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Seize the night: expert tips for stargazing in the UK

Thanks to less light and air pollution, the country’s night skies are darker than they’ve been for a long while. So stay up, head out and go starry-eyed.

By Connor McGovern
Published 13 Aug 2020, 08:05 BST
The most important thing when starting to stargaze is to first, just drink in the view, ...

The most important thing when starting to stargaze is to first, just drink in the view, says Dr Stuart Clark, author of Guardian’s weekly Starwatch column.

Photograph by Getty Images

Cranborne Chase AONB

In Cranborne Chase AONB, night-sky visibility in this vast swathe of Southern England is so good that it was the first AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) in the UK to be designated an International Dark-Sky Reserve, in October 2019. More than half of its 380sq miles has some of the lowest light pollution in England ,which means, on cloudless nights, the sky heaves with stars. Cley Hill, near Warminster, is one the best spots for stellar views, and you might spot something else, too — it’s supposedly also a UFO hotspot. 

Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

Wales’s rural and rugged southwest coast is perfect for enjoying the night skies, partly due to its distance from big towns and cities. Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority and the National Trust have picked out a string of sites throughout the National Park where visitors can discover the night sky, including Broadhaven South beach, near Stackpole, and Poppit Sands, on Cardigan Bay. 

Northumberland International Dark Sky Park

The county’s unspoilt, rambling landscapes are always a dramatic backdrop, but it’s the heavens that steal the show after dark. Awarded ‘gold’ status by the International Dark Sky Association, the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park has the darkest skies in England. There’s no shortage of places to admire the skies here, but Cawfield Quarry, beside Hadrian’s Wall, is a safe bet — pull over and keep your eyes trained for our neighbouring galaxy, Andromeda, 2.5 million light years away. 

Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park

A sparse population means this woodland in southwest Scotland is a haven for astronomers. It was the UK’s first Dark Sky Park in 2009 — the first outside the US — and careful steps have been taken to ensure light remains at a minimum. Head out on a clear night along the A712 from Newton Stewart to New Galloway — the open road winds through heathland and woodland beneath a spectacularly clear night sky, full of planets and stars, as well as the glittering arc of the Milky Way. 

South Downs National Park

Truly escaping light pollution in the South East can be a challenge, but the UK’s newest national park offers some of the best spots to stargaze in this corner of England. Particularly good for stargazing is Butser Hill in Queen Elizabeth Country Park, given its status as one of the highest points in Hampshire. Alternatively, head to the coast and to Birling Gap near Eastbourne, where, when visibility is good, the sky shimmers with stars over the English Channel.  

Seeing stars: Dr Stuart Clark’s top tips  

Dr Stuart Clark writes the Guardian’s weekly Starwatch column. His latest book Beneath the Night explores our human fascination with the night sky, which will be published by Guardian Faber in October 2020. 

1. Enjoy the view
The most important thing when starting to stargaze is to first, just drink in the view. The night sky is an extraordinarily beautiful sight, especially from somewhere really dark. So first of all, don’t try memorising constellations or star names. With familiarity, you will naturally notice the patterns that the stars made. This is the moment to turn to the star charts and begin putting names to the constellations.

2. Switch off
Try to stargaze well away from streetlights and for at least 30-40 minutes so your eyes adjust to the dark.

3. Look up
Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn can be seen with the naked eye and are distinguished from bright stars because planets do not twinkle. Venus and Jupiter are bright white, Mars is a baleful red, Saturn is the colour of straw and Mercury only appears in twilight.

4. Geek out
Mobile phone apps such as Star Rover or Sky Safari (Android and iOS) are inexpensive ways to find your way around the night sky. These apps identify the stars, constellations and planets and by simply pointing your smart phone or tablet at the sky, the screen labels what you’re looking at. Many also provide more details about the celestial bodies, such as their age and composition.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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