How former brickie Gary Fildes reached for the stars

The amazing journey of Gary Fildes from a building site to to a master of the universe

Gary Fyldes of Kielder Observatory
Gary Fyldes of Kielder Observatory

It was as a young lad Gary Fildes first became aware that he was a bit different.

He had urges he felt he couldn’t properly share with his family and friends in the working class area of the North East he was brought up in.

For years he kept the feelings bottled up like a guilty secret as he grew into manhood, becoming a brickie.

But after years leading an apparent double life, by day working on a building while at night inhabiting a twilight world with his like minded friends he decided in his 30s to finally come out. As an astronomer.

Today he is helping to bring out everyone’s inner astronomer thanks to his work at the Kielder Observatory and ambitious plans to turn it into an ‘astronomy village’ that could bring around 75,000 a year to the remote and beautiful county of Northumberland.

“When I first started I had no idea what would happen,” he said back home in Newcastle and looking a little weary after another long day and night at work - he averages 90 hours a week.

“I had no great plan that if I did this I’d end up here. I’m just massively enthusiastic about my profession.”

Gary, born in 1965, was just four-years-old in 1969 when interest in space reached a whole new level with the man’s first landing on the moon.

“My earliest memory about astronomy was when I was four or five when we lived in Grindon village on the outskirts of Sunderland - which was my universe then.

“I was a happy kid, I remember crawling under my dad’s Christmas tree looking through the branches and remember seeing all the different coloured lights and was mesmerised by them.

“I think looking back as an adult that was probably where it started - without understanding the properties of light we would know nothing about the evolution of the universe.

“My brother Anthony got a telescope for Christmas which he didn’t use but I did. I saw this big thing in the sky - I didn’t know it was the moon then. But it was in 1969 when man first walked on the moon. I was hooked.”

He said his love for astronomy flourished and grew but he kept quiet about it.

“Sunderland, I love the place, the football team, I’m massively proud of where I come from and think Sunderland is a great place but it wasn’t a great place to grow up in being interested in science and astronomy.

“My mum and dad, bless them, didn’t know what to do about it. I wasn’t encouraged at school. My physics teacher didn’t like me - probably because I thought I knew it all - so I internalised my love for astronomy.

“At that time in Sunderland you either worked down the pit, the shipyards or on a building site and I ended up in one of them.”

He married young, had four kids and remained a brickie for 25 years. “I met people who were great, people who weren’t so great and got on with life but internally I hated every second of it.

“I got to my mid 30s and thought that I’ve got to change this.”

Change began, he says, when he met Don Smith a local science teacher, who told him about astronomy events already being held at Kielder, and David Sinden, who worked for Grubb Parsons in Newcastle, renowned for building major telescopes.

Gary Fyldes of Kielder Observer at home
Gary Fyldes of Kielder Observer at home

He also joined the Sunderland Astronomical Society.

“I was in heaven meeting like minded people who just wanted to be out observing all the time. We’d get our telescopes out at night at Derwent reservoir, talking about Einstein, looking at the universe.

“It wasn’t just the dark skies, it was the environment, the trees, like some Canadian wasteland. I’d never experienced anything like that before. I was gobsmacked.”

There were ‘Star Camps’ going on in the UK then, one in Norfolk which he went to.

“I thought it was fine but we had better dark skies than them, so I decided to start one up here.”

That was in Kielder in 2003 which he ran for around five years before handing it over to Sunderland Astrological Society to run.

“It’s now in the top 10 world’s star sites. Everybody loves it - astro tourism was born in Kielder then.”

Perhaps appropriately, around the turn of the Millennium, things began to move quickly for Gary.

Through acquaintances he made at Durham University and the Forestry Commission he was asked to do talks on astronomy at Kielder Castle.

“Talks about the constellations, how to find the North Star, basic stuff,” he said.

The first couple of events were blessed with good weather, which was not always the case subsequently. But that didn’t seem to matter.

“We began to get more and more people coming and I thought I’d love to have an observatory. If we had one it would be ace.”

He had already built a basic one at Washington Wetlands Centre for the Sunderland Astronomical Society.

His idea for Kielder was of a modest, no frills establishment where people could observe and learn about the sky in safety and comfort. A bit bigger that Washington, he thought it would cost £1,500 to build.

Despite this very modest target, he struggled at first to meet it.

“I was talking to the wrong people,” he said.

Then he had a chance meeting with Peter Sharpe, the Art and Architecture curator for the Kielder Water and Forest Park, which was to transform everything.

Peter, now a good friend of Gary’s, persuaded him to pitch it as an arts not a science project.

“I didn’t at first understand his concept but I warmed to it and eventually thought why not?”

The budget suddenly went up from £1,500 to £150,000.

A management group was put together and a design competition was launched through the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Charles Barclay Architects came out top of 227 entrants from all over the world to win the competition and since its completion for an eventual cost of £450,000, Kielder Observatory has won an RIBA Award, a Civic Trust Award, a Hadrian Award, and a Wood Award.

Supervised by the Kielder Observatory Astronomical Society, Gary remembers when exactly it opened. “At six minutes past two on the 25th of April 2008,” he said.

The honours were done by the 14th Astronomer Royal, Sir Arnold Wolfendale from Durham University, where Gary had gone on to study. He now counts Sir Arnold as a friend.

“I felt like I belonged,” recalled Gary fondly.

The remit for the observatory was to host four to six events every year and fill its classroom which holds 40 people - 240 visitors at most.

By the end of the first year 1,200 visitors had been to the Kielder Observatory. This year it has topped 24,000. If - or hopefully when - the Kielder Observatory Astronomy Village is up and running, he expects visitor figures to top 75,000 a year.

When the observatory there first opened six years ago, 60% of those who visited came from within 50 miles of the complex. The ratio now stands at 30% and the rest from outside the area, but this lower regional figure still marks a big increase in North East people enjoying the facility.

“People from all over the world come,” said Gary. “From the US and even South America.”

As part of the funding he is paid to be the Lead Astronomer there, a role he relishes.

It was in 2012 that Sir Arnold presented Gary with his Master of Sciences at Durham University at a ceremony at Durham Cathedral.

In a warm speech he paid fitting tribute to his achievements saying: “Gary Fildes did not have a university education, indeed he left school at 17. Before we go ‘tut-tut’ we remember that the First Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, did not do either. Nevertheless, he made rather a good job of running the Royal Greenwich Observatory from 1675 to 1719, when Edmond Halley took over.

“Gary, as Founder Director and Lead Astronomer, has worked inordinately hard to get the show on the road. Our hero, Flamsteed, would have been proud of him.

“Gary’s proclaimed brief is ‘to explore the universe with the people of the North-East of England and all who come to visit us; with a warm and enthusiastic manner we aim to bridge the gap between academic and general perception of the universe around us’. It seems he is succeeding and continues to develop the Observatory beyond all expectations.”

And Gary’s own expectations and his ambitions remain appropriately sky high.

“There will be nothing else like it in the world, that’s the idea,” he said. “To have something like that in the North east would be something.

“We take a bit of a kicking here, sometimes we deserve it, most of the time we don’t - but to have something like that up here would be brilliant.”

The centre piece will be a state-of-the-art £500,000 telescope with a massive one metre aperture which would he wheelchair accessible, a far cry from his brother’s telescope he first used as a lad.

And will he be the first person to try it out when its operational?

He laughed: “What do you think? Too right.”

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