Light pollution has been a real problem for astronomers in the UK. Street lights, industrial estates and motorway illuminations have all made it harder to get a good view of the night sky. But in recent years volunteers and enthusiasts have joined forces with the National Trust, the National Parks and the International Dark Skies Association (IDA) to make stargazing a reality again in many parts of the UK, by reducing lights, or replacing them with non-polluting models.
Our expert guide on the best locations to stargaze in Britain, advice to help you see more in the dark, and basic stargazing equipment to help you get started.
What and where are the UK’s Dark Sky Discovery Sites?
Dark Sky Parks are designated by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) as being sufficiently low in light pollution to allow the viewing of exceptionally starry skies. They also offer facilities that promote dark-skies education and appreciation.
The night sky over Chew Magda in Somerset/Credit: Getty Images
The International Dark Sky Association has recognised three large dark areas in the British Isles:
- Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park
Sark Dark Sky Island.
Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve
In the UK you can visit the Dark Sky Discovery website to browse a map that shows you where you can spot the Orion constellation and places you can even see the Milky Way.
There are 17 Dark Sky Discovery Sites in the UK including many of our nationals parks, such as Exmoor, Brecon Beacons, Northumberland, Peak District, Snowdonia among others. www.nationalparks.gov.uk/visiting/outdoor-activities/dark-skies
Where are the best places for stargazing in the UK?
Your first encounter with dark skies is a truly memorable experience. Away from light pollution, the Milky Way dominates the sky and the familiar constellations are filled with countless stars. But where to go to get the best views? Chris Bramley rounds up the UK’s best starry-sky sites.
Northumberland Dark Sky Park covers nearly 600 square miles. Much of the area is wild and remote with few settlements, so light pollution is minimal; as a result, you can seen an amazing number of stars.
One of the best viewing sites is Cawfields Quarry Picnic Site in the central section of Hadrian’s Wall near Haltwhistle, while at Kielder Observatory you can learn about the night sky, use powerful telescopes and meet experienced astronomers.
Hadrian’s Wall at Walltown Crags in Northumberland ©Alamy
Several astronomical societies run public star gazing events, including Kielder Forest Star Camp, which is a big camping party where astronomers get together to observe the sky. Autumn and winter are the best times to visit; avoid midsummer, when the northern latitude means lighter skies and less to see.
From Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park, it is obvious how the Milky Way got its name. Regular stargazing evenings are held in this protected wilderness, with the modernist Kielder Observatory serving as a hub.
Explore spectacular trees and woodlands, from wildlife-rich Kielder Forest in Northumberland to the giant pine trees of Scotland with our guide to the best forests and woodlands in the UK.
Coll Forest Dark Sky Community
Coll is a small Hebridean island four miles west from Mull off the west coast of Scotland. It has beautiful beaches, fantastic wildlife and no street lighting, meaning its skies are black as velvet. In December 2013 it was awarded Dark Sky Community status, which means it’s officially one of the best places for astronomy in the UK. The designation follows years of work by the island’s 200-strong community, who carried out an audit of lights and refitted those that spoiled the view for stargazers. Readings with a sky brightness meter showed that Coll has some of the darkest skies in Europe.
Winter offers the best night skies and there are three particularly good viewing areas: the RSPB reserve car park at Totronald, up behind the church in the village of Arinagour and at the football pitch at Cliad.
Not many people live in Galloway Forest Park in southeast Scotland and as a result the 300 square miles of mixed landscape are a haven for wildlife that includes otters and pine martens. The park has some of the best dark skies in Europe – so very dark that in 2009 it became the UK’s first ever Dark Sky Park. The park’s website has a Dark Sky leaflet that shows where to go and what to look for, with star maps of the constellations. You can see the Milky Way all year round and in autumn, looking north, you can see Cassiopeia. In spring, looking south, you are able to see Leo, Gemini, Regulus, Capella and the Pleiades star cluster. If you’re not quite sure what to look for, try joining one of the regular observing sessions held at Kirroughtree Visitor Centre.
Galloway Forest Park in Scotland was the UK’s first dark sky site/Credit: Geograph, Ann Cook
Within easier reach of urban areas in the south, Exmoor National Park got IDA recognition for its dark skies in 2011. Here, moorland and ancient monuments provide a dramatic frame for the stars.
Sark, one of the smallest of the Channel Islands, lies just off the Normandy coast. Its dramatic coastline offers unblemished views of the stars, thanks to the absence of public lighting and cars (save for a handful of tractors). It’s a relaxed little place, with no cars and little tourist infrastructure. This makes it so ideal for stargazing that in 2011 it was declared the first Dark Sky Island in the world. The 600-strong community works together to ensure as little light pollution as possible in order to avoid blotting out the starlight. As a result, if you gaze heavenward on a clear night you can see the spectacular sight of the Milky Way reaching across the sky from one horizon to the other. September and October are good times to go, when it’s not too cold but the nights are getting longer and the winter constellations are appearing.
The starry sky over La Coupée in Sark/Credit: Getty Images
The rugged landscape of the Brecon Beacons National Park became a dark sky reserve in 2013. Its sandstone peaks and upland lakes offer a magical setting to discover galaxies.
deep in the Cambrian Mountains, is the latest area to become a Dark Sky Park. The stars shine bright on this private estate, where the fragile nighttime environment is preserved in all its scintillating majesty.
