Trail Of The Unexpected: Unsullied star-gazing in Northumberland
Bright lights, no big cities
Saturday 26 April 2008
It was past midnight and the moon scattered light upon the hilltop of Black Fell. The spruces shook with a bitter wind from the south but the breeze had cleared the skies of remnant clouds. The shine from the moon threatened to bleach out the planets and stars that seemed to shower the black sky, but I was lucky enough to have a good telescope to compensate. Having said that, if I'd been in the same place yesterday I would have been even more spoilt – the opening of the Kielder Observatory would have meant that I could have kept warm at the same time as I gawped at the galaxy.
I was standing in the heart of the silence of Kielder Forest in Northumberland. Regarded by many – including the Campaign to Protect Rural England – as the most tranquil county in England, Northumberland is also one of the most sparsely populated. The result: very low levels of light pollution, making it the ideal location for a stunning new observatory.
The site of the observatory is a good two miles from the nearest village on an unpaved road. It's shaped like a huge ship, made from pale Douglas fir and Siberian larch standing on stilts that seem to float into the night.
A pair of domes house two powerful telescopes for the use of local amateurs and astronomical societies. It's only in daylight that you realise what a feat of engineering it is. The observatory looks down on the Bakethin Reservoir and Europe's largest man-made lake, Kielder Water. The tenacious builder of this extraordinary structure, Stephen Mersh, told me of a long winter where the icicles were horizontal.
However, the elements shouldn't deter anyone from visiting the observatory. The telescope room is maintained at the same temperature as the outside atmosphere in order to keep the telescopes from warping. But behind it is a warm room with screens projecting the first telescope's findings, so you can run for cover every now and again.
The second telescope in the front of the ship doesn't have this luxury, but overall it does mean that few people will fail to enjoy a proper viewing of the stars. One of the amateur astronomers overseeing the project, Graham Darke, explained his fervour for the subject. "Most professional astronomers just collect data and analyse it. Looking through a telescope is not part of the equation any more. But amateurs retain the romance of it."
He tells me of entire nights spent stargazing until dawn. "It was fishing on the Tyne in winter as a bairn that toughened me up," he explains. On one starry night, he says, he used a blue telescope that by break of day had turned wholly white with frost.
On our night in the woods, the telescope moved by degrees until we got a clear sight of dun-coloured Saturn, its rings at 45 degree angles, and Titan, one of its many moons, twinkling nearby. After a little electronic nudging, the telescope moved around to face the moon, its brightness beaming out of the eyepiece.
The craters were crystal-clear and, since the moon wasn't quite full, the black crescent threw them into relief. A further twiddle and the dot of Mars appeared: pinky and distinctly unwarlike. There was a magical thrill to see these things close up – in relative terms – and, when we passed onto stars and galaxies, even more so.
The observatory staff are planning a series of open nights, which will surely have the potential to be among the easiest ways to awe children or adults in an evening.
Kielder Forest is Britain's largest, and is the work of the Forestry Commission. After the First World War, the Commission was charged with ensuring that there was never a shortage of wood again; it now supplies 5 per cent of all timber in Britain.
Fast-growing spruce, pine and larch make up most of the wood and keep the area a healthy green, but recently native broadleaves (cherry, rowan and beech) have been introduced. Gary Reed runs Discover Northumberland, which offers safaris on foot or using his sturdy 4x4. He is a bluff, humorous ex-officer trained in yomping and survival skills. I opt for the 4x4 and we take the Kielder Forest Drive, which is Britain’s longest toll road (£3) at 12 miles. It reveals the most isolated moorland in England and wonderful views of the Border hills. Part of the Pennine Way bisects this wilderness. It's a lonely stretch, but heading south before you get to congenial Bellingham you come across Hareshaw Linn, a waterfall popular with Victorian walkers.
About the last thing I wanted to do was break the spell of a night's astronomy by staying in a hotel, but in the middle of nowhere it was nice to discover the lush, maximalist Falstone Barns – an old farmhouse on the drovers' road between Scotland and England. Four apartments have been transformed into showrooms that would look apt in the King's Road. Gorgeous fabrics, bespoke furniture and granite breathe opulence – but the nicest touch was having the wood-burning stove lit after a hard day's walking.
Nickey Forster is the feisty owner who created all this from ruins. A former retail buyer from Harrods, she moved up with family five years ago for the good life and "to enjoy big sky country and see the weather coming to meet you. The serenity is fascinating."
Northumberland's star-rating is certainly way up there.
Kielder Observatory is at Black Fell (OS Map ref: NY 610932), approximately one mile west of Kielder village. The observatory is running open days today and tomorrow. For more information call 01434 220 616 or see www.kielder-observatory.org
Falstone Barns (01434 240 251, www.falstonebarns.com) offers four apartments from £170 for two nights.
Discover Northumberland (01434 344 650, www.discover-northumberland.com)
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