Something strange happened on the way to the pub: the sky burst into life. Walking down the unlit lane through the barely lit village on the edge of the inky North Sea, I was blindsided by the depth of the darkness and, with every passing second, by the intensifying brightness up above.
Every time my eyes scanned a different patch of the heavens, a new pinprick appeared, as if by merely looking I was magicking the stars; every glimpse conjured another constellation, another fanciful join-the-dots of ancient serpents, centaurs or gods.
I was star-struck, but in the best possible way. I’d come to North Norfolk to walk along its coast path, drawn by birds and beaches, Blakeney seals and Cromer crabs. I hadn’t factored in the nightlife. But this rural, industrially sparse, open-horizoned part of Britain is, I have since discovered, one of the best places in the country for astronomy.
Within the Norfolk Area of Natural Beauty (norfolkcoastaonb.org.uk) there are two Dark Sky Discovery Sites, which are among the few places in the UK where you easily see the Milky Way or the full constellation of Orion with the naked eye. Here I was, a world-ranging traveller, having an out-of-this-world experience barely 40 miles (64km) from Norwich – the city of my birth.
There are 66 million people on this jam-packed isle. That’s a lot of light bulbs. And a lot of resultant light pollution casting an ugly, obstructive glow on the night sky. It sometimes seems incredible that we can see any stars at all. Undoubtedly the planet does have better outposts for astronomy – strand yourself in Namibia, a nation four times Great Britain’s size, whose entire population wouldn’t fill Greater Manchester, and you’ll see galaxies very far, far away.
But for a small, overcrowded country, we have some remarkably sparkly places. From the emptiest enclaves of our national parks to the eyepieces of hi-tech observatories, there are spots where you can acutely feel your insignificance. In a good way.
An astronomer once told me that for thousands of years most humans would spend their evenings gathered around the fire, telling tales of the characters they saw in the stars; today, being enveloped by a properly dark sky brings us a little closer to that lost world. It’s a deep reconnection with nature at its most infinite.
Seeing the stars might actually be good for our health, too. Disrupting the daily rhythm of light and dark with artificial illuminations is connected with processes that can result in chronic disease; by igniting the night, we’re stressing our bodies to an inorganic barrage with which they’re ill-equipped to deal.
Perhaps this all explains our continued obsession with the stars and space, a fascination that’s dimmed little since man first stood on the moon in July 1969. Plenty of exhibitions and TV documentaries will mark the 50th anniversary of this giant leap. And from April 2019, with an initial focus on the moon landing, the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres (sciencecentres.org.uk) will launch a two-and-a-half-year programme of space-science education for children and families across 13 museums, from Aberdeen to East Sussex.
Nothing widens your perspective like learning more about the universe. But ultimately all you need to do is look up, if you find the right place…
Britain's most heavenly views
Isles of Scilly
Some 28 miles (45km) from any mainland light pollution, the Isles of Scilly have spectacularly dark skies. In February 2019 a group of amateur astronomers opened the most south-westerly observatory in the UK. Built in a designated Dark Sky Discovery Zone, the community-funded facility has two domes (one for deep sky viewing, one with the capacity for solar viewing) and a warm room where regular talks and workshops are held.
Events cost £5/£3 adult/child (cosmosscilly.co.uk).
Cheshire & the Peak District
Cheshire’s Jodrell Bank Observatory, home to the 250ft diameter Lovell Telescope, will find out in July 2019 whether it’s been awarded Unesco World Heritage status. In preparation, visitor facilities have been improved and a new gallery celebrating radio astronomy is being created. Learn about outer space here, then head east into the Peak District for good dark skies. For instance, a night hike up the Bronze Age hill fort of Mam Tor affords unobstructed views with little in the way of light pollution.
Open daily, 10am-5pm. Adults/children £8.50/£6.50 (01477 571766; jodrellbank.net).
Exmoor, Devon & Somerset
In 2011 Exmoor was designated Europe’s First International Dark Sky Reserve. The park’s communities continue to work together to reduce light pollution, ensuring it remains one of the country’s best astronomy spots – especially sites within the core dark sky zone, including Holdstone Hill, County Gate, Webbers Post and Wimbleball Lake. Pick up a stargazing leaflet from one of the national park centres, which also hire telescopes. The next Exmoor Dark Skies Festival is Oct 14-Nov 3 2019.
Telescope hire from £25 per night (01398 323665; exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk).
Brecon Beacons, Wales
Wales’s first International Dark Sky Reserve, the Brecon Beacons has extremely low light pollution and exceptionally good astronomical potential. Accessible and glittering locations include the car park at Pen-Rhiw-Ddu, just off the road that runs over the Black Mountain; the National Park Visitor Centre, near Libanus, where there’s plenty of space to set up telescopes; Usk Reservoir, which is well shielded from the light pollution of southern Wales; and crag-top Carreg Cennen (just outside the park, near Llandeilo), where you can see some of the region’s darkest skies twinkle above the castle ruins. Dark sky events are occasionally held.
Perseid meteor shower event, Aug 16 2019, £15 (01874 623366; breconbeacons.org).
Glenlivet and Tomintoul, Cairngorms
Remote, lowly populated and surrounded by 2,624ft hills that protect it from light pollution, Glenlivet and Tomintoul – the world’s northernmost Dark Sky Park – has some of the UK’s blackest skies. It’s ideal not only for amazing gazing but, given the latitude, does afford a chance to catch the “mirrie dancers”, or northern lights. There are three Dark Sky Discovery Sites within the park, with car parking and interpretation. Field of Hope has exceptionally good all-round visibility to the horizon; the outer planets can be seen here year round. The remote Carrachs and Blairfindy Moor are especially good for the northern lights and outer planets between September and March.
Long Mynd, Shropshire
A lot of National Trust land – from Cambridgeshire’s Wicken Fen to Wasdale in Cumbria – is good for stargazing; National Trust sites also have good car parks and sometimes wider, more even footpaths, making it easier to access more remote areas at night. Try the Carding Mill Valley and the Long Mynd, where there are four Dark Sky Discovery Sites, all of which have been awarded the higher “Milky Way class” designation, which means that the Milky Way can be seen with the naked eye.
Car parking from £3.50 (01694 725000; nationaltrust.org.uk).