-named), Cassiopeia (so called for the resemblance to the Ethiopian queen of the same name on her throne); and I was intrigued to discover that these star patterns, far from being the preserve of astrologers, are important locators and objects of wonder for amateur astronomers.
While stargazing enjoys a dedicated following in Britain, the recent accreditation of Dark Sky status to Galloway Forest Park, Dumfries and Galloway, which is awarded to areas that are free from light pollution, might trigger an upsurge in interest as we realise that areas of darkness and tranquillity remain even in our crowded island.
Yet even the inky skies of Exmoor are not as dark as they could be. Light pollution is encroaching into all areas of the UK, and Exmoor is no exception, particularly at its northern edge, where the amber glow from the cities of Cardiff and Swansea drifts across the Bristol Channel.
One of Douglas’s fellow astronomers, Dr David Brabban, has taken darkness readings across Exmoor: “I grew up in nearby Tiverton and used to be able see the stars at night, but now you can only see a handful from towns and cities,” he told me. “We are at risk of losing something important.”
Glories of the galaxy
Douglas had one final treat in store. Swivelling the telescope to a point roughly 12 o’clock above us, he declared: “That fuzzy patch is the Andromeda Galaxy, the furthest you can see with the naked eye. It’s one of my old favourites. Just think: it’s two million light years away and you can still see it with the naked eye. It’s pretty much impossible to appreciate what you are looking at. However much you talk about it you never get used to it. And that’s just a local galaxy.”
At this point, I experienced what could be described as a The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy moment – the point in Douglas Adams’ classic series where the Total Perspective Vortex is introduced, a machine that presents a 3-D model of the entire universe with a ‘you are here’ legend on a microscopic dot.
Searching for answers
Later, as we thawed out with a pint in a Winsford pub, Douglas elaborated further on the appeal of astronomy. “Trying to work out where we are in the scheme of things is such as fundamental part of us,” he said.
“We always seem to want to know the answer. It matters to realise that you are surrounded by these fantastic phenomena. It’s like a beautiful jewel – it’s nice to contemplate and it enhances your existence to know that such intense beauty exists.”
Questions of life, the universe and everything gain a greater clarity on nights in the countryside such as this. Astronomical ideas have inspired art, poetry, story writing and music, and bewitched Shakespeare, even though much of his work preceded Galileo.
After such an evening, it is also impossible not to contemplate whether we are alone or not. As a child it seemed to me implausible that life could exist elsewhere, but the progress of science suggests I might have to rethink. “It’s dangerous to think we’re the only ones out there,” said Douglas.
“It’s just a question of whether the conditions have managed to produce a recognisable life form. It just seems wrong to be unique.”
Where to watch the night skies
1. Galloway Forest Park
Dark Sky status for the 75,000 hectare park is sure to make this part of south-west Scotland attract a new generation of astronomers.
2. Todmorden, West Yorkshire
The moors of the southern Pennines offer reasonably dark skies, despite their proximity to Manchester and Leeds. The observatory at Todmorden is open to public on Saturdays, with plenty of space for telescopes.
3. Kelling Heath, Norfolk
Much of Norfolk, particularly coastal areas, is excellent
for stargazing. Look out for the Spring Star Party at Kelling Heath, on the coast road between Blakeney and Sheringham, from Thursday 15 to Sunday 18 April.
4. Hay Bluff, Herefordshire
Hay Bluff, a steep buttress at the north edge of the Black Mountains overlooking Hay-on-Wye, to the north of the Brecon Beacons, is one of the finest and darkest locations for astronomy in Herefordshire.
5. Stone Edge, Derbyshire
Given the proximity of so many medium-sized towns and cities, Stone Edge near Chesterfield sounds an unlikely dark location, but artificial light is at a minimum here.
This is an edited version of an article first published in issue 31 of Countryfile Magazine. To make sure you never miss an issue subscribe today.