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A beginner’s guide to Northumberland stargazing

Northumberland is officially one of the best places to stargaze in the UK – we find out what to look for and where to go to discover the wonders of the universe on our doorstep.

Written by Becky Hardy
Published 18.11.2023

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Image credit: Dan Monk

We’ve officially entered the season of stargazers.

A season where we can see far-off galaxies, planets, constellations and shooting stars with our own eyes.

No telescope needed.

While you can stargaze all year round, it’s when the temperatures dip that the sky is at its most transparent. The longer, darker nights also make autumn and winter prime viewing time, giving you more bang for your buck.

It’s at this time of year that the mystical, shivering river of stars that form the Milky Way can be spotted overhead.

Now, you could be a seasoned stargazer, in which case you’ll know all this already. But humour us a sec. Because we want to reach out to people like ourselves.

People who haven’t got the first idea about stargazing.

Image credit: Jim Scott Photo

WHY STARGAZE?

It’s unlikely you have a telescope at home. Streetlamps and city lights tend to obscure the night skies. And, let’s face it, you can’t tell your Orion’s Belt from your Ursa Major.

These are just some of the reasons you might never have thought to turn your head up to the heavens before.

Northumberland stargazing spots

But when you do look up – we mean when you can gaze above you and see the wonders of the night sky in all their celestial glory – then, even when you don’t know exactly what it is you’re looking at, you can capture an unforgettable feeling.

It’s humbling, inspiring and romantic all rolled into one. Feeling dwarfed by the majesty of the heavens and yet, at the same time, energised by the infinite possibilities of the universe and everything you still don’t know about it.

Stargazing can’t help but ignite a wonder within us all that, with a little nurturing, can be pretty life-changing for our mental health and wellbeing.

And the great news is, if you’re living here in the North East, you’re on the doorstep of some of the best stargazing spots in the UK, with a community that is just waiting to help you take that first step on your astronomical journey.

What are you waiting for?

Image credit: Dan Monk

WHY NORTHUMBERLAND STARGAZING IS SPECIAL

If you heard that Sunderland had the best restaurant in the UK, with people flocking from all over to book a table, it would make you want to visit, right?

Or if the word on the grapevine was that Durham’s new theatre show featured the best actors in the business, you’d book yourself a ticket.

We kid you not, this is the level of excellence and acclaim that Northumberland’s International Dark Sky Park holds in the world of astronomy.

Without doubt the best place to stargaze in the UK, Northumberland boasts 572 square miles that have been awarded Gold Tier status for their pristine dark skies – making it the largest International Dark Sky Park in Britain.

And the dark skies Northumberland is known for offer a combination of quantity and quality. As well as having the largest area of stargazing spots, the county is also fortunate enough to have extremely low levels of light pollution – meaning the skies above it are as dark as you can expect to see in the UK.

This means that on a clear night, once the sun has set and you’re in a remote spot away from streetlights, you can simply look up into the night sky and see thousands of stars, the Milky Way, and the Andromeda Galaxy (which is a cool 2.5 million light years away) with the naked eye.

Image credit: Kielder Observatory

WHERE IS THE INTERNATIONAL DARK SKY PARK IN NORTHUMBERLAND?

The whole of Northumberland National Park and most of Kielder Water & Forest Park make up the International Dark Sky Park.

Over the next few months, this area will be celebrating 10 years since it was officially honoured by the International Dark Sky Association – with many community activities, exhibitions, and special stargazing events in the pipeline.

But it’s not the only nook of dark skies Northumberland calls its own where you’ll be blown away by the stars above. The North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with its brooding moorland scenery and picturesque dales, offers outstanding starlit skies.

Meanwhile, the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty lives up to its title in all the ways – with views stretching out to the eastern horizon, where the Northern Lights have been known to grace the night sky.

Image credit: Jim Scott Photo

LEARN HOW TO STARGAZE IN NORTHUMBERLAND

Ok, you’re sold – so where to start?

Luckily, as well as having the darkest skies in the UK, Northumberland is also home to some of the most renowned observatories and astronomical experts in the world, so you’ll never have to travel far to learn some of the secrets of the universe.

Better still, these venues all tend to have warm drinks and blankets on hand, so you can stay as cosy as can be under the stars.

