As a National Trust member I receive emails about upcoming events. I generally disregard them, relying more on Social Media to find things that may interest me. Visiting Kielder Observatory last year – blog here – and seeing the Sun through a telescope made both Jnr and I interested in Astronomy. The picture below is one we took with my iPhone through the telescope. The black marks are the sunspots on the surface. Unfortunately where we live has bad light pollution, so don’t get the opportunity to do much in the way of stargazing.
With the current aurora activity I tried to book back in to the Observatory, but the evenings are so popular they are fully booked months in advance. When I heard about a stargazing event held by the NT I thought this would be a great half term activity for us all to participate in. Him Indoors hadn’t done anything like this before, so this was exciting for him too.
The event was held near Bardon Mill. Both of us were working through the day, which meant I had to be super organised before I left in the morning to ensure we had everything we could possibly need. I packed sandwiches & plenty of warm clothes. Raf borrowed binoculars and a small telescope from colleagues, and we downloaded star maps on our respective phones. I kept checking the weather as rain would have likely postponed the event, and we wanted no cloud cover to see as many stars as possible.
On the drive up both of the boys started to fiddle with the equipment. We were slightly worried with the cloud cover, and it started to drizzle. Thankfully when we got to the Allen Banks car park the only thing that bothered us was the cold! Good job we had hats and gloves! It was 6:30 when we arrived, and it was already dark enough to see the stars.
There were no lights in the car park which gave us a great opportunity to spot Orion while we were waiting for the group to arrive. There didn’t seem to be many people around so asked Raf to check the website for details of the meeting point. Thankfully he had signal, as I didn’t! The site said Ridley Hall, which is round the corner from the car park. It passed 7pm we realised we were definitely in the wrong place. The NT ranger arrived and directed us up to the Hall, where we were greeted with hot drinks and homemade cookies.
The ranger said the confusion over meeting points would be looked into as this was the first stargazing event they’d held there. My suggestion would be not to even mention Allen Banks. I know it is the Trust location, which Ridley isn’t, but I believe that is why people got confused. We got there eventually, so there was no big problem. Silly us for not reading the instructions carefully, but we thankfully weren’t the only ones!
Because of the cloud cover we were inside for talks on the Dark Sky status the area has been awarded. We discovered that Northumberland is as dark as Death Valley in the US, which is quite phenomenal. We were also told that an estimated 40% of the population have not seen the Milky Way because it is obscured by the glow of lighting in suburban areas. These were given by two local astronomers – Simon Etheridge and Simon Rowland. The guys are clearly very passionate about this, but it was a shame I could barely hear them. The issue was it was a diverse group with lots of small children present. By 7:30 they were getting restless and bored. I’ve been there and got the parenting t-shirt! I don’t think an evening event is something 2 year olds should attend, which may seem unfair to say as there was nothing I can recall on the website advising against this. The audio on the videos was faint enough without having to struggle with kids crying and toilet trips. We were given quizzes to do but this was aimed at the older members of the audience, so there was nothing to placate them other than cookies and Fruit Shoots.
I’m clearly going to sound awful, and I understand how difficult it is with young kids. I became a single mum when Jnr was 18 months old and struggled a lot with keeping him engaged when we were out and about on our own. The topic of light pollution is quite ‘dry’ for kids to be entertained by, and in my opinion the talks were geared towards the adults in the audience. If it was an event for half term it needed to be more interactive, and maybe scheduled slightly earlier with bedtimes in mind. The speakers did try to engage by opening up to the floor for questions. Both my boys were wanting to look at the stars outside with the proper equipment, which was what we believed would happen during the event.
Once the cloud broke we headed out into the garden and the Simons gave us a laser pointed tour of the constellations. We saw Sirius, Pleiades, and Orion, and also caught a glimpse of the Milky Way. I discovered that the middle ‘star’ on Orion’s sword is in fact a nebula, which I could see using our mini telescope. This part of the evening was more in line with our expectations and we really enjoyed it, but we’d have liked to use the other telescopes that they brought along.
We needed to leave early as it is a long journey back to Gateshead and we were tired. As I said before, I gave feedback on our experience before we left. There needs to be a little more finesse in future if people are paying to attend. There wasn’t even a child discount for Jnr, so we paid full price (£7.50 each) for him too. The event wasn’t covered by our membership, which is fair enough, but perhaps a member discount could have been offered?
We returned to the Allen Banks car park as Raf lost his glasses. The sky was remarkably clear and we took the opportunity to do some additional independent stargazing. I appreciate they probably chose the hall as a venue because of the amenities there, but where we originally congregated gave us the best chance to see the stars we found!
Our night was enjoyable because of what we made of it, and we had fun. I look forward to another night under the stars really soon, and I hope the NT take the constructive feedback in the spirit it is intended. Perhaps events should be organised for different age groups to ensure the adults and kids are properly catered for. As I’ve said before, we’re very lucky to have areas like Northumberland Dark Sky Park on our doorstep and we will take full advantage of it when we can. We hope to see another event scheduled soon.
Thanks for reading,