Best Stargazing Under Britain's Darkest Skies

Dark Skies
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Amateur astronomers and stargazers take note - with international Dark Sky recognition, Britain's best stargazing spots join the darkest places on earth.

Dark Sky wilderness is something that doesn't easily spring to mind when you think of Britain. Surely, this small, densely populated island nation of more than 60million people doesn't have places so free of light pollution - and other people - that you can see right into the heart of the universe.

If you think that, you'd be wrong, and Britain has the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) certification  to prove it.

The IDA, a US-based, non-profit conservation organization that identifies dark sky places and works to protect them, recognizes five UK Dark Sky locations as either Dark Sky Parks or Dark Sky Reserves.

If I'd known about them earlier I would not have had to dodge the sulphurous yellow light spill of London's street lights to see the Supermoon Eclipse of September 2015.

Six of the Darkest Places in Britain

Whether you are a budding astronomer, a romantic or just someone looking for some really really peaceful peace and quiet, these locales are great places to set up your telescope or to just lie back in the grass and enjoy the stars:

1. Snowdonia National Park

 In December 2015, Snowdonia became the latest of the UK's IDA Certified International Dark Sky Reserves. It is considered one of the darkest places in Britain and is one of only 10 full Dark Sky Reserves in the world.

The rugged, mountainous interior of the park supports very little settlement and forms a naturally dark region. The designation is considered just the beginning of the dark sky process, with stargazing projects and educational programs on the way. Watch this space. 

2. Elan Valley Estate in Wales

The valley, in mid-Wales, is located the Cambrian Mountains between Brecon Beacons National Park and Snowdonia National Park, It's home to network of reservoirs and dams originally built to supply water to the city of Birmingham, hundreds of miles away.

At least one of the original dams was destroyed during World War II as RAF Bomber Command practiced for the Dambusters raid. Owned by Welsh Water today, the reservoirs still provide water to the region, but the Elan Valley is now managed as a non-profit conservation estate.

The unspoiled 72 square miles of nature and reservoirs make up the only privately owned, publicly accessible Dark Sky Park in the world. It's the perfect place to visit for stargazing and to see and photograph an abundance of nocturnal wildlife.

There are park rangers and a visitors center as well as regularly scheduled Dark Sky events with experts to help you make sense of it all. Hotels, B&Bs, self-catering and campsites are all available through the park website. Wild camping (tent camping off of official campsites) is not really allowed but I've heard that some experienced campers do. Visit their website to learn more.

3. Galloway Forest Park in Scotland

At nearly 193,000 acres, this is the UK's largest forest park and 20 per cent of it has been set aside to preserve dark skies and nocturnal wildlife. No permanent illumination is permitted in its central core. Scotland has the darkest skies in Europe and the sparsely populated Galloway Forest Park has the darkest skies in Scotland - measured almost equal to the darkness in a photographic darkroom.

On a clear night, more than 7,000 stars and planets are visible with the naked eye. The best view points are from the three visitors centers which overlook the dark heart of the park. And, new in 2015, there are Dark Skies Park Rangers to help you understand what to look for.

Regular Dark Sky events are held and the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory near Dalmellington is open to the public (though viewing sessions have to be pre-booked and admission is charged). And, while a range of Forest Park accommodations are available, wild camping is permitted in Scotland so you are free to find your own private spot to watch the night sky. Visit their website to learn more.

4. Northumberland National Park

This National Park, along the England-Scotland borders, is one of England's emptiest quarters, with fewer than 2,500 across its 405 square miles.

So it's a natural place for a Dark Sky Park. And, in fact, Northumberland is home to the third largest area of protected Dark Sky in the world.

Stargazing and Night Sky Tours, suitable for families and people of all abilities, are regularly scheduled.  A large group of Dark Sky Discovery Sites (near parking, toilet facilities and pubs) have been identified across the park and are listed on its website.

The park includes the adjoining Kielder Water Forest Park with its brilliant Kielder Observatory, a public observatory where you might be lucky to see the rings of Saturn. At 250 acres, Kielder is the largest working forest in England with the biggest manmade lake in Northern Europe. Spend a night stargazing here and, in addition to planet spotting and meteor showers, there's a good chance to see the Northern Lights.

5. Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales

The Beacons, the massive bare hills of the Brecon Beacons National Park, would seem like the ideal place to watch the sky at night. So it's surprising that in an area where sheep outnumber people 30 to one, 33,000 people make their home. People here have made a great effort to make their lighting dark sky-friendly and the Ordnance Survey 2015 comments, "The hard work is obviously paying off – on a clear night you can see just about everything from anywhere". The Milky Way, meteor showers, bright nebulae and more are visible to the naked eye.

The entire National Park is a Dark Sky reserve. To make it easier for beginners to find a good spot, the park website lists ten places to go stargazing, complete with OS navigation coordinates. Wild camping is not permitted anywhere in the park, but if you can tear your eyes away from the sky, there are plenty of places to stay.

6. Exmoor National Park

Exmoor in North Devon and West Somerset is 267 square miles of high moorland, coastal forests, beaches and the highest sea cliffs in England at over 800 feet (Beachy Head on the South Coast is the highest chalk cliff).

Exmoor ponies have occupied this area longer than humans and have been enjoying the Dark Sky here for thousands of years.They are considered the nearest breed Britain has to the original European wild horses. Consider yourself lucky if you see one because, in the wild,they are rarer than pandas.

Despite being classed the darkest skies Dark Sky Reserve in England, this park is relatively easy to reach from the surrounding cities and towns - Bristol, Exeter, Barnstaple, Bridgewater, Taunton - so accommodation of all sorts is easy to find.

Within the 81 square mile core Dark Sky Reserve area there are Bronze Age burial mounds, a nature reserve of Special Scientific Interest and an abandoned Medieval village. It was Europe's first International Dark Sky Reserve. To help you explore it, they've published a downloadable Dark Sky Pocket Guide.

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