Lighting-up time in the Brecon sky

The wealth of Wales used to come from below the ground. Now a new dark-sky reserve offers a fresh source of glittering riches, says Rob Cowen

That's a relief," says astronomer Allan Trow as he pulls on his Arctic Parka. "It's only minus five outside." I assume he's joking. "No. It can get seriously cold up here. Minus 20." I'm suddenly reluctant to leave the warmth of the Land Rover but even a novice like me can see that conditions are perfect.

The clouds that dogged the hump-backed hills are gone and a new moon is due, meaning natural light will be at a minimum. As I don every piece of clothing in my rucksack, Allan assures me that we are lucky. "This is the best sky for stargazing I've seen for a long time."

We are high in the beautiful Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales, only the fifth destination in the world to be granted the status of "international dark-sky reserve". The award means the night sky over its 520 square miles is protected by regulations that prevent light pollution, ensuring a celestial spectacle to rival anywhere in the world. Infamous Welsh weather permitting, of course.

The hills darken as sunset erupts in the west. We are still a good hour from real blackness but have arrived early for a reason. Between the horizon and the red contrail of an aircraft, the dying sun illuminates a scratch in the heavens. Allan hands me a pair of binoculars that would break the arm of a lesser man, and I focus on a black dot with a glorious ruby fantail. "Can you see it," he asks excitedly. "That is the comet Panstarrs."

The enormity of what I'm seeing only hits as he explains that Panstarrs will be gone from our orbit in a few weeks and won't return for 100,000 years. In the excitement of passing the binoculars back and forth, we forget to unpack his hi-tech kit and photograph its fleeting form before it fades. There's no need; it's a sight I'll never forget.

One hundred thousand years. These are the kinds of mind-melting numbers you have to get used to when studying the firmament. Time and distance become elastic concepts. As the sky bruises, lights materialise. Jupiter is the brightest, with a mass 2.5 times that of the rest of the planets in our Solar System combined. To the naked eye it is no bigger than the head of a pin. To the south appears the solitary red Betelgeuse, a casual 642.5 light years away. With Allan's direction, I whirl around to see star formations emerging everywhere: The Plough, Orion, Leo, Ursa Minor. But even with the help of a laser pointer, Cancer and Gemini look nothing like what they are supposed to. Perhaps it is the sheer clarity of the stars confusing me.

"You can see 2,000 stars with the naked eye in a dark-sky area," says Allan. "Provided conditions are like this."

It's a far cry from 24 hours earlier. I had arrived in the market town of Abergavenny in the midst of a downpour. Seeking shelter in the smart Angel Hotel in the centre of town, I thawed out over afternoon tea in a cosy wood-panelled lounge. I washed down a mountain of sandwiches, warm pastries and cake with exotic blends of Ceylon tea before setting off towards the looming mountains to find my hotel for the night, and I prayed for clear skies.

Gliffaes Country House Hotel is 10 miles west of Abergavenny, near the pretty village of Crickhowell. It sits in a stunning secluded valley overlooking the River Usk: perfect star safari territory. But the hotel's grand 19th-century Italianate exterior was all but masked by grey gloom. A call from Allan confirmed bad news for stargazers. Still, it'd be hard to find a better place to be stranded.

After a wander by the river, I joined other guests in the bar for pints of local ale in wingback chairs by a roaring fire. The charm of Gliffaes is hard to overstate; from racks of fly rods in the loos to the homely chintz of its drawing rooms and lose-yourself sofas, it radiates classic country charm. A delicious dinner of local venison later, I lay on my bed with the curtains open watching patches of black appear tantalisingly between the clouds.

Stargazing requires patience. Miss one window and there's no choice but to wait. Fortunately, the Brecon Beacons offers a host of ways to fill the day that make the most of its natural resources. So, after a late breakfast, I joined outdoors instructor Jeff Calligan on a drive around the area's awe-inspiring hills, the snow-crested Pen y Fan, Fan Fawr and Pen Derren, en route to a tranquil sessile oak wood beside the wild river of Mellte Gorge. With the mercury unmoving, I spent the day mastering the art of fire by friction, using the bow and drill techniques of our forefathers to create a crackling fire. As sparks flew and the fire took, the clouds lifted to reveal clear sky. Then the call came from Allan: our window was open.

That night, I was staying at a remote holiday cottage: Cynfin Barn, a snug three-bedroom converted barn perched on the hillside above the village of Tretower. I barely had time to down bags there before Allan's Land Rover was waiting outside to take us up into the mountains.

Soon we were in total blackness. Allan assembled his electronic telescope and we entered a dizzying realm: a million stars, like the world's diamonds scattered on black velvet. Each has a story. I marvelled at the beautiful Seven Sisters, a bluish cluster next to Jupiter that Native Americans once used to test eyesight. If a boy could count seven with the naked eye, he would be allowed to be a brave.

There are less glamorous names too. The balletic sweep of the telescope took us from Mars to M42, the Orion Nebula, where stars and planetary systems are formed from collapsing clouds of gas and dust. Through the little eyepiece, up a Welsh hill, I watched the creation of the universe. This time I managed to snap a photograph using a long exposure to capture its detail.

Two hours later, back at Cynfin Barn, I tried to regain the feeling in my hands. I stoked the stove and peer out at the amazing, silent, coal-black darkness across the Usk Valley. Thanks to Allan's patient tutelage, I could make out the Milky Way and the patterns of myriad stars above me. It struck me that this country is mining its natural riches again, only this time they are in the sky.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Trains to Abergavenny are operated by Arriva Trains Wales (0845 606 1660; arriva trainswales.co.uk), with connections at Newport from First Great Western (08457 000 125; firstgreatwestern.co.uk) and at Manchester Piccadilly from First Transpennine Express (0845 748 4950; tpexpress.co.uk).

Rent an electric car from Brecon Beacons Holiday Cottages from £45 per day (01874 676 446; breconcottages.com/eco-car).

Staying there

The Angel Hotel (01873 857121; angelabergavenny.com); tea costs £17.80 .

Gliffaes Country House Hotel (01874 730 371; gliffaeshotel.com); B&B doubles from £108.

Book Cynfin Barn via Brecon Beacons Holiday Cottages; weekly from £266.

More information Dark Sky Wales (07403 402 114; darkskywales.org); stargazing from £80 .

Mountain and River Activities (01639 711 690; mountainandriveractivities.co.uk); outdoors activities from £90pp per day.

www.breconbeacons.org

 

More British Dark Sky Reserves

Exmoor National Park, England

Located on the south-west coast of England across Devon and Somerset, Exmoor was the first area in the UK to become a Dark Sky Reserve. The 81 square kilometres of moor, designated the "core zone", provide open access as well as a host of other points of interest, such as Bronze Age burial mounds, a National Nature Reserve and the deserted medieval settlement of Hoccombe Combe.

Galloway Forest, Scotland

Designated a "Dark Sky Park" in 2009, Scotland's Galloway Forest's 75,000 hectares are closely controlled for light pollution, helping it to achieve at Sky Quality Meter reading of 21–23.6. To put that in context, a photographer's dark room measures 24. And there are few more magical places to learn about the constellations than in the heart of a vast wood.

Isle of Man, England

Situated in the middle of the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man is renowned for low levels of light pollution across its towns, villages and seascapes and has had seven beauty spots awarded "Dark Sky Discovery" status: Port Soderick Brooghs, Axnfell Plantation, Smeale Nature Reserve, Niarbyl, The Sound, Fort Island and Sulby Reservoir Car Park. Glorious in the day and awe-inspiring by night.

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