Sunday sit-down with… Emily Watson, Helen Peyton and Louise Beer, Dark Skies Festival
From wellbeing focused star-bathing events to learning astrophotography, midnight ghost walks to new moon foraging expeditions and out-of-this-world art exhibitions – the North York Moors’ Dark Skies Festival has it all.
At the height of the Covid pandemic, when our only escape from the monotony of lockdown was a bracing walk in the springtime air, many of us discovered a newfound fascination with nature.
And with the dialogue surrounding last year’s COP26 summit in Glasgow highlighting the growing urgency to tackle climate change, it seems our renewed interest in the natural world had come at the right time. But while many minds at once spring to the rising levels of plastic in our waters or the ever-growing mountains of landfill when thinking about the detrimental impact our social habits have on our environment, far less of us would think to simply look up.
Because light is a form of pollution, too – and the increasing levels of lighting worldwide is affecting the activity, growth and behaviour of every single species on the planet.
The tell-tale symptom? That our night skies are no longer dark.
Not yet everywhere, though. While those of us living in urban environments often struggle to see any stars at all some nights, in Britain’s more rural locations there are still pockets of sky protected with designated Dark Sky Reserve Status – and the sky above the North York Moors National Park is one of them.
To celebrate, the Park organises an annual Dark Skies Festival, complete with a jam-packed programme of stargazing-themed events, performances and activities. And 2022 is no different.
Having kicked off in suitably meteoric fashion on Friday, the Dark Skies Festival will run at the North York Moors National Park until 6th March. We caught up with the Festival’s Coordinator, Emily Watson, alongside world-renowned astronomy artist Louise Beer and Skipton-based artist Helen Peyton, to find out what to expect…
What’s the Dark Skies Festival all about in Yorkshire?
From the very first Festival, the aim for both the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales National Parks was to highlight not only how people can enjoy a truly dark sky – particularly encouraging visitors at a quieter time of year – but also to show why it’s important that the night sky is protected from light pollution. The spread of lighting worldwide and the glow this creates has a detrimental impact on both human health and wildlife. It also means that far fewer people experience a truly dark sky, where there can be upwards of 2,000 stars at any given time.
Gaining International Dark Sky Reserve Status in December 2020 (there are only 19 reserves worldwide), signalled the start of a huge programme of work across both National Parks to retain and enhance that status. This includes monitoring the levels of light and working with organisations, businesses and residents to try and increase the take-up of dark sky-friendly lighting, whether it’s in streets or buildings. This is where the Festival plays a vital role in helping us appreciate the night sky and making sure we can all do our bit to protect it.
This year will be the seventh Dark Skies Festival that the North York Moors National Park has organised. What is it about the festival that makes it so popular?
Both the Festival and the Fringe event in October half-term have a broad appeal – whether you’re a family with young children, a stargazing enthusiast or you’re simply curious about space exploration. However active you want to be, you’ll find everything from leisurely stargazing safaris to more challenging after-dark walks, too.
Ultimately, though, there’s something about looking up at the heavens which ignites a sense of wonder in everybody. Having an astronomer or avid stargazer on-hand to explain what you’re seeing is very special. People just seem to love the opportunity to get outside after-dark in a beautiful, rural location – particularly in February, when our normal routine is to head indoors as soon as daylight fades.
In your opinion, what are some of the highlights of the 2022 festival programme?
This year there’s a stronger emphasis on mindfulness and wellbeing: star-bathing events with astrophysicist-turned-Zen Teacher, Mark Westmoquette; a mindful night walk at YHA Whitby, aimed at families; and a dark sky meander at Dalby.
Other notable events include astrophotography sessions with talented photographer Steve Bell at Castle Howard, plus a new one at Saltburn called ‘Take a walk across the Arabian night sky’, where astronomy and Islam will be the focus.
This year, world-renowned astronomy artist Louise Beer and Skipton artist Helen Peyton have been commissioned to produce artwork reflecting the fragility of the night sky. Why was this theme important to the Festival’s organisers?
Helen’s work for her ‘Starscapes’ exhibition will be a series of new linocuts and monoprints, based on views she found while walking ancient routes across the North York Moors. Meanwhile, for ‘Dark Reflections’, Louise will use a combination of photography, a sound installation and a participatory element to examine her changing relationship with natural darkness and her desire to protect it.
During the pandemic, many more people became fascinated by the natural environment, including dark skies. This, coupled with the growing urgency for positive changes to tackle climate change, made it timely for us to commission two artists who could help convey the fragility of the night sky through their art.
Helen, Louise, how did you begin the creative process when you were given this theme to work with?
Helen: I walked some of the ancient routes across the North York Moors and sat looking at some of the iconic landmarks, such as Helmsley Castle and Kilburn White Horse. I then used these as silhouettes for the prints.
Louise: I roamed the landscape near Danby in summer and autumn, armed with a camera and sound recorders, and I interviewed several key people who are involved in protecting the dark skies above the North York Moors National Park.
How would you describe the pieces of art you’ve created for the Festival?
Helen: My new linocuts and monoprints celebrate the beauty, clarity and uniqueness of the night skies.
Louise: Using an installation, photography, moving image and sound, I want to explore humanity’s evolving understanding of Earth’s environments and the cosmos.
And why did you want to be involved with the Dark Skies Festival in this way?
Helen: We’re so lucky to be able to stand under a truly dark sky and enjoy the experience. Art is a fantastic way of conveying how precious such a sight is and its importance in all our lives.
Louise: I firmly believe that, as light pollution increases, we’re in danger of losing that connection with the natural world. Art is such a powerful tool in creating an emotional connection with people. It can help encourage them to think about the fragility of our Earth and reinforce why protecting natural darkness is imperative in the context of the climate crisis.
Emily, what’s your favourite stargazing spot in the North York Moors National Park?
Sutton Bank, as the views out from the escarpment are just as jaw-dropping on a clear night as they are during the day. Here we’ve stood and looked up at starry skies, picked out the Milky Way and been mesmerised by meteor showers flashing across the darkness.
What’s one fact you’ve learned from a past festival that many people may not know about the night skies?
That eight out of 10 people in the UK’s population can’t see the Milky Way from where they live! On a clear night, from almost anywhere within the North York Moors National Park, you can see it with your naked eye. Then, if you happen to have binoculars or a telescope, it can open up a whole new world of distant galaxies and sparkling star clusters.
What are your ambitions for 2022’s Dark Skies Festival?
That everybody really enjoys themselves and gets the chance to experience the feeling of awe and wonder when looking up at a sky full of stars. It’s always good to take home a few new facts about the universe to impress family and friends, too! For a long-lasting impact, we hope people come away with a greater understanding of the need to protect one of our greatest natural wonders for generations to come.