• Neil

Review - Kielder Observatory 'Late Night Explorer' Event

We go stargazing up in the hills above Kielder Forest and Water Park in Northumberland

Alas, the skies were not this clear when we were there.

As you may have read from our review of the off-grid Ty'r Onnen Tree House in Wales, I've been dabbling with astro and lunar photography on and off for the past year, trying to learn the ropes to hopefully incorporate into landscape shots at some point. As a 40th birthday present, I was gifted a trip to learn more about the night sky up at Kielder Observatory in Northumberland. So on a wet and windy January Friday night, we set off up to the Kielder Forest and Water Park.

Where? Kielder Forest and Water Park sits right on the English border with Scotland. It has both the largest man-made woodland in England (as well as one of the biggest in Europe) as well as the largest man-made lake in the UK. When the forest was first established it was to ensure a large strategic reserve of timber for the country. It is a vast sprawl of conifers and its surrounding hills lead ultimately into the Cheviots to the North East. It is also home to 50% of England's remaining red squirrel population, has seen ospreys nest there, and has a large roe deer population.

As you can see, the weather was bleak during the day leading up to the event.

We stayed at the nearby Pheasant Inn in Falstone, situated on the southern edge of Kielder Water and about a 20ish minute drive from the Observatory, and Kielder village which holds the title of most remote village in England. With the nearest shops and amenities a hefty round trip away, I'd urge you to take a well stocked car and a book if staying within the park. It is remote, and this is what makes it an ideal location for the Observatory. It boasts the largest area of protected night sky in Europe which is quite a claim!

The Observatory

The Observatory offers a range of different events with ones aimed at children (held at nearby Kielder Castle), Northern Lights focused events, introductory astronomy and the Late Night Explorer event (which we were booked on) to name a few. For a full list of events check them out here.

To get there, aim for Kielder village (NE48 1EG). Don't try to satnav the observatory itself as you need to go along private track roads so it may take you anywhere but where you need to go! The main road leading into Kielder village has brown sign posts for the Observatory so get to the village then follow those. You'll then be directed up a couple of miles of track leading right to the Observatory. Events such as the Late Night Explorer are late at night, so drive slowly (there's a 15mph speed limit in place) and carefully.

Once at the top, you'll see the Observatory which is two wooden buildings (made from Kielder forest timber!) surrounded by a large viewing platform area. They were designed to remain in keeping with the forest, as opposed to the large dome shaped observatories you are probably used to. It is dark up there, but you are advised not to use white light torches, but instead red light to help allow your eyes to accustom. In all honesty, I found a torch wasn't really necessary when we arrived. The horrible rain clouds which had blighted most of the day had started to break up, allowing the moon to make an appearance. With no street light pollution giving you that awful orange haze which eats away at the night sky, the moon was a perfect spotlight for guiding your path and you could see it catching off the surface of Kielder water in the valley below.

The Event

The evening is a mixture of stargazing (clouds permitting), looking at the craters of the moon through one of their giant telescopes (and getting photos of it with your mobile phone through the lens!) as well as some really interesting and engaging talks and presentations about astronomy and the universe. Don't feel as though you need an astrophysics degree to attend these, far from it. The evening is delivered in such a way that people from entry level to expert can attend, and no question is a silly question.

When you're inside, it is really warm and relaxing. Outside however, particularly in mid January it is freezing so warm clothes are advised! The staff do provide hot drinks and snacks during the evening though to help keep heat levels up and keep any sleepiness from being out in the middle of the night at bay (although the cold will do that too when you're stargazing).

I'd taken my camera along, however I think with the weather being so bad during the day, and the clouds a constant fixture throughout the experience, time outdoors was limited. It does say that they provide star gazing chairs and warm blankets to keep you warm which indicates during good weather there's more time spent outdoors with the opportunity to get some amazing shots. From what we (all be it briefly) saw of the sky up there, those viewing platforms are an absolute dream for astrophotography looking out across the forest and lake.

We'd definitely go again!

What Else?

Despite being quite remote, there's still things to do up and around Kielder. Watersports and boating on Kielder Water.

The Lakeside Way provides you with a trail taking in the 26 miles of shoreline (but with many much shorter routes around the water and dipping into the woodland also).

Kielder Castle as already previously mentioned, which hosts a variety of events throughout the year (some in partnership with the Observatory).

The Cheviots are nearby with a number of walks to be had.

A short drive south takes you to Bellingham, where you can take a walk up to Hareshaw Linn, a spectacular waterfall set within an a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to the rare ferns and lichen that are prevalent there but also plays host to a wide range of wildlife.

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