“Your postcode?” asked the lady on the desk.
I wanted to answer “Andromeda 42” or possibly “Apollo 11”, but instead meekly recited a series of letters and digits pertaining to an address in south London.
“You owe £4 for the car park,” she continued.
“Oh no, I don’t.”
In the spirit of the great Douglas Adams, I had hitch-hiked across the galaxy, or at least southeast Cheshire, to contemplate the cosmos from the UK’s prime intersection between tourism and outer space.
“Jodrell Bank. In touch with the universe 24 hours a day,” reads the sign on the way to the Discovery Centre attached to the Lovell Telescope.
Incredibly, in the austere 1950s a physicist named Bernard Lovell cajoled Manchester University into constructing a giant steel dish beside the railway line to Crewe.
Even using military cast-offs, building a radio telescope measuring 250ft across to peer into the depths of space involved an absurdly expensive series of trials and errors. The project nearly bankrupted the city of Manchester, and Lovell himself faced prison for misuse of public funds.
The far-sighted scientist was transformed from zero to hero overnight in October 1957 by the serendipitous launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite by the Soviet Union. Humanity’s first venture beyond the Earth marked the start of the space race between the US and the USSR, and the newly completed telescope was the only device in the world capable of tracking the rocket used for the launch.
The Pentagon, the Kremlin and the rest of the world woke up to the space-age wonder adjacent to the A535. Ever since, the Lovell Telescope has been charting the cosmos.
Recognition of its cultural importance finally arrived this month, when Jodrell Bank was added to the Unesco World Heritage List.
“It is the one remaining site, worldwide, that includes evidence of every stage of the post-1945 emergence of radio astronomy, and, as such, played a pioneering role in a revolution in our understanding of the universe,” reads the inscription.
“Radio astronomy showed that there is far more to the universe than meets the human eye, and that entirely new information can be obtained by using radio waves.”
Jodrell Bank boasts neither the thrill rides of Space Centre Houston nor the rocket launches of the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
Yet its hulking hemisphere rising above the Cheshire countryside exudes an appealing amateurism – belied by the professional scientists who quietly map the universe while tourists explore the Discovery Centre.
A good visitor attraction will enrich and inspire as well as entertain. Half a century since man first set foot on the moon, the human-made miracle at SK11 9DW has the added dimension of profound mystery.
What was there before the Big Bang? How can a teaspoon of matter from a neutron star have the same mass as Everest? And why do they need my postcode?
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