Both NASA and Richard Branson plan to push exploration into space this year. But there is a more sustainable way to view the heavens, reports Naomi Tolley from Europe’s first Dark Skies Reserve
On a moonless night on the road to Simonsbath, we find the perfect place to pitch up. Horned sheep line the roadside while a large, semi-feral pony stands still in the middle of the highway, as if stunned by the impenetrable blackness of the night.
This is remote Exmoor country, a 267-square-mile swathe of national parkland, billed as one of ‘Britain’s breathing spaces’, where rare red deer roam and vast verdant meadows collide with some of the wildest coastline in the South West.
But it’s not only the varied beauty of the villages, valleys and history drawing people to this moorland, but also what lies above our heads: space.
“This is an amazing place to marvel at the wonders of the night sky and one of the few places in the UK where low levels of light pollution allow us to experience the night skies that have sadly disappeared from much of the country,” reads Exmoor National Park’s Dark Skies Guide.
The guide was compiled after the National Park was designated an International Dark Skies Reserve; the first place in Europe and the second in the world to receive such recognition, boasting “the highest prestige for night-time visages” in the world, according to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).
It remains one of just six places to receive such accreditation. The others: Mont Mégantic in Canada; Aoraki Mackenzie in New Zealand; NamibRand Nature Reserve in Namibia; Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales; Pic du Midi in France; Kerry in Ireland; and Westhavelland in Germany.
Founded in 1988, the IDA is the recognised authority on light pollution, raising awareness of its effects and hazards. It promotes one simple idea: light what you need, when you need it, while working alongside manufacturers, planners, legislators and residents to provide energy-efficient options that direct the light where you want it to go, not “uselessly up into the sky.”
“The good weather in Devon and the topography of Exmoor make for perfect conditions for viewing night skies”
“Once a source of wonder and one-half of the entire planet’s natural environment, the star-filled nights of just a few years ago are vanishing in a yellow haze,” reads the IDA website. “Human-produced light pollution not only mars our view of the stars, but poor lighting threatens astronomy, disrupts ecosystems, affects human circadian rhythms and wastes energy to the tune of $2.2bn per year in the US alone.”
We switch off the car headlights and the true depth of the darkness out here really begins to sink in. It’s a rare, unnerving darkness, far removed from the orange glow of city streets. I feel frightened at first, which serves as a stark reminder of just how reliant we have become on human-produced light pollution and noise for a sense of security, which all the while draws us further away from an intrinsic, natural connection with nature.
As my eyes begin to adjust to the blackness that hangs before, beyond and beside me, I look up at the Milky Way, which is scattered above my head in all its glittering glory. It’s like being introduced to an old friend who I haven’t seen in a while, comparable to my time on a night safari in the South African outback or on night watch aboard a tall ship in the heart of the Bay of Biscay.
I am not the only one to draw such grand comparisons: “You could be in the middle of the ocean, in terms of the quality of darkness,” says Dr Nathan Mayne, an astronomer at the University of Exeter, who frequently gives inspiring talks at schools throughout the county on the vast and complex wonders of the universe. Dr Mayne has also joined experts from the university’s physics and astronomy department on the recent BBC series of Stargazing Live, presented by Dara Ó Briain and popular physicist, Brian Cox.
“It is a combination of the percentage of good weather we have here in Devon and the topography of somewhere like Exmoor which makes for perfect conditions for viewing night skies,” adds Dr Mayne. “If you look at areas near Simonsbath, Dulverton and Wimbleball Lake, their locations, the land formations around them and their height above sea level all contribute to the quality of being able to see black in all directions, providing better conditions for stargazing.”
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There are stations all over Exmoor where keen stargazers can pitch up their own telescope, as we are doing, and venture on their own journey of the night skies. Exmoor National Park Centres, which are located in Dulverton, Dunster and Lynmouth, will hire out telescopes for £20 a night (£10 for subsequent nights) and provide a detailed folder with everything you can see in the skies while you’re there, including “the best way to view Jupiter and Jupiter’s moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto.”
I find myself scanning the sky in search of the Whirlpool Galaxy, and quite quickly spot what looks like two tiny pools of spiralling light, which lie a remarkable 30m light years away from Earth. This sense of discovery, of exploration, is reminiscent of those first days of travelling, of stepping onto the streets of Delhi for the first time, or climbing the Blue Mountains – it’s the magical, heart-stopping moment when you experience something new for the very first time. Like a child with a new toy, I am addicted.
From Exmoor, the folder suggests you can see a whole range of planets, clusters and galaxies, from the Owl Cluster in the Cassiopeia constellation to the twisted S-shape of the Crab Nebula and the Black Eye Galaxy.
The names themselves are like embarking on a remarkable galactic journey, from the white gems of the Mizar-Alcor double star and the ‘shaped talons’ of the Owl Cluster, to the M67 star cluster, which is four billion years old and one of the oldest star clusters in our galaxy.
“Between the star Dubhe in the rectangle of Ursa Major and Polaris the pole star, are two of the most impressive galaxies in the night sky: the spiral M81 and a thin spindle-like galaxy M82. Both galaxies are located some 11.8m light years from us. This means that the light we see from M81 and M82 has taken 11.8m years to reach us, and started its journey way before humans roamed the Earth,” says Seb Jay, from Dark Sky Telescope Hire, the company which supplies the telescopes to the National Park Centres.
For those that would rather take part in an organised stargazing tour, which Dr Mayne recommends for beginners, a range of events take place across Exmoor with local astronomy clubs, or at Wimbleball Lake, which was nominated as the first Dark Sky Discovery Site on Exmoor.
For those who want to go it alone, collect a guide from a National Park Centre, hire a telescope or take your own and camp. Cloud Farm Camping near Lynton is a wonderful family-run campsite in Lorna Doone country, where you can pitch your tent (and your telescope) next to a babbling stream and light your own campfires. It’s perfectly located for viewing stations near Simonsbath and for walks through some of Exmoor’s most spectacular scenery.
During my stargazer adventure I become so drawn to the heavens, albeit through a tiny lens, that we spend at least two hours gazing upwards from the roadside here, en route to Simonsbath. I see the Plough, the Great Bear, and a vague glimpse of Jupiter (although I hadn’t mastered the focus dial at this point), but the highlight is the tremendous sense of intimacy I feel with the universe in which we live.
The summer months are an ideal time to visit Exmoor and rekindle that closeness to nature, the environment and the universe. Take a tent, hire a telescope and begin your own galactic journey through space – all of which shouldn’t cost more than £100 for a couple of nights for a camping pitch, telescope hire and food.
Stay at Cloud Farm Camping in the Doone Valley (Tel: 01598 741278 ); for stargazing events, contact Wimbleball Lake Outdoor Centre (Tel: 01398 371460); and for information about Exmoor National Park and telescope hire, contact the park centres directly.