North Pennines AONB Stargazing Festival 2021

Something very special is on show 365 days a year within the North Pennines AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), but it reaches a crescendo this October and November, with the fifth North Pennines Stargazing Festival.

While the beauty and majesty of The Lakes and The Dales is a given, there is something breathtakingly authentic about this upland landscape, that stretches across the highest and most remote parts of Northumberland, Cumbria and Durham.

AONB’s – like their larger cousins the National Parks – are designated for their important landscapes and wildlife. We are incredibly lucky to have 38 AONB’s in England and Wales.

‘Dark Skies’ have become rightly cherished and protected in recent years – and there are actually more ‘Dark Sky Discovery Sites’ in the North Pennines than anywhere else in the UK. With 16 locations, including Allen Banks in Northumberland, Cow Green Reservoir in Durham and the RSPB site at Geltsdale in Cumbria, they are dispersed in such a way that accessing them from either York, Newcastle or Liverpool, will take no more than a couple of hours.

In addition to the exquisite views above, the North Pennines AONB is the custodian of 40% of the UK’s species-rich upland hay meadows – and home to High Force – England’s biggest waterfall. But they’re for another visit, on another day. This 770 square-mile oasis, which looks both east to the North Sea and west to the Irish Sea, is definitely the place to head for, if you’re keen to wonder in detail about the Space-Time Continuum!

Dark Sky Discovery Sites are nationally recognised places that are dark (okay Einstein – it might not be obvious to everybody) and easily accessible, where it is not at all difficult to observe the Milky Way or the constellation of Orion with the naked eye. The initiative is part of an international programme to protect dark skies, initiated by the International Dark Skies Association – and it’s really important stuff.

Credit: Andy Gray

So…to this year’s festival…all of the events have been amazing – and there really has been something for everyone. One of the brilliant things about a Dark Skies Festival – is that you can actually keep on having your own special moments – at any-time and anywhere (when it’s dark), but for October and November, the AONB team and their partners have pulled out all the stops. One of their priorities is to encourage us all to get emotionally connected with the natural world, because it’s a fact that people who make an emotional connection with nature, go on to take action for conservation. They’ve achieved that in buckets (a cosmic metaphor would have worked better here I think – feel free to write to the Editor with your suggestions).

While most of the organised activities have been timed to coincide with Half-Term, there are masses of ideas, advice and extra things to do via https://www.northpennines.org.uk/. Until the end of November at Bowlees Visitor Centre, Newbiggin (DL12 0XF), there’s also a must-see exhibition by a selection of North East photographers who specialise in photographing the night-time landscapes and dark skies of the North Pennines. The images are spectacular – but please check in with staff for opening times.

Although I didn’t want to miss a single event, I had to limit myself – and so first on my list was: ‘Aurora nights at Grassholme Observatory’. Astronomer Gary Fildes, who has done amazing things at Kielder Observatory, was on-hand with the other brilliant team of astronomers – and they took our well-wrapped-up and excited troop of welly-wearers, on a journey centred around the Aurora Borealis. The Observatory is only a short hop from Barnard Castle – and so I wondered if the Cummings family might join us, but recalling that Dom’s eyesight can be problematic – stargazing’s possibly not the best activity for him?

Credit: Andy Gray

On certain nights throughout the year, you can see the Aurora Borealis from Grassholme. It’s visible in the North Pennine skies, but the conditions have to be just right to see them and unfortunately this wasn’t going to be one of those nights. I certainly left better informed on how to spot them in future though and what exactly they are. Who would have thought that only a few days later, views of these illusive heavenly happenings, are being recorded right across our patch? Magnificent.

Next up for me was ‘Dark Skies Photography’ at Kirkoswald Castle near Penrith. I’ve always been amazed by the sort of images currently on display at the Bowlees Visitor Centre and the opportunity to be taught the basics by Gary Lintern – one of the exhibiting photographers – wasn’t to be missed. In spite of putting a call in to the Met Office Magicians at RAF Leeming, who carefully plotted my position – and at what time we might get a break in the clouds, it wasn’t to be. But the Castle was quite something, Gary’s tuition was superb and his tutorial on how to take your own Astro-Photographs is now up on the AONB website. I am practising.

The final event for me was ‘Pies and Skies’ at The Hive in Nenthead. The Hive is a beautifully repurposed Methodist Chapel, now a Gallery, Café and Events space managed by Nic Cullens. Although anyone who knows me, knows that even the suggestion of a pie is always enough, in reality it was Andy Gray: Research Chemist, Astronomer, PGCE Teacher of Teachers at Newcastle University and all-round North Tyneside Top Man, that got me heading up the M6 on a night when @MetOleeming confirmed it was a NO GO for Galaxy gazing.

This event was wonderful – it deserves its own piece. OK…yes…the steak pie, chips and peas really were special. David and Alison Hymers from nearby Garrigill, very kindly allowed me to join them and they were the best supper companions. Not only were they passionate about the night sky, but they are also dedicated community movers-and-shakers in Alston and beyond (see what I did there)?

Credit: Andy Gray

Andy Gray, because he’s got masses of experience in ‘switching on’ Year 13’s who are trying to look at their phones, was brilliant. “Planets are pretty heavy – but they’re also a long way away.” Initially, he was pitching it just right for me. But then: “There are enough stars in our Galaxy, for everyone on Earth to have 10 each.” Eh? He carried on…”Our Milky Way is 100,000 Light Years across.” Once we got to the ‘Gedanken Thought Experiment’, I just had to look down at my empty plate. “If you look at a grain of sand on a finger at the end of an outstretched arm and see how much of the sky that covers, behind that sand grain could be up to 10,000 galaxies. That applies for every similar sized piece of sky.” I rubbed my temples. I did rally when he closed with the promise that: “If you’re having a bad day – it doesn’t matter – space doesn’t care.” I think that’s something we should all note.

And that was my North Pennines Dark Skies Festival – and a greater understanding as to why I’ve had a lifelong love of looking up at the stars.

There’s masses of info and activities to enjoy at: https://www.northpennines.org.uk/what_we_do/dark-skies/north-pennines-stargazing-festival/

I’m currently refining my ‘Star Art’ competition entry, (closing date 2nd December). Although it’s actually for our younger people – I think my intellectual understanding – and colouring-in capability, should give me a ‘Wildcard’ entry.

Colin Petch

October 2021

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