After a 40-minute walk up the rough forest road, the observatory building emerges, standing on a shoulder of cleared moorland above the trees, with an uninterrupted view of the sky. Settling under the shelter to await the approaching dusk, I am prepared – well wrapped up against the cold.
Patches of cloud cover most of the sky, but as night advances, these thin, and the moon rises above the hills of the Scottish Borders. A pink glow diffuses to the west, deepening by the minute, and the first stars wink.
The Kielder Forest Park covers 250 square miles, and the reservoir at its heart is one of the largest in Europe. This has been declared one of the most tranquil places in England, and the light pollution is minimal. Taking advantage of the dark skies, the Kielder Observatory was opened in 2008 by former Astronomer Royal, Sir Arnold Wolfendale.
Under its director, astronomer Gary Fildes, the observatory holds up to 20 events each month, which combine talks about astronomy and cosmology with opportunities to see celestial phenomena, such as the northern lights (solar winds hitting the Earth’s atmosphere).
Secrets of the universe
After the last of the sun’s rays have vanished, car lights show the way through the trees to the observatory car park and entrance. Around 40 people, including parents and eager children, pack into a classroom. With a short talk, Gary conveys something of the wonders of the Solar System, the Milky Way, galaxies and the size of the universe, all illustrated with stunning images.
Then it’s out into the cold. The largest telescope, trained on the moon, magnifies detailed craters and mountains, identified by the volunteer staff. A second telescope picks out the bands on Jupiter and its four Galilean moons. A smaller, portable telescope is set up on a balcony in the open, demonstrating the constellations and Milky Way
in all their glory.
A magic display
Kielder is ideally placed for observing the aurora. Gary informed me that he had seen 10 displays during the past year, and, not long ago, I was lucky enough to enjoy this amazing spectacle for myself.
A small patch appeared in a starry sky, cloud-like except for its faint green colour and un-cloud-like shimmer. It slowly expanded and developed, reaching tendrils out to cover half the sky. The centre turned red, diffused into the green and darkened to a red-brown. For almost an hour, this magic display filled most of the sky, rippling from the centre. Then as if with a dimmer switch, it faded, and disappeared in minutes.
Though a display of the northern lights can never be guaranteed on any night, if you happen to be at Kielder when one occurs, then you will experience something you
will never forget.
HOW TO GET THERE
By car, take the A69 from Newcastle or Carlisle to Hexham, then follow the A6079 to Chollerford and take the B6320 to Bellingham. Just before Kielder village, a forest road leads to observatory. Local bus services are the 880 and 693.
FIND OUT MORE
Kielder Village, Northumberland NE48 1ER
Home-cooked meals served in
a quiet, cosy pub atmosphere.
27 Castle Drive,
Kielder NE48 1EQ
Pitch your own tent or caravan, or hire a pod at this friendly site.
Kielder NE48 1ER
The castle is a great base for exploring the sports and activities, wildlife and art installations throughout Kielder Water and Forest Park.