Here are 3 upcoming events to kick-start every stargazer’s journey…

Introduction to Astronomy

Year-round, Kielder Observatory

Suitable for all ages, let the expert astronomers introduce you to constellations, show you how to use telescopes and share the best times of year to see different celestial objects.

Image credit: Kielder Observatory

 

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Late Night Aurora Night and Planetarium Experience

Dates throughout autumn and winter, Twice Brewed Inn

Enjoy a laser-guided tour of the constellations and see if you can spot the magical Northern Lights using the 25 large-aperture telescopes here. After, take in a show in the immersive planetarium.

Image credit: Twice Brewed Inn

 

Find Out More

Astronomy for Absolute Beginners

Year-round, Battlesteads Dark Sky Observatory

This event is aimed at helping newcomers find their way around the cosmos. Experts will guide you around constellations with free handouts and apps, so you’ll be able to spot the stars for yourself in no time.

Image credit: Battlesteads Dark Sky Observatory
Find Out More

WHERE’S BEST FOR NORTHUMBERLAND STARGAZING?

While it’s amazing to be guided around the heavens by some of Northumberland’s astronomical experts, with skies this dark you don’t always need an expensive telescope to stargaze.

Just find a place away from streetlights and look up on a clear night and you’ll see more than 2,000 stars in our Milky Way. Pretty incredible, right?!

Need some inspiration on where’s a good spot to get started? Say no more…

Kielder Observatory

Black Fell, Kielder, Hexham NE48 1EJ

This purpose-built observatory has state-of-the-art telescopes, two indoor observatories, an outdoor observation deck and a separate building for astrophotography. It also hosts plenty of events year-round, with many aimed at introducing the night skies to beginners as young as 4.

Image credit: Kielder Observatory
Find Out More

Boulmer Beach Car Park

Boulmer, Alnwick NE66 3BS

If it’s the Northern Lights you seek, then there are few better Northumberland stargazing spots than Boulmer Beach. Picture the scene: you’re sitting back against a sand dune, relaxing to the sound of the waves lapping the shore, as the magnetic colours of the Aurora Borealis dance across the horizon…

 

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Rochester Roundhouse

Rochester, Northumberland NE19 1TA

Just a 45-minute drive from Newcastle, this community space in the Redesdale Valley features an amphitheatre that offers stargazers some respite from the weather. Excellent views of the horizons all around you – especially to the North – make Rochester Roundhouse a great place to spot the Northern Lights from, too.

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Battlesteads Dark Sky Observatory

Wark, Hexham NE48 3LS

This accessible, public observatory is a real jewel in the Northumberland stargazing crown: offering the perfect compromise between the majesty of the dark skies overhead and the neighbouring facilities provided by a multi-award winning hotel and restaurant.

Image credit: Battlesteads Dark Sky Observatory
Find Out More

Bulby’s Wood

Ingram, Alnwick NE66 4LT

Bulby’s Wood is an idyllic spot along the River Breamish, which not only offers an enviable astrophotography spot thanks to the gorgeous natural features nearby, but also plenty of information via boards and leaflets. The wood also hosts a car park and wheelchair-accessible toilets.

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Cawfields Car Park

Haltwhistle, Hexham NE49 9PJ

Where Hadrian’s Wall hangs on the edge of the sheer crags of the Whin Sill, Cawfields provides an atmospheric spot from which to stare up at the night skies. It’s also a comfortable one – with fully accessible toilets, a dedicated stargazing platform and a sheltered picnic area onsite.

Image credit: Jim Scott Photo
Find Out More

Twice Brewed Inn

Bardon Mill, Hexham NE47 7AN

A brewery, restaurant, bed and breakfast, and observatory, the team of astronomers here are waiting to share their knowledge at any of the events you can book year-round. There’s also a 360-degree, immersive planetarium onsite to bring the universe to life on even the cloudiest of days.

Image credit: Twice Brewed Inn
Find Out More

Stonehaugh Stargazing Pavillion & Observatory

Stonehaugh, Hexham NE48 3DZ  

This free-to-access stargazing location in Kielder Forest is often used by Stonehaugh Astronomy for their events, which include introductions to astronomy, astrophotography and tales of the myths and legends immortalised in the stars.

Image credit: Stonehaugh Astronomy
Find Out More

Find out more about Northumberland’s stargazing experiences and how you can get involved via the Visit Northumberland Website.

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