Much of the UK has discovered breathtakingly beautiful sites right on our doorsteps over recent years. However, not all these spots are best observed in the daytime – some are best enjoyed under the cover of darkness.
The UK is home to some of the largest areas of Dark Sky (low light pollution areas) in Europe making it the perfect place to capture the canopy of the stars with the naked eye. But even for those who love to look up into the night sky, it can be hard to know what you’re looking at without an expert at hand.
Land Rover has teamed up with astronomer and science communicator, Dr Jenifer Millard, to provide the best 10 best stargazing spots across the UK, plus tips on when to visit and what to bring for the most epic experiences. In addition, a small team of Land Rover explorers set off in search of an additional dark skies location in the Scottish Highlands in a convoy of Land Rover Defenders.
Anthony Bradbury, Land Rover UK Marketing Director said: “More often than not, finding dark skies is a simple case of escaping civilization. Away from street lamps, houses and main roads, the majesty of the universe reveals itself to the naked eye. It’s always been in Land Rover’s DNA to explore, and we encourage people to find the permitted routes less travelled and the areas rarely visited to seek out dark skies for themselves. Our recent expedition to the shores of Loch Torridon in the North West Scottish Highlands revealed the Milky Way and our nearest planetary neighbours in great detail, showing there’s plenty of incredible stargazing to be done, even outside of officially recognised Dark Sky Reserves.”
The best 10 best stargazing spots in the UK
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (Northern Ireland)
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is one of only two Dark Sky sites in Northern Ireland making it incredibly special for those nearby. The National Trust site spans 66 feet across the Atlantic Ocean offering breath-taking views of the ocean in the daytime and the starry night sky in the dark. The site is also backed by the Northern Ireland Amateur Astronomy society who are often there with their equipment.
Dr Jenifer Milard: “The 24-hour car park of this National Trust site offers excellent dark skies and is highly accessible.”
Compton Bay (Isle of Wight)
The Isle of Wight’s Compton Bay draws stargazers all year round as it is largely devoid of light pollution, allowing visitors to spot all sorts of stars in the sky – even with just the naked eye. On a clear night you can see the Milky Way with great clarity. When it comes to constellations, you can spot Orion (named after a hunter in Greek mythology), The Plough (otherwise named the Big Dipper in US and Canada) and Cassiopeia (named after the vain queen who boasted about her unrivalled beauty).
Dr Jenifer Milard: “Nearby Fort Victoria Country Park Car Park is a Dark Sky Discovery Site, noted for its accessibility and excellent skies largely devoid of light pollution”
Tomintoul and Glenlivet, Cairngorms National Park (Scotland)
This is the most northernly Dark Sky region of the UK. Here stargazers can be lucky enough to see the Aurora Borealis (or the Northern Lights as they are more commonly referred to) as well as the Milky Way. Twice a year, this National Park will also provide a view of the Spring equinox (around 20 March) and Autumn equinox (around 23 September). That is when the centre of the visible sun is directly above the equator.
Dr Jenifer Milard: “Cairngorms Dark Sky Park boasts Gold Tier dark skies. Three Dark Sky Discovery Sites are associated with Tomintoul and Glenlivet Dark Sky Park – Glenlivet Blairfindy car park, Tomintoul Field of Hope, and The Carrachs car park.”
Llynnau Cregennen, Snowdonia National Park (North Wales)
Over in one of the remotest parts of Britain, Snowdonia presents one of the darkest and clearest views of the sky for astronomers. Facing North from the North Wales National Park, stargazers can see the North Star – the brightest star in the Ursa Minor constellation – with just the naked eye. Also visible here is the Cassiopeia constellation.
Dr Jenifer Milard: “Concerted efforts by the Park Authority resulted in Snowdonia achieving International Dark Sky Reserve Status in 2015. With numerous lakes, trails, and places of outstanding beauty, budding stargazers can choose from dozens of locations. The lakes of Lynnau Cregennen, Dolgellau, are a recommended stargazing site and are particularly picturesque”
Dalby Forest, North York Moors National Park (North Yorkshire)
This stunningly secluded part of northern England offers beautiful coastline views in the daytime between Saltburn and Scarborough. At night time however, you can head up to Kettleness Cliff where, thanks to its height and dark sky, you can spy up to 2,000 stars at any one time.
Dr Jenifer Milard: “Awarded International Dark Sky Reserve status in 2020, the region is committed to reducing light pollution and making dark skies accessible for all. Dalby Forest is home to Scarborough & Ryedale Astronomical Society, who hold regular stargazing events, and Starfest, an annual 3-night star camp held in August.”
