Northumberland is home to the largest protected International Dark Sky Park in Europe, offering nearly 1,500 square kilometres of dark skies away from light pollution. This makes it the perfect place to discover the magic of stargazing, but for an absolute beginner it can be difficult to know where to start.
Battlesteads Hotel & Restaurant in Wark, near Hexham, is the only hotel in the UK to boast an on-site dark sky observatory, making the most of its location on the edge of Northumberland National Park. Chris Duffy, astrophotography director at AstroVentures and lead astronomer at Battlesteads Observatory, shares his top tips for getting into stargazing.
What makes Northumberland such a great place for stargazing?
In order to see the night sky in all its glory, with thousands of stars and the Milky Way, you need dark skies away from the light pollution of more densely populated towns and cities. Northumberland has the darkest skies in England, and has been awarded protected status. The status means the night sky is protected and lighting controls are in place to prevent light pollution.
Is there anything you can see without using a telescope?
There are lots of things to be seen without using a telescope. The naked eye is the only way to look at the Milky Way stretching across the sky and the constellations (the patterns groups of stars make). Shooting stars can only be seen with the naked eye as they move too fast to be seen in a telescope.
For anyone new to stargazing, what are the first things you should try and look for?
Try to find your way around the sky by learning to recognise the constellations and the brighter stars. When you get your first telescope, start with bright, easier objects like the moon.
When is the best time of year and time of day for stargazing?
Stargazing requires dark skies, so the winter months are best as the nights are longer, but there are things to be seen in the night sky all year round. Our view of the stars changes with the seasons and objects such as planets are best viewed in the summer.
Do you need to have any experience to visit Battlesteads Observatory?
Our stargazing nights are aimed specifically at the novice and no experience is needed. All you need is curiosity. That said, more experienced astronomers also enjoy our evenings as it gives them the opportunity to observe in dark skies and use bigger telescopes than they may have themselves.
Which courses of events you would recommend for a stargazer who’s just starting out?
Battlesteads’ astronomy for absolute beginners events are a great place to start. We explain the basics for a night stargazing, including finding your way around the stars with a checklist of things to look for and help with using binoculars to stargaze. We also provide advice on using star charts and software apps.
Do you have any top tips for people wanting to learn more about stargazing?
Find out about your local Astronomical Society, there are many around the country. These are groups of astronomy enthusiasts who just love to help anyone wanting to learn. They will have public nights where all are welcome to come along and have a look through their telescopes and discuss all things astronomy
How did you get into stargazing?
I was 11 years old when Neil Armstrong stepped on to the moon and like a lot of kids at the time it caught my interest. The following Christmas I got a telescope. I remember taking it out into the garden and I found the planet Saturn. Seeing it with its famous rings I was hooked, and astronomy has been a lifelong passion.
What do you love most about stargazing?
That’s a hard one to answer, so many different things. Just being under a dark clear sky looking up at thousands of stars is very humbling and makes you think about how small we are compared to the universe and I will never tire of it. I get a great feeling of accomplishment when I finally track down and see for the first time a hard-to-find nebula or galaxy. There is also great pleasure in showing the visitors to Battlesteads Observatory things in the telescope and watching them react with gasps of delight.
Chris has been a keen amateur astronomer for more than 40 years. Professionally he was an IT Manager for over 30 years, with experience of people development and training. He now devotes all his time to astronomy and is the astrophotography director at AstroVentures. He is also a committee member of Sunderland Astronomical Society, where Chris gives expert talks and presentations to society members and the public at the society's outreach events.
Chris has been specialising in deep sky astrophotography for the last five years and is recognised as an accomplished photographer of faint distant objects using long exposure techniques. He has been one of the lead astronomers at Battlesteads since it's opening in 2015 and hosts many of their events.