WOULD you turn to the stars to find out which planets were clashing if your partner walked out on you? Would you seek astral guidance before a flutter on the stock market or looking for a job?

According to Penny Thornton, one of three astrologers consulted by the Princess of Wales to identify the celestial gremlins at work in her marriage, star-gazers are being inundated by a 'conspicuous growth in interest, knowledge and desire for consultation'.

Where the royal (Di, Fergie, the Queen Mother), rich and famous (the Reagans, Sylvester Stallone, Bryan Ferry, Gloria Estefan) have led, it seems increasing numbers of ordinary folk are eager to follow. Consultant astrologers such as Roger Elliot, whose customers have included John Lennon and Yoko Ono, say they can pick and choose their clients; others talk of three to four- week waiting lists. Christeen Skinner, the immensely jovial chair of the Astrological Association, confirms that demand for the services of Britain's 250 full- time private astrologers and several thousand part-timers is unprecedented.

Consultant astrologers are at pains to point out that they should not be confused with newspaper horoscopes, and that on the whole they do not set out to tell the future. (However, they frequently do make predictions: 'Sometimes if we see an auspicious or a tricky time coming up we'll stick our necks out and give dates if they seem clear,' says Christeen Skinner.)

Instead they claim to be able to draw a 'map' of someone's character using the day and time of their birth, and use this to see past and future mood, movements, and sometimes incidents by looking at planetary positions in relation to the chart. They say much of their new business is coming from people in the mid-30s to 50s age group, who, regardless of status and creed, are using astrology as a tool for re-evaluating their lives.

Sometimes clients have more concrete problems to address. Alic Whittle, a middle-aged businessman from the north of England, went to see an astrologer six years ago at his wife's suggestion when his building company was in difficulties. He says: 'I was struck by how ordinary and conventional she was - I suppose I expected someone outlandish. I was amazed when she told me things about my family which were very precise. When she looked forward she predicted that I would, within 10 months, be earning far more money than I could imagine. She was right. I bought a new business and things went very well.'

For a while. But when that business was hit by the recession, Mr Whittle went back to the astrologer. 'Again she told me precisely the problem and that I shouldn't worry because in one year three months it will be a lot better. I know that sounds vague and can be easily dismissed by doubters. But because she was right last time I feel helped and inspired, and that alone is worth the money I paid.'

Sarah Field, 38, a researcher, went to an astrologer because 'I was feeling very stuck in a job I'd had for years. I wanted to work in America but had failed to get a green card. I wasn't in a relationship and suddenly I got very depressed. A friend suggested an astrologer and I thought, 'Why not?' It was not at all what I expected. She was a rather overblown woman with a plummy accent. I expected to be ushered into a darkened incense-smelling room. Instead it was a chic Belgravia-style sitting room.

'I decided in advance that it would be money wasted. Then when she began to speak my view changed. She was very astute about my personality and she said a lot of relevant things about my parents - though bits of it could have fitted a great many people. Then, quite unexpectedly, she announced that next November I would go abroad to work. I laughed at this but then in November I saw a job in the States advertised, which I later got. Of course, she didn't make it happen, but she gave me the conviction that things could change, and made me more responsive to the advertisement.'

Happy clients tend to become evangelical, but others are unimpressed. Josephine Morris, a television producer, paid pounds 50 to see an astrologer recommended by a friend. When she arrived at the expensively furnished central London flat, 'I was greeted like guest by this woman who looked as though she could have been a PR executive or something - neat skirt and jacket, large earrings. We sat down and she started to talk about me. She told me all sorts of things about my parents, saying I had a difficult relationship with them, and she talked about how I related to men - and I kept telling her it was all wrong. Then she would try to change it a bit, but it still didn't add up.

'She became irritated and then suddenly she leapt up saying, 'Ah, I've got it]' She reached for her astrology book and told me that she had completely forgotten, but there was a newly discovered planet, Chiron, that clearly this was what I had been born under, and it would make everything different. Well, she did tell me some other things, but frankly it didn't make much more sense and I came away convinced there was nothing in it.'

HOW far is astrology 'successful' because people want to believe and therefore hear only what fits, discarding the inaccuracies? In 1948, Bertram Forer set out to test astrological susceptibility by giving 39 people the same character profile and telling each one that it had been cast specially for them. 'You have a great need for other people to like you and admire you,' it said. 'You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not used to your advantage . . . Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life . . .'

The guinea-pigs were asked to judge it for accuracy on a scale of 0-5. Sixteen gave it 5, the mean was 4.26 and five rated it below 4. A similar test on 52 people in the Eighties produced similar results.

These were small studies but sceptics maintain they raise important questions about the validity of astrology. Physicist Anthony Garrett says: 'There exists no remotely plausible explanation of how astrology might work. Is astrology not just harmless fun? The answer is no: it fools people and is potentially dangerous.'

Christeen Skinner argues that scientists are setting out to prove harm where it does not exist. 'Astrology only allows people to look at how things may be, and then use free will to deal with that,' she says. 'When we present studies demonstrating efficacy, with samples of 500 or 1,000 people, we are told they are too small, yet the scientists can apparently prove something on tiny samples. Thousands of people are going to astrologers every year, and they are apparently satisfied.'

Until a study is done to satisfy both sides, the argument will continue. Meanwhile, Roger Elliot would like it pointed out that 17 years ago in his book Astrology and the Royal Family he predicted that the Windsors were building up to a major crisis in 1992.

Princess Diana, however (if she is still seeking astral guidance), may have been comforted to read the Tatler astrologer this month, saying she has found 'a fine outlet for her cheery, protective and caring qualities by joining the Royal Family'.

Astro guinea-pigs

Three Independent on Sunday guinea-pigs visited consultant astrologers last month

SUE THOMPKINS, north London, charged pounds 50

Visited by Belinda Lester, journalist, 30s

Sincere, thoughtful woman who takes great pride in her work. Her lengthy character analysis was almost totally accurate - she even got my profession. She is not keen on predictive stuff but will give a 'weather forecast' if you want guidance on weaknesses and ways to overcome them. I think I'd have got more out of it if I'd gone with some specific problem. Far quicker than going to a therapist, but given the choice I would rather have spent the pounds 50 at the hairdresser.

ARCHIE DUNLOP, south-east London, charged pounds 40

Visited by Philip Thomas, film director, 40s

Small Mr Bean character, nervous but pleasant. He gave me a thorough character analysis and discussed work, but I told him I didn't want any predictions. I went out of curiosity and was absolutely cynical until he told me I was attracted to the glamour of sleaze, which caught me as I've just done a film script with a character called The Sleaze. My wife felt he pinned my personality absolutely and I ended up impressed. But I don't think it's a help.

MAVIS KLEIN, north-west London, charged pounds 45

Visited by Roger Williams, barrister, 40s

A trained psychotherapist, charming and genuine. I did not recognise the initial description of how I behave and 'perform', but the description of what makes me tick was accurate. In fairness, she said my uncertainty about time of birth could distort the picture. But I do believe the interaction one has with the astrologer probably enables them to 'read' quite a lot about you there and then. I was impressed but do not think I have a use for astrology.

(Photograph omitted)