There was a big street party on the Hebridean island of Coll on 27 January. But the residents didn’t string coloured lights from the trees or let off fireworks. That’s because they were celebrating their new Dark Sky Community status, awarded in recognition of the island’s pristine night sky and the islander’s efforts to keep it that way.
The sky over Coll is free from the orange glow of light pollution – making it one of the few places in the UK that’s ideal for astronomy. The night sky, with its stars, meteors, planets and galaxies, is one of most dramatic spectacles visible from Earth, but is a sight threatened by light pollution from cities, roads and homes. Coll is one of six areas in the UK which, thanks to their low levels of light pollution and pristine starry skies, have been awarded Dark Sky status by The International Dark Sky Association (IDA).
If you’d like to enjoy the astronomical wonders of an unspoilt night sky, visit one of the UK’s six Dark Sky places:
1 Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park
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.
The next observing sessions are Stargazing for Beginners (24 January) and Moongazing for Beginners (18 February). Booking required: call Helen on 01671 402165 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
2 Sark Dark Sky Island
Sark, one of the smallest of the Channel Islands, lies just off the Normandy coast. 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.
Visirt Sark Astronomy Society for more information.
3 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.
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.
4 Northumberland Dark Sky Park
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.
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.
The next star camp, run by Sunderland Astronomical Society www.sunderlandastro.com/star-camp is 26 February – 2 March and booking is essential: email email@example.com
5 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.
6 Brecon Beacons Dark Sky Reserve
On a clear night in the Brecon Beacons, you can see the Milky Way, major constellations, bright nebulas and even meteor showers, all thanks to a pitch black sky that has earned the area Dark Sky Reserve status. The Brecon Beacon National Park covers 520 square miles of South/Mid Wales, including wild mountain and moorland landscape with little or no light pollution. The best sites for astronomy include the Usk Reservoir; the beautiful ruins of Llanthony Priory, where you can camp overnight; Hay Bluff, a hill overlooking the Wye valley; and the Sugar Loaf Mountain near Abergavenny. A highlight is the Perseid Meteor Shower, best seen in mid August.
The inaugural Hay Dark Skies Festival, planned for 21-23 March 2014, will celebrate the Dark Sky Reserve status of the Brecon Beacons www.darkskiesfestival.org
Clik here to find out about seeing the Northern Lights in the UK.