For those of us who enjoy and appreciate the wild beauty the UK has to offer, it seems a pity to confine our explorations to the daylight hours. Wherever you may be in the UK, don’t forget to look up at night to be rewarded with a whole other vista of beauty. Stargazing is becoming ever more popular, whether it’s through Dark Sky Discovery Sites, or simply finding somewhere without artificial lighting where you can see what’s above. Here’s our guide to enjoying stargazing UK.
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Where can I Stargaze In The UK?
The answer is pretty much anywhere, although you will have a very different experience in the so-called Dark Sky Discovery Sites. Here the amount of artificial light is minimal, and you will be able to see far more of the rich tapestry of stars and planets. But don’t discount the opportunities to see some marvellous night skies where there is plenty of artificial light. The picture of Edinburgh that heads up this piece shows that major cities can have stargazing attractions all their own.
Can I see The Milky Way From The UK?
That’s a very big yes. And magnificent it is too. Find a clear night in one of the UK’s Dark Sky areas, and there’s every chance of seeing the Milky Way in its wonderful scattered glory.
Dark Sky Discovery Sites
We first heard of the Dark Sky Discovery Sites when on holiday in the north-west of England. We’d found some information online about the potential to go night hiking to see the stars, which was tremendously appealing. Over the years, we’ve spent many nights looking at the beauty of the skies. Most notably we saw the lunar eclipse of 2001 on one of our first dates, viewed from a rather frozen hilltop near Birmingham Airport. It may not sound the most impressive of sights, but it made us realise that stargazing can be just as fascinating as exploring by day.
Many of the Dark Sky sites are linked to the National Parks, which makes a great deal of sense in terms of the lack of light pollution. All of the sites have been nominated locally as a great place to see the stars, and who can argue with the breadth of local knowledge that’s created this network of stargazing places? Many of the sites have regular events, so you can have both company, and some help in identifying what you are seeing.
You can find out more at Dark Sky Discovery. Here you’ll find a map of the best locations to go stargazing, divided into different categories of sites. Milky Way class sites mean that it is possible to see the Milky Way with the naked eye from that location, and you can therefore guess what is meant by an Orion site. Milky Way sites tend to be darker than Orion sites. The website includes lots of information on activities, plus practical tips for getting the most out of the experience.
The UK’s Finest Stargazing Locations
You’ll find some of Europe’s largest areas of dark skies in the UK. Even from a city centre, you can expect to see around 100 stars with the naked eye on a clear night. Leave the city, and you might be able to see up to 1000 stars. A special treat is the ability to see the Milky Way – our own galaxy – spiraling above us. And if you love travel, just pause for a moment and think about that. You’re seeing something way further away than anywhere you have traveled before. That’s pretty epic.
The following places have been recognised by the International Dark Sky Association as having low levels of light pollution and good public access.
Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve
Exmoor was named at Europe’s first International Dark Sky Reserve in November 2011. You can see over 3,000 stars without a telescope here. For the best spots, check out Holdstone Hill, County Gate, Brendon Two Gates, Webbers Post, Ansty Gate, Haddon Hill and Wimbleball Lake.
Brecon Beacons Dark Sky Reserve
Brecon Beacons joined the list in February 2013. The best spots to check out here are Carraq Cennen castle Usk Reservoir, the ruins of Llanthony Priory and the national park visitor centre
Northumberland Dark Sky Park
Northumberland revels in gold-tier status, meaning you could see the full array of visible sky phenomena, such as the northern lights, airglow (atmospheric light), the Milky Way, zodiacal light (sunlight scattered by space dust) and meteors. That’s a lot of big sky to be enjoyed. Kielder Observatory has daily events including night sky safaris, aurora nights and full moon parties.
Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park
This was the UK’s first Dark Sky Park, with a sky quality reading very close to that of a photographer’s darkroom for the lack of light pollution. Clatteringshaws vistor centre overlooks the darkest part of the park. You’ll find panoramic viewing points at both ends of Carrick Forrest Drive. Both Clatteringshaws and Kirroughtree Visitor Centres run stargazing events. Over at Dalmellington the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory also hosts events, and visitors can observe the sky through its research-grade telescope.
Sark Dark Sky Island
Without cars and street lighting on Sark, the only light pollution comes from the distant glow of Guernsey, Jersey and France. This makes for a very dark night sky, and a perfect backdrop for the Milky Way stretching across the horizon. There are thousands of stars on display.
Coll Dark Sky Island
Coll in the Inner Hebrides was the world’s second dark sky island (after Sark in the Channel Islands), and has three Dark Sky Discovery Sites: Arinagour, RSPB Totronold and Cliad football pitch. Here you can see star clusters such as the Beehive and the Double Cluster, plus the Great Orion Nebula.
Elan Valley Dark Sky Park
This is the first privately owned (by Welsh Water) Dark Sky Park. You’ll get good views from Graig Goch and Claerwen Dam car parks and also the area around Cwmdauddwr Common. The northern lights were spotted there in 2016. The visitor centre hosts astronomy events.
Snowdonia Dark Sky Park
Snowdonia’s beauty by day is echoed by what can be seen at night. Monthy observing nights are held by the North Wales Astronomy Society. Try the lakes Llyn y Dywarchen, Llyn Geirionydd and Llynnau Cregennen. There’s also Ty Cipar, a former gamekeeper’s house and the mountain pass Bwlch y Groes.
More Stargazing UK Locations
Among the other best stargazing locations we’ve found in the UK are:
- the South Downs National Park, including Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium, Ditchling Beacon and Birling Gap
- North York Moors National Park, including Sutton Bank and Dalby Forest
- Yorkshire Dales National Park including Hawes and Malham
- Shetland in the Northern Isles, clearly one of your best chances to spot the Northern Lights, plus the opportunity to wild camp
- Carrick-a-Rede and Oxford Island in Northern Ireland will have you either entranced or scared to arrive via a pedestrian rope bridge. Stargazing evenings are hosted here.
- Grizedale Forest in Cumbria has plenty of starry potential, as does the nearby Forest of Bowland in Lancashire
How To Get The Best From Your Stargazing Trip: Hints And Tips
Here are some of our best hints and tips to get the most from your visit.
- Go with others. There’s safety in numbers. And think about going with a guide – at least for the first time. You’ll learn so much more.
- Even if you love the outdoors, consider visiting an observatory too. The experience is fascinating.
- Dress for the conditions. Don’t forget that you may be standing around for a while, and having chilled feet from frozen ground isn’t fun. Also, you’ll be looking up a lot, so a hat that will stay on your head makes sense.
- A hot drink can warm the inner stargazer very happily.
- Check out details about the location before you visit, and be clear on where to park, and how long a walk you’ll have to the best spot. You may need a torch or headlamp to see to get there, but please be careful not to destroy the experience for other people by constantly ruining their night vision.
- Once you get to your choice of viewing spot, allow about 15 minutes for your eyes to adjust. It’s fascinating how much more detail you can see in the landscape after that period of adjustment.
- If you want to check out your best camera settings, try this beforehand. You don’t want to be spending time fiddling around with lenses when you could be saying wow.
- You can buy or download maps of the night sky to get your bearings before you arrive. Before you leave the car, work out which way is north, and it’ll help tremendously with the identification of what you’re seeing.
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