Kielder becoming a hot spot for astro tourism

Dark skies at night - astronomers' delight. How Northumberland is becoming one of the hottest spots for astro tourism in the world

Northumberland Dark Sky Park
Northumberland Dark Sky Park

To physically see the difference between the dark skies viewed from an urban area and those in Northumberland is, literally, an eye opening experience.

In sprawling Newcastle, you’ll be lucky to see 30 or 40 stars at night.

Go 50 miles north-west to Kielder and you’ll see 1,500 to 2,000. On a clear night you can at times actually see the Milky Way.

It’s a breathtaking sight that brings around 25,000 visitors a year to the Kielder Observatory alone. This doesn’t include those who come to the region and stay in local bed and breakfast accommodation, hotels or camp sites to witness the phenomenon themselves.

So-called “astro-tourism” contributes significantly to the £650m tourism generates for Northumberland.

If £8.5 plans for the Kielder Observatory Astronomy Village come to fruition, that contribution could rise significantly. The sky is truly the limit.

As well as the drive of Lead Astronomer Gary Fildes to get the observatory up and running, there has been the equally significant contribution made by those who succeeded, last December, to have Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water and Forest Park granted dark-sky status by The International Dark Skies Association. The status means the night sky is protected and lighting controls are in place to prevent light pollution.

The Kielder Observatory in Northumberland
The Kielder Observatory in Northumberland

In honour of the award the area was renamed Northumberland Dark Sky Park.

The two-year campaign to protect the 579 square mile (1,500 sq km) area was jointly led by Northumberland National Park Authority, Kielder Water and Forest Park Development Trust and Kielder Observatory Astronomical Society.

The International Dark Skies Association (IDA), based in Tucson, Arizona, granted it gold status, which is the highest accolade it can bestow.

Duncan Wise, visitor development officer for Northumberland National Park Authority, helped spearhead the campaign for dark sky status.

“It just seemed a no-brainer to use the resources we had,” he says.

“We had to have lots of consultations with the likes of local residents and parish councils and we asked them ‘do you want this?’. And the resounding answer was yes.

“People have been very good with it and worked hard which makes it very special.”

This depth of local support saw people adjust the lights in their homes and outbuildings to reduce light pollution.

This usually means as little as reducing the wattage of the bulbs or merely redirecting the light downwards.

At times it also meant them dipping into their own pocket to make the changes which they willingly did. They are now reaping the reward.

Mr Wise was part of the Dark Skies Working group which, as well as the consultation process, took hundreds of light readings and carried out an extensive audit of lighting in the area. The light meter readings were so good they registered only at the limit of the devices used.

During the audit, a significant part of the National Park was discovered to be just as dark as the forest which encouraged them to go for Dark Sky Park designation for the entire area.

It took two years to compile the report, and the efforts of all concerned were noted by the IDA.

Stars in the Milky Way pictured in clear skies over this weekend, at the Kielder Observatory
Stars in the Milky Way pictured in clear skies over this weekend, at the Kielder Observatory

Steve Owens, dark skies consultant and chair of the IDA’s development committee, said: “The quality of Northumberland’s night sky, and the huge efforts made by local communities to preserve them, make Northumberland Dark Sky Park a gold tier site, and one of the best places to stargaze in Europe.”

What it means is that the stunning countryside is protected from encroaching light pollution.

For many behind the scheme it did not come soon enough as Tyne and Wear is one of the most light polluted areas in Britain.

It is estimated the North East’s areas of dark skies shrank against growing ground-light pollution by 30% between 1993 and 2000, and had continued to diminish since.

On the horizon many in Northumberland watched with concern as the light glow was increasing and growing from Tyneside, from Hexham and from Hawick in Scotland coming towards Northumberland.

Instead, what is now coming towards the county is more and more tourists with visitor numbers substantially increasing since last December.

Local businesses like bed and breakfast owners have learned to adapt to the different demands of astro tourists to the more everyday tourist.

Mr Wise said: “They’ve leant how to give people a good visitor experience. The B&Bs produce breakfasts later, let people have their own key, provide telescopes to view the stars with, have chimineas outside and blankets for them to keep warm as visitors sit out at night.”

And, the Kielder Observatory has helped inspire others to hold Dark Sky events.

The observatory cost £450,000 to build and was funded by the Northumberland Strategic Partnership with help from regeneration agency One NorthEast, the European Regional Development Fund and the Northern Rock Foundation.

The award winning timber structure is perched on a hilltop on Black Fell and has offered visitors extraordinary night views, resulting in some spectacular photographs of stars and galaxies a mind boggling distances from earth.

“Many of the pictures produced there have gone viral,” said Mr Wise.

Under its director, Gary Fildes, the observatory holds up to 20 events each month, which combine talks about astronomy and cosmology with opportunities to see celestial phenomena, such as the Northern Lights - solar winds hitting the Earth’s atmosphere.

It is a far cry from the late 1990s when only the committed amateur astronomers and the plain curious ventured there to look at the stars, but the potential was there which began to be realised when properly organised ‘Star Camps’ began in 2003.

Mr Wise said: “It’s all locked in with observatory which is the jewel in the crown, linking it to other venues.

“Northumberland is now being regarded as Dark Skies county, a premier venue in the UK which is particularly important to us.

“Usually tourist figures go down from the autumn but with astro tourism figures go up during the winter months when star gazing comes into its own.

“I had an idea it was going to take off in this way. The visitor potential is growing considerably. I got an inkling from our first meeting when we started talking about dark sky status.

“We were overwhelmed by the response which was very positive there was little if any negativity.

“What we see in the skies in Northumberland is unique. We see 85% of the stars the rest of the population cannot and it’s something more and more people are wanting to experience first hand.”

Stars in the Milky Way pictured in clear skies over this weekend, at the Kielder Observatory
Stars in the Milky Way pictured in clear skies over this weekend, at the Kielder Observatory

Those drawn to it range from amateur astronomers, families with their kids to the serious star gazers. Many travel from all over the world to Northumberland to take advantage of what is on offer.

The Brian Cox effect has helped. Cox studied physics at the University of Manchester, where he joined D:Ream, which had several hits in the UK charts, including the number one, “Things Can Only Get Better”, which was later New Labour election anthem.

Since then he has presented a number of science series including Wonders of the Solar System, Wonders of the Universe, and more recently Human Universe. It has reportedly led to a big increase in students’ interest in maths and physics.

And, then of course there’s the Newcastle-born Nobel prize-winning scientist Prof Peter Higgs.

He found worldwide fame after the elusive fundamental particle that bears his name was found by scientists at the Large Hadron Collider, the huge atom-smashing machine built to probe the origins of the universe.

The Higgs boson, the so-called God particle, provides mass to the most basic building blocks of matter. Without it, the Standard Model theory that combines all the fundamental forces and particles of the universe would have fallen down.

Higgs predicted the existence of the particle while working at Edinburgh University in 1964. But until its momentous discovery at the LHC near Geneva in 2012, it had proved impossible to track down.

Slightly less cerebral is the success of the popular US comedy series The Big Bang Theory celebrates physics and all things “geeky” rather than derides them. It is hoped the mooted Kielder Observatory Astronomy Village will have its own ‘Big Bang’ effect on tourism in the North East.

Not surprisingly, Mr Wise admits to being “over the moon” about the prospect.

If you wish to donate to the Kielder Observatory Astronomy Village plan, visit Jacqui Miller’s webpage


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