Some corners of Britain offer unparalleled outdoor experiences, from rutting stags against a backdrop of rich autumnal hues, to awe-inspiring views of the night sky. Of the world’s 13 International Dark Sky Reserves, named for the exceptional quality of their nocturnal environments, four are located right here in Britain. Exmoor National Park was Europe’s first region to receive the accolade, having been granted International Dark Sky Reserve status in 2011, while the Brecon Beacons, Snowdonia and South Downs National Parks have all since been recognised. But it’s not just stargazing that these regions are renowned for – these spaces allow you to get back to nature and experience the magic of the great outdoors in all number of ways.
Here you can be surrounded by rich autumnal colours as ancient trees shed their leaves by day, before basking in amazing astrology once the sun goes down. This is especially true during the various Dark Skies Festivals, which celebrate the night skies and the eclectic mix of wildlife found in Britain’s National Parks.
The annual Exmoor Dark Skies Festival gets underway in mid-October, with a range of tours, activities and stargazing events for those of all ages. Covering 267 square miles, explore the vast expanse of moorland, woods and valleys, while looking out for elusive dormice among the hedgerows and listening to the bellows of passionate stags. Autumn signals rutting season for the park’s herd of red deer, while Atlantic salmon fill the rivers as they return to their spawning grounds.
A number of spots across Exmoor allow you to see thousands of stars with the naked eye on a clear night. Popular areas include around Holdstone Hill, where purple heather and richly-coloured bracken provide a spectacular autumnal sight, and Haddon Hill, which overlooks the shores of Wimbleball Lake. Other locations for exceptional views include Webber’s Post, in Somerset, and the area around Brendon Two Gates.
Embark on a Land Rover safari at dusk to discover the magical sights and sounds of the National Park during the festival, as well as some of its myths and legends. Stargazing walks and educational sessions are some of the other activities set to be available, alongside guided ranger walks and astronomy presentations. Those wishing to learn more about the magnificent surroundings and the skies above them can also join several virtual events and talks, or visit some of the region’s farms to mix stargazing with a chance to sample the delicacies of the harvest. For more information about some of the events included in the Exmoor Dark Skies Festival, visit the Exmoor National Park website.
The North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales Dark Skies Festival is scheduled for 12-28 February 2021, with a distinct focus on nature at night. A packed itinerary of events is set to provide a glimpse into the lives of the region’s nocturnal creatures, while delving into how the area’s dark skies impact upon their very existence. The celebrations in 2020 saw both National Parks feature their largest programmes of events since the inaugural event in 2016, with events for 2021 set to be unveiled in due course.
North York Moors will also host its first Dark Skies Fringe Festival, running from 23 October to 1 November 2020, giving stargazers another opportunity to enjoy the jewels of the park’s dark skies. Set to echo the larger celebrations seen in February, details of the events, alongside information on how to book, will be released soon. Here you can enjoy the striking landscapes of the North York Moors, relax in an array of picturesque market towns and villages, and gaze out over dramatic seascapes. Soak up the autumnal scenery from aboard the North York Moors Railway, a heritage line crossing the moorland, or venture to Ashberry Nature Reserve to catch a glimpse of the wild deer herds that wander around the ancient woodland.
Another Dark Skies Festival is held in the South Downs each February too, with details set to be announced later in 2020. With a stellar line up of talks, observation sessions and family-friendly activities planned, you can also wander the fairy-tale battlements of Arundel Castle and explore Britain’s longest and deepest dry valley at Devil’s Dyke within the stunning surroundings of Britain’s newest National Park.
In addition to the four International Dark Sky Reserves, Britain is also home to a number of International Dark Sky Parks. One example is the 45,000 acres of the Elan Valley International Dark Sky Park, in mid Wales, roughly half way between the Snowdonia and Brecon Beacons International Dark Sky Reserves to the north and south. Scotland is home to a further two locations, with Galloway Forest Park and the skies above Tomintoul and Glenlivet in the Cairngorms both awarded International Dark Sky Park status. With its shimmering lochs and forested glens, Galloway is a mix of spectacular colours in the autumn, while the Cairngorms is the most northerly Dark Sky Park in the world. Both provide stargazers with a chance to be at one with nature while taking in the wonders of the night sky. The Northumberland and Kielder Water and Forest Park provides ample opportunity to spy the stars too, as well as ospreys that call the region home. Alongside this International Dark Sky Park, there also more than 150 Dark Sky Discovery Sites across Britain to explore.
Different attractions will have varied measures in place. You are encouraged to check all locations, attraction and event websites before travelling, so you can explore Britain with confidence.