Credit: GG Photographer Ioanna Chrysanthakopoulou (@joan_chriss)

Getting starstruck

By Claire Thomson

 Forget true crime podcasts and documentaries, there is nothing more mysterious than the universe.

As towns and cities in the UK expand and grow increasingly bigger and brighter, it’s more difficult than ever to witness the magic of the night sky. However, even the most twinkling stars are not too far out of reach for many people. Both the Dark Sky Discovery and the International Dark Sky Association in the UK have worked with organisations throughout the country to help combat this light pollution. Dark Sky Parks are places with exceptionally dark night skies where people have committed to keeping those skies pristine by controlling light pollution, to ensure that everybody in the future will have the opportunity to experience the delights of the night sky and learn about the cosmos. Here are some of the best places to stargaze and see meteor showers in the UK.

South Downs National Park

Located in the south of England, South Downs National Park stretches from Winchester in the west, to Eastbourne in the east, through the counties of Hampshire, West Sussex, and East Sussex. Whilst at first glance, this 140-kilometre park looks too close to London to be truly dark, South Downs is one of only 13 International Dark Sky Reserves in the world. The National Park is not only renowned for its magnificent coastal scenery and undulating countryside paths but its several Dark Sky Discovery Sites, including Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium. South Downs National Park Authority recommend downloading a stargazing app to help identify constellations and stars as well as stargazing before a full moon, to get the ultimate escapist experience. 

Northumberland National Park

Northumberland National Park forms part of Northumberland International Dark Sky Park, the largest area of protected night sky in Europe, at 1,483 square kilometres, and a popular destination for zealous stargazers and aspiring astronomers. The park was awarded gold tier status by the International Dark Sky Association and features numerous Dark Sky Discovery Sites due to its unspoiled skies. On a clear night, it is possible to see millions of stars, the Milky Way, and sometimes even the Andromeda Galaxy, which lies a colossal 2.5m light-years away, all with the naked eye. Open all year round, this wonder park is also home to the Kielder Observatory, which hosts stargazing sessions, astronomy talks, and workshops for all ages and experiences. The popularity of Northumberland National Park can only be testified by a night under the breathtaking starry skies, in this one-of-a-kind remote location. 

Cairngorms National Park

Encompassing three Dark Sky Discovery Sites, including the Dark Sky Parks of Tomintoul and Glenlivet, the Cairngorms National Park proudly owns the title of the most northerly Dark Sky Park in the world and one of the darkest sites in the UK. An excellent place and best in the UK to chase the aurora borealis, the park is perfect for those looking for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to, hopefully, spend the night under one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The best time to see the Northern Lights is during cold months, when the temperature drops, typically between September and March. Cairngorms Astronomy Group holds frequent events aimed at beginner stargazers who are enthusiastic about astronomy and want to get involved and learn more. Pairing up with a Dark Skies project, the group is working to improve lighting in residential areas, distilleries, and farms to help further reduce light pollution and continue to darken the skies again.

Galloway Forest Park

As the first place in the UK to be presented with Dark Sky Park status in 2009, Galloway Forest Park, situated in the Scottish borders, is one of Scotland’s top astronomy destinations. The 300-square-miles of almost uninhabited forests and hills allow stargazers to wonder at the Milky Way and over 7,000 stars, all visible to the naked eye. On occasion, the dark skies over this beautiful location will even boast meteor showers or glimpses of the colourfully vivid Northern Lights. The park has three visitor centres at Glentrool, Kirroughtree, and Clatteringshaws, where stargazers can find information about how to make the most out of this remarkable area. On the edge of Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park is the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory, a hilltop facility that is open to the public for stargazing and meteor-spotting events. 

Snowdonia National Park

Awarded International Dark Sky Reserve status in December 2015, the lakes in Snowdonia National Park in Wales are the best spots to witness the show from the stars. On a clear night, there is the possibility for stargazers to observe not only the Milky Way and millions of stars, but nebulae (bright clouds of gas and dust), major constellations, meteor showers and shooting stars… make a wish!

Brecon Beacons 

The Brecon Beacons in south Wales is one of the few places in the UK, even in the world, with skies untouched by light pollution, hence making it a popular destination for stargazers and astronomy enthusiasts from across the globe. Becoming the first official Dark Sky Reserve in 2012, the Brecon Beacons offers stargazers the opportunity to see the Milky Way, major constellations, bright nebulae, and often spectacular meteor showers. The Cardiff Astronomical Society regularly hosts outreach events in the park which include observing the wonders of the night sky through powerful telescopes or, during the summer months, the safe viewing of the Sun with solar scopes. The National Park is also home to a number of Dark Sky Discovery Sites. Through the Brecon Beacons high status and reputation, the park hopes to preserve the beauty of the magical night skies for the future, help to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and a goal to protect nocturnal creatures.

Whether an experienced stargazer or beginner astronomer, the UK offers plenty to make anyone starry-eyed. 


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