The UK is quite a populated country and considering the size of the British Isles there aren’t many places you can really get into the wilderness away from the city lights to look up at the stars. You mostly need to head to the tips of the island to get clear views. There is one place though you can get a fabulous view of the night sky without an 8 hour trek and that’s Galloway in southern Scotland. In November 2009 Galloway Forest Park became the first ‘Dark Sky Park’ in the UK. With its 75,000 hectares of land and small population the skies are clear and sparkling at night. I was in the area and desperate to see them. A local told me the Galloway Astronomy Centre, so I set about googling it and get in contact with its owner Mike.
We were staying in New Galloway just over an hour drive from the astronomy centre. We had been in contact with Mike and he was dubious as to whether the clouds would clear in time. We had to make a decision whether to go on a whim or not. Knowing it could be our only chance to see it we packed up the car and left around 10pm. Star gazing is an early morning hours thing you see. The sun does not disappear straight after sunset. It’s influence lasts for hours. You need to be in the dead of the night to truly get your gaze on. 2 hours later we were finishing up a curry in Wigtown when I decided to bite the bullet and look outside. The clouds were clear. They were moving away leaving sky so clear you could already see the stars smashing through the black. I doubt the restaurant owner had ever seen someone look up at the sky and come back in skipping and shouting. We paid up and made out way to The Astronomy Centre.
We were met at the gate by Mike. The centre is in his garden. Immediately I was a bit disappointed as I expected some kind of array with dozens of Brian Cox lookalikes scratching their chins saying “Hmmm Jupiter’s moved 50 metres in the last year I bet that was caused by the codswallopingshoemaker comet 2 months ago.” Before the other all nod in agreement and each shove a pack of starburst in their mouths.
This disappointment was instantly gone when I realise what this setup was. It was a homely observatory like none other. If you wanted a cup of tea it came from the guys own kitchen. The living room full of astronomy books, magazines and equipment. The toilet was his own. You may as well have been 10 years old sitting in your own back garden looking up at the stars. The main difference here though is that in his back garden wasn’t a £30 Argos telescope. In his shed was a range of telescopes including a Emery 16″ f5 Newtonian Reflector on Fork Mount with RA and Dec drives. For those who aren’t knowledgeable in telescopes it is like a guy saying he is into fixing up cars, then opening his garage to show you Sebastian Vettels Red Bull car. He then popped a few catches and suddenly the roof of the shed slid off to reveal the sky. I think “Holy crap” was the only thing I could mumble.
He then apologised profusely for the lack of interesting things before showing us some of the most mind-blowing astronomy I’ve ever seen. The great thing about Mike is he isn’t precious with his telescopes, you climb the ladder to look through the telescope and can adjust the focus and settings yourself and if you want to look at a star he gets right on it and sorts it out for you.
After a while I noticed Mike checking his watch before eventually pointing up at a patch of sky and saying “Any minute now you are going to see what looks like a star moving as fast as a plane. That’s the International Space Station.” We waited only a couple of minutes before seeing this star fly across the sky exactly where he pointed. Obviously he had binoculars on hand to help us just that bit more.
A while later he focused the telescope in on what looked to be a normal star only to find a gas nebula. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. The real highlight for me was seeing Saturn. Despite being over 1.2 billion kilometres from Earth the telescope lasered in on it to a point that even without my glasses I could make out the rings and their patterns. I’ve seen detailed pictures from space missions of Saturn and its rings but there’s something almost poetic seeing a slightly blurred version with your own eyes.
We asked him countless questions ranging from stupid to stuff we had heard about on TV and each time he would explain it to us in a knowledgeable yet simple way. It was almost like he was the man who invented space.
Before long the temperature dropped and with it being summer we were slightly underdressed for the cold. Mike would have been there all night if we had wanted him to be. It was £7 per person per hour at the Observatory which is a bargain. He does it for the love of teaching and I know no other person I could keep up until 3am and then force them to take payment.
They run a lot of free courses and focus heavily on getting the kids involved with science and astronomy. The cottage is also for rent with rooms a steal from £26 per person. He will even cook you dinner for a small fee as well.
If you are in the area and remotely interested in astronomy I recommend the Galloway Astronomy Centre. It’s a secret gem.