There’s a one in four chance of seeing a clear night sky in England. This year I’ve been to Kielder and Kielder Observatory twice, as my interest in astronomy has grown.
Following a sunny spell in June, and with Sam heading off to Vietnam for 10 days to see her sister, I booked three consecutive events at the Kielder Observatory in July as part of a long weekend in The North. I was hoping for fine weather and clear skies.
The events were; on the Friday night: a Saturn Special, followed by late night deep sky observing. Then on Saturday: another late night deep sky event beginning at midnight. My friend Linda joined me for the trip and we booked two rooms at Eal’s Lodge B&B.
After a six hour drive up from Brighton via Papworth Everard in Cambridgeshire, we arrived on Thursday to a blustery and overcast Northumberland. The drive was long but easy and quiet; passing the Angel of the North, and then cutting through beautiful rolling hills along the roller-coaster ancient roman roads and into Kielder forest park.
The lodge is a lovely little B&B run by Bill and Pauline, and their excitable brown ex-gun dog. They’re well travelled and talkative, and their morning fried breakfast is plentiful. From the breakfast table you can see songbirds feed close-up; blue tits, great tits, coal tits, bullfinches, nuthatches, and so on. Chickens run about the grounds and there’s a sheep that might stare at you through the window. It’s about 20 minutes from the Observatory.
Kielder is dominated by a large man-made reservoir which brings fresh water to much of Newcastle. It being a reservoir, it also means there’s lots of rain, some of which threatened in the distance. It’s also large, and takes 20 minutes to drive end to end.
Food options are limited, and Bill suggested some places. Tonight Linda and I tried the Boatside Inn within Leaplish park, which does basic pub grub at an alright price. After burger and whitebait we checked out the sunset from Elf Kirk viewpoint.
In the morning the weather was much the same; grey and overcast. We were nervous about the likelihood of seeing any stars. To fill-in the day we tried a short hike North of the lake, from the diminutive Kielder Castle. Here there are many mountain bike trails that are clearly signposted, and a hint of a hiking route, but not really.
Trying to follow a non-existent trail we ended up on a dirt road that cut through the bike trails and passed dense pine forests. Some sunlight was piercing through the clouds, and it lit up the forest floor beautifully. Ahead of us a rare red squirrel scuttled up a tree.
The place’s reverie was broken by the chainsaws of forest workers felling pines; they’re thinning out the woodland to allow other trees to grow in the space, making the park more wild and diverse. All the existing pines were planted many years back.
After giving up on the trail we had tea and cake at Kielder Castle. On the wall a large TV showed live camera images from an Osprey nest. In the treetops two young ospreys sat, waiting for their parents to bring grubs as the strong winds swung the trunk left and right.
In the afternoon we returned to Leaplish and camped out in one of their red squirrel hides. After half an hour of watching songbirds a single red squirrel appeared, stealing some hazelnuts from the closest feeder. We waited for it to return, and it did with a pattern; loading up on nuts and then running off, back across the path and down the nearby hill, only to return and repeat the process every half an hour.
For dinner we ate at The Pheasant Inn, where hunting paraphernalia adorn the walls. Leaving the Inn, the skies above us were clear. Might we see something tonight?
But as we drove closer to “the obsy”, the clouds built, and soon enough, at the beginning of the winding single track road that leads to the venue the sky was impenetrable. Our hearts sank.
From the top the wind was blowing a gale, the small wind turbine was blowing dangerously fast. Looking East there’s a magnificent view over Kielder reservoir, where there was still blue sky, but that too was disappearing.
The observatory is an ecological wooden structure, with low energy demands and a “gravity fed” toilet. Everyone gathers inside for an opening presentation before, weather permitting, heading to the outdoor viewing decks and telescope rooms to see the wonders of the universe.
Inside, sheltered from the wind, we watched the introduction, then we had a nice tour of the telescopes too; the Patrick Moore scope, and the other as-of yet unnamed one. We learnt about the scopes; their type, how to use them, how its driven from a computer GOTO system, how you can open up the roof and rotate the room to point it anywhere you choose. But they can’t see through cloud. As the hours went on, and as we sipped our warm nourishing hot chocolate from our Kielder mugs the chances of seeing anything grew slimmer.
With it being so horrible outside the event continued with presentations. A presentation about the planets by Hayden with a focus on Saturn and Cassini and a presentation about Pluto; this was New Horizon’s week of glory. We were also shown samples of meteorites, one of which was a little speck of Mars. Linda was ecstatic, “I’ve held a piece of Mars”.
The “Saturn Special” ended, with no signs of Saturn. Everyone left, and the team prepped for the second session of the night. We hung around and noticed a couple of stars appearing then disappearing amidst the fast moving clouds.
The “Deep Skies” event began the same way – the same presentation, the same jokes, the same weather. The evening could have grown tedious from hereon. However, at the point where we were being shown the fire escapes (for the second time), the door was opened to a miraculous clear sky, “that’s the first time that’s ever happened”. We very quickly split into three groups and headed to the telescopes.
Ever so slowly the observatory opened up, the telescope turned on and the room rotated to the right position. But the clouds were returning, and the winds were blowing. It became a bit of a race, “keyhole astronomy” they called it. Sam, an astrophotographer, pointed the telescope straight up, aimed it near to the bright star Vega and found and focused the ring nebula. Through the eye-piece we each saw the beautiful M57 Ring Nebula. The telescope swivelled again, and before the clouds closed in for good we also saw M13, the Great Globular Cluster.
From then on it didn’t matter that we’d seen the presentations. We’d seen something in space, and my interest in all things astronomy and astrophotography was sparked. That brief encounter, albeit only 10 minutes, led to a huge amount of personal astrophotography, learning, reading and stargazing; I’ve joined communities, subscribed to podcasts and located my nearest dark sky sites. It was a fusion powered catalyst.
On Saturday night the midnight Deep Sky event was a wash out. The weather was even worse. Howling winds and rain, we stayed inside throughout. Alas, this is English weather and being an astronomer in England will always be frustrating.
Before the Saturday wash out, and despite the late night/early morning bedtime; we both decided to get up and out early so we could hire bikes and cycle around Kielder’s reservoir, heading along the Lakeside Way.
But it’s not a casual jaunt, well, not for those of us who haven’t been on a bike for over a year. It’s 27 miles (43km), and the gravel path has many climbs. On our rented bikes we began at Kielder Castle, crossed the disused viaduct and continued along the remote Northern edge. The route is spotted with art and architectural pieces, some of which are plain terrifying.
The way then crosses the dam, and continues on the Southern edge, heading North, back around to the castle. The circuit took us about 6 hours and I ached for days afterwards.
On Sunday, the first trip to Kielder was ending. Linda and I drove South, but not without one further stop to see Hadrian’s Wall at Housestead’s Roman Fort. After being a little dismissive about the wall’s size, I found myself on the wrong side of it for a landscape photo – and the wall was too high to climb over; not that I would.