Want a big night, flat on your back? Oliver Bennett recommends the best ways to indulge in astral appreciation (and you can even have days out)
A month ago, I spent a long weekend on the Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall. As night set in and the constellations glittered overhead, the uplift led to that most bittersweet of revelations: “I am just a measly speck in the universe.”
Seriously, peering at the Plough is good for ego-management (and, most probably, your eyesight).
In the era of 24-hour bad news, social media and the relentless blather of daily life, it makes perfect sense that stargazing has become a big leisure activity. The novelty-hungry travel industry has latched on. Visit England reports a boom in stargazing tourism: part wilderness hunt, part mystic realisation ― and yes, part-Brian Cox effect.
“Our wildernesses offer some of the most spectacular views of the night skies,” says a spokesman for Visit England. Although the UK is over-lit ― we have the second largest glare contribution in Europe, apparently ― its stargazing zones are plentiful.
Last year, the Exmoor National Park in Devon was designated an International Dark Sky Reserve by the International Dark Sky Association. It is now one of three global reserves. The others are Canada’s Mont Megantic and New Zealand’s Mackenzie Basin, designated in June. There’s another dark sky park on the way in Namibia.
A cosmic canopy has become a tourism win: get a dark sky and the awe-seekers pour in. The Brecon Beacons National Park is one of the latest regions to make an application for Dark Sky status.
Look around, and you’ll find plenty of places to look up. Cheshire’s Jodrell Bank reopened two years ago with a visitor centre. The darkest place in England is claimed to be Kielder Forest, Northumberland. A few years ago, a wooden observatory was built there, above Kielder Water, designed by Charles Barclay Architects.
Then there’s The Royal Observatory, in the newly accredited Royal Borough of Greenwich, home to the UK’s largest telescope.
The view from abroad
Explorers has a specialist Astronomy Tours brand, which includes several star-burst holidays, including a Sinai Desert and Stars Egyptian adventure. Two nights are spent stargazing with resident ‘Galactic Ranger’ and astronomer Dr John Mason.
The Night Sky and Caravan Trail in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains goes to the Sahara Sky Observatory; the Chilean Observatories tour takes holidaymakers to the foothills of the Andes and the ALMA Observatory; and let’s not forget the Galactic Safari in South Africa, home to the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere.
Several tours offer stargazing as part of the package. For example, Wilderness Safaris can lay on the Mvuu Wilderness Lodge in Liwonde National Park, Malawi, where guests can sleep out under the stars.
One could argue that all this astral travelling is an escape from the worries of the quotidian world. But perhaps the need for a dark-sky experience is deeper than that, linked to our sense of place in the universe and a return to the original sense of wonder.
Certainly, gazing at the inky and ineffable canopy over the Lizard did induce a kind of cosmic calm that I can recommend. But try to do it without your stargazing app on the iPad; that’s missing the point.