The glittering star canopy above the light pollution-free wilder parts of the North East has been there since the first people looked upwards.
No doubt they were as struck by the celestial show as today’s visitors from urban areas who experience their first truly star-spangled sky.
Today is the first anniversary of International Dark Sky Park designation for Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park.
At 1,500 square kilometres it is the most extensive Dark Sky Park in Europe and one of the largest in the world.
The International Dark Sky Association awarded the designation to the area with Gold Tier status for the high quality and lack of light pollution of the starscape.
And businesses have been quick to realise the potential of stargazing breaks in extending the visitor season across what are normally quieter months.
Sue Hugenholtz is the owner of the four-star gold-rated self-catering Blacksmith’s Cottage at Alnham in the national park.
Enthusiasts and beginner astronomers alike can now take a stargazing holiday at Blacksmith’s Cottage which includes 10 x 50 binoculars, telescope, stargazing calendar and reference books. Special two-night stargazing breaks are available.
Sue can also call on the services of Coquetdale astronomer Ian Glendinning, who will tailor stargazing evenings to beginners or enthusiasts and also offers astro-photography.
“Since we achieved International Dark Sky Park status, my holiday let business in the Cheviots has become an all-year-round destination with guests travelling from all over the country for long weekend out-of-season breaks in beautiful Northumberland,” said Sue, who won Gold in the North East England Tourism Awards – Self-Catering Provider of the Year category in 2012 and 2013.
“We supply all guests with their own stargazing pack, or if they wish they can book a tailor-made stargazing evening with our astro guide Ian.
“When I am out walking under a tunnel of stars I feel that people have to see this. When they do see a sky like that for the first time the reaction is one of ‘wow.’ It is a fantastic pastime for families.
“Northumberland has a very exciting future as a stargazing destination and this is a market to be tapped. It is going from strength to strength but businesses have to work at it.
“It would be fantastic if we could offer stargazing trips for hotel visitors to Newcastle.”
Robin Kershaw, proprietor of The Pheasant Inn at Stannersburn on the edge of Kielder Water said: “We have been at the Pheasant Inn since 1985 and have seen Kielder Water evolve from its very early years.
“Without doubt the arrival of the Kielder Observatory has been the single most important development with a significant impact on the local economy.
“We have seen our traditional Easter to October season extend, creating year-round opportunities for local employment and providing a much-needed boost for a host of small businesses including our own.
“Now, the creation of the International Dark Sky Park has raised the profile of the area to a new level and we look forward to supporting the observatory with their exciting plans for the future.”
The first-year anniversary will be marked with stargazing events with astronomers at Kielder Castle, Clennell Hall, Alwinton, Once Brewed National Park Centre on Hadrian’s Wall and the Bowlees visitor centre in the North Pennines from December 9-13.
To book, click the link for Starmakers events at www.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk.
The Redesdale Arms at Otterburn is also staging a stargazing weekend break on December 13-14.
An additional attraction is the Geminid meteor shower – a light show in motion peaking around December 13-14.
Alex McLennan, recreation and public affairs manager for the Forestry Commission (North East) will soon be launching a permanent dark skies exhibition at Kielder Castle.
He said: “England’s forests are natural dark sky wildernesses. At Kielder and Hamsterley in County Durham we’ve established dark sky viewing venues for visitors and local people.”
The award-winning Kielder Observatory, whose visitor numbers have broken records in the last 12 months at over 24,000, hosts stargazing seven nights a week, and is holding an event at 8pm on December 9 focusing on the aurora displays that can frequently be seen from the site.
It is estimated that over 80% of people never see a truly starry sky until they visit a location where light pollution is at a minimum.
It is the responsibility of every Dark Sky Park to maintain its low light levels in order to renew its status each year.
Duncan Wise, visitor development manager for Northumberland National Park Authority and board member of the International Dark Skies Association, said: “Being able to see your place in the Universe is every child’s heritage. We want Northumberland’s dark sky park to be a model for responsible lighting and winter tourism that benefits the local economy.”
Throughout 2014, partners involved in Northumberland International Dark Sky Park and the North Pennines Area of Outstanding natural Beauty Partnership have been working to develop a visitor stargazing infrastructure through the Animating Dark Skies Project.
New facilities include interpretation boards at Dark Sky Discovery Sites like Cawfields on Hadrian’s Wall and visitor centres, shelters such as the Stonehaugh stargazing pavilion in Northumberland, a portable planetarium and a pool of high-quality stargazing equipment which will be made available for communities to borrow.
Lynn Turner, director of Kielder Water & Forest Park Development Trust said: “The trust has welcomed the opportunity to lead the delivery of the Animating Dark Skies project.
“Funding provided through DEFRA and our partners has enabled us to invest in our Dark Skies infrastructure and our businesses and will ensure that visitors have a fantastic experience.”
Around 100 holiday businesses and 110 individuals from Wooler in Northumberland to Hamsterley in County Durham have taken part in training schemes over the year.
Richard Darn and Robert Ince, astronomers and business trainers with the North East Starmakers venture, have been helping businesses individuals to develop a quality customer stargazing experience.
Richard said: “There’s a huge enthusiasm in the tourism sector for protecting and sharing our dark skies.
“Feedback from the tourism industry shows that at least 50% have already seen an increase in business thanks in part to the designation of Northumberland International Dark Sky Park.”
Northumberland Tourism has also developed criteria for dark sky-friendly accommodation. Visitors searching the www.visitnorthumberland.com website will be able to choose accommodation which caters specifically for people who want to stargaze as part of their holiday.
The stargazing season runs from September to April and the area should have a good early morning view of the eclipse of the sun on March 20.
Dark sky designation followed research undertaken by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England which showed that the area around Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park is not only are the most tranquil place in England, but also has the largest area of dark skies in the country.