Elan Valley, Mid Wales/Credit: Getty Images
In a renowned National Trust property at Ambleside in the Lake District and is remote enough that light pollution isn’t an issue.
The Isle of Coll in the Inner Hebrides has no street lighting, meaning its skies are black as velvet. In December 2013 it was awarded Dark Sky Community status, following years of work by the island’s 200-strong community, who carried out an audit of lights and refitted those that spoiled the view for stargazers.
The Perseid meteor shower, seen over New Ralph’s Cross, Castleton, on the North York Moors/Credit: Getty images
Other good spots for stargazing
On the North York Moors there are Dark Sky Discovery Sites at Danby and Sutton Bank park centres, and at Scarborough and Ryedale Astronomical Observatories in Dalby Forest. There are stargazing events at all these sites. There will be a Dark Skies Festival from 9 to 25 February 2018, with stargazing, wildlife and ghost walks, starlight runs, games and activities.
The South Downs National Park became an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2012. Particularly good spots for stargazing are WInchester Science Centre and Planetarium, Old Winchester Hill, Butser Hill, Iping Common, Devil’s Dyke, Ditchling Beacon and Birling Gap.
The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park has worked with the National Trust to establish a network of Dark Sky Discovery sites, and on clear nights it’s possible to see the Milky Way with the naked eye. The National Trust recommends the following sites, which are all car parks or picnic sites, meaning they’re fully accessible; Broadhaven South, Garn Fawr, Kete, Martin’s Haven, Newgale Beach, Poppit Sands, Skrinkle Haven, and Sychpant.
In the Peak District there are Dark Sky Discovery Sites at Surprise View, Parsley Hay and Minninglow, which is beside the High Peak Trail. There are astronomy interpretation panels at these sites to help you explore the night sky and they are changed each season, as different stars and constellations change in visibility depending on the time of year.
Snowdonia National Park was awarded International Dark Sky Reserve status in 2015 for its efforts to prevent and reduce light pollution, thereby protecting the view of the night sky. On a clear night in Snowdonia you can see the Milky Way, all the major constellations, nebulas and shooting stars.
There are four designated Dark Sky Discovery sites in the Yorkshire Dales: at Hawes and Malham National Park Centres, Bucken National Park car park, and Tan Hill Inn.
Old wooden huts on Winterton Beach, Norfolk at night/Credit: Getty Images
Wiveton Downs and Kelling Heath Holiday Park in Norfolk are designated ‘two star’ sites – where the seven stars of the Orion constellation and the Milky Way are visible to the naked eye. North Norfolk Astronomy Society hold stargazing events in the local area and a monthly astronomy talk.
Exmoor Forest Dark Sky Reserve
Exmoor National Park has amazing moorland landscape and at night it has magnificent night skies. Now the lighting in the park is carefully managed to make sure that man-made light doesn’t spoil the view.
Exmoor ponies graze on heather covered moorland on Porlock Common in summer, Exmoor, Somerset/Credit: Getty Images
You can see many astronomical sights with the naked eye, or you can hire a telescope at one of the National Park Centres in Dulverton, Dunster and Lynmouth. A Dark Skies Pocket Guide, which can be downloaded from the Park’s website, has a map showing the core dark sky area with suggested viewing spots plus advice and starcharts. The night sky changes with the season; there’s plenty to see over Exmoor all year round but March and April are particularly good for observing in the UK, while autumn is your best chance to see shooting stars.
How to stargaze with the naked eye
Check the moon phase is before planning your stargazing trip. You’ll see more if you go stargazing before a full moon.
Download a stargazing app – it’ll help you spot stars and constellations more easily. Just be careful not to look at your phone too much as it can reduce your night vision. Try Star Walk (iPhone) or Google Sky (Android). The Stellarium desktop app can be used on a home computer, to plan ahead for your stargazing adventure.
Take a compass to help you orientate yourself when looking at the stars. You can use a compass app on a smartphone instead, but again, looking at bright screens will hamper your night vision.
Once you’re orientated and have identified likely spots for stars turn off any lights and torches and put your mobile away. Your eyes will need about 20 minutes to adjust to the darkness so now’s a good time to have some soup or a hot drink.
You’ll get a better view lying on your back, and won’t get a sore neck!/Credit: Getty Images
What can you see in the sky at different times of year?
Although the stars in the northern sky are visible all year round, it is easier to see certain features at particular times of the year.
In winter look for star clusters, constellations and December’s Geminids meteor shower. In spring the planets are more visible, while in summer there is the Perseid meteor shower. During autumn the Milky Way is more visible and the Orionids meteor shower takes place in October.
Many stargazing sites host monthly events, so it’s worth checking what’s available near you via Dark Sky Discovery, National Parks and the National Trust.
What equipment do you need for stargazing?
For stargazing, you simply need to choose your spot and look up. You don’t necessarily need a telescope; even a pair of good 10 x 50 binoculars will let you see the moons of Jupiter and the Andromeda galaxy.
Take a blanket or camping mat to lie on to keep you warm. You’ll be able to enjoy the experience more if you’re not trying to stargaze by craning your neck while standing up.
Bring a torch, but tape a red light filter onto it or use a rear bike light as a torch – red light will affect your night vision much less than a bright white light.