The twinkling array of star-themed things to see and do in Britain will blow your mind. Britain’s legacy in the realm of astronomy is unrivalled, from ancient sites of astronomy and the world’s oldest astronomical society to cutting-edge observatories and heart-achingly beautiful stargazing spots.
1. Touch a meteorite at the home of time
The Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London is the granddaddy of all things astronomical. There’s a very good reason it’s a Heritage Site of Astronomy and Archaeoastronomy (as well as being part of a Unesco World Heritage site). Built in 1675, it was a working observatory until the 1950s, world-renowned for its accuracy and influence, and that’s why the Universal Day officially starts at Greenwich Mean Time.
Nowadays you can ogle 18th- and 19th-century instruments used at the Observatory, get hands-on with a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite, and straddle the marker that represents the home of the world’s time zones at the Prime Meridian.
2. Align with the stars at Stonehenge
As well as being the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world, Stonehenge is an icon of ancient astronomy. Like the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, it’s a Heritage Site of Astronomy and Archaeoastronomy, and that’s because these ancient stones are precisely aligned along the midwinter sunset-midsummer sunrise solstitial axis (that’s approximately south-west to north-east for you and me).
Hence Stonehenge’s legendary midsummer solstice gatherings, which have probably been taking place here in some form or another for millennia.
3. Learn from the professionals at the Royal Astronomical Society
The world’s oldest astronomical society was formed in 1820, gained its royal charter from William IV in 1831 and is still going strong in the 21st century. It moved into the impressive Burlington House on London’s Piccadilly in 1874 and has stayed there ever since.
Burlington House is the venue for the Royal Astronomical Society’s free and rightly popular series of lunchtime and evening lectures. Arrive early to guarantee admission and listen to some of the world’s leading scientists wax lyrical on topics such as hunting for meteorites in Antarctica and what the future holds for moon exploration.
4. Stargaze from the grounds of a ruined priory in a Dark Sky Reserve
Wales’ entire Brecon Beacons National Park is a Dark Sky Reserve, but head to one of these spots for some stargazing with a twist: set up camp at Llanthony Priory and stargaze in the shadows of the ruins of a 13th-century abbey and the awesome Black Mountains that the park is renowned for.
On a still night, go to Usk Reservoir to see the stars reflected in the water. If camping’s not your thing, stay at Stargazers Retreat, complete with its own mini observatory and telescope.
5. Stargaze with a Dark Sky Park Ranger
Scotland’s Galloway Forest Park is almost as dark as a photographer’s dark room. You can see more than 7,000 stars and the Milky Way arching across the sky.
Thank your lucky stars, then, for Nick Robertson, a Dark Sky Ranger and tour guide with 4x4 Treks Galloway. He’ll drive you to the best places in the park for stargazing, and will talk you through what you can see with your own eyes as well as through high-power binoculars. Selkirk Arms Hotel runs Stargazing Weekends with professional astronomers, too.
6. Join a constellation of astronomers at Europe’s biggest star party
Twice a year hundreds of astronomers descend on north Norfolk’s Kelling Heath Holiday Park for a weekend dedicated to stargazing. Their autumn equinox sky camp gathering is thought to be the biggest in Europe.
This lot are serious about their dark skies, so there are strict rules about lights in the camping field – red-light torches only and no digital screens please. Kelling Heath has woodland lodges and luxury holiday homes, but dedicated stargazers will book a pitch in the Red Field – the furthest spot from any lights.
7. Explore a working centre of astronomy
Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory – one of the world’s most significant places in the development of radio astronomy – is celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2016 with a year-long calendar of events.
Jodrell is a working centre of astronomy, science and engineering, so you can listen to the sound of the Big Bang and see the enormous white bowl of the Lovell Telescope (one of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes) while modern astrophysics research goes on in the background. There are all kinds of events, talks and workshops too, from Q&A sessions with resident experts to beginners’ courses in astrophotography.