Usk Reservoir, Brecon Beacons National Park (Wales)
The Usk Reservoir in Brecon Beacons makes the list thanks to its crystal-clear cosmos that it offers stargazers all year round. This is another great spot for those looking out for the Milky Way. Dependent on the time of year, you may also be able to spot colourful nebulas in the sky – a distinct body of interstellar clouds – or even meteor showers.
Dr Jenifer Milard: “The Brecon Beacons National Park achieved International Dark Sky Reserve status in 2012, the fifth destination in the world to be awarded this rare accolade. The region is home to several Dark Sky Discovery Sites, but Usk Reservoir offers some of the darkest skies and is accessible all year round with plentiful car parking.”
Porlock Common, Exmoor National Park (Somerset)
As the first ever Dark Sky Reserve in Europe, Exmoor boasts views of many planetary observations as well as thousands of stars via the Milky Way. They also run an annual Dark Skies Festival in late October to encourage everyone to look up.
Dr Jenifer Milard: “Exmoor National Park became the first Dark Sky Reserve in Europe 10 years ago. Porlock Common offers 360° views of some of the darkest skies available in the UK. There are no facilities directly on site, but equipment can be set up within the carparks.”
Kielder Observatory and forest (Northumberland)
Located in the centre of the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park, Kielder Observatory is one of the most active stargazing sights in the way of events offering meetups nearly every night of the year. Kielder Forest is the second largest area of protected night sky in Europe and on a very dark night, you’ll feel close enough to touch Jupiter as the planet can even cast shadows on the ground.
Dr Jenifer Milard: “The Observatory hosts events almost every night of the year, studying the cosmos with telescopes when it’s clear and entertaining with tours and talks when clouds roll in.”
Kelling Health Holiday Park (Norfolk)
In the North Norfolk countryside, Kelling Heath draws hundreds of astronomers and novice stargazers throughout the year. Visitors can see the seven stars of the Orion constellation, the Milky Way and even huge interstellar dust clouds on occasion.
Dr Jenifer Milard: “In September 2017, Kelling Heath was awarded ‘Dark Sky Discovery Site’ status – it is one of the best places in the UK to enjoy the starry sky unaffected by light pollution and is highly accessible. Multiple star parties are held here every year, drawing hundreds of astronomers. Caravan hire is available, and there are many amenities.”
Ben Damph Estate on Upper Loch Torridon (Scotland)
Land Rover UK conducted an exploratory expedition to find the perfect Scottish west coast stargazing spot situated a mere 8 miles off-road from the village of Torridon.
Set in 14,500 acres of dramatic highland landscape and nestled on the edge of Upper Loch Torridon, sits the perfect stargazing spot on a clear night. The team took three Land Rover Defenders along the existing off-road route to the spot which – bereft of trees, and any signs of light pollution – provides a view of the Milky Way and even the possibility of experiencing the aurora borealis should the conditions be right.
You don’t need to spend hundreds on astronomy equipment, says expert
Astronomy equipment can boost your chances of seeing some of the harder-to-spot constellations, but they’re not always needed.
Here is what you can expect to see dependent on what equipment you’ve got available to you.
The naked eye
You don’t need to spend lots of money on equipment to enjoy the hobby of stargazing. There is a vast number of constellations and planets such as the Milky Way and The North Star that can be seen with the naked eye, says expert Dr Jenifer Milard.
The moon is always a delight, with changing phases and distinctive basalt mare (seas; dark patches) contrasting the bright highlands.
Five planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) are easily visible to the naked eye, identifiable as “stars” that do not twinkle.
Moving beyond our solar system, constellations of bright stars soon pop into view – but before long, they become lost in a sea of diamonds, as fainter and fainter stars appear from the darkness.
Undoubtedly the best naked-eye delight is the Milky Way, a fuzzy band of light stretching across the sky from horizon to horizon, marred by dark cosmic dust clouds. This almost-misty concentration of stars is our home galaxy.
Some star clusters (gravitationally bound groupings of stars), nebulae (gas and dust clouds) and galaxies are visible to the naked eye as fuzzy patches – try finding the Double Cluster, Pleiades, Orion Nebula, and Andromeda Galaxy.
Almost every month, as earth moves around the sun on its orbit and encounters debris left from passing comets, we enjoy meteor showers (shooting stars).
Finally, we can enjoy passing human-made stars – satellites.
Though you can still see a vast amount in the sky with the naked eye, binoculars magnify and gather more light than our eyes can, allowing us to see fainter objects and enhancing the view of naked-eye objects.
Craters become visible on the moon, the naked-eye planets transform from star-like points to discs, and Jupiter’s four Galilean moons become visible.
Uranus (sometimes naked-eye visible under optimum observing conditions) can be spotted through binoculars, as can the furthest planet from the sun, Neptune.
Some bright stars are revealed to really be double stars, and individual stars can be seen in star clusters.
Nebulae and galaxies are much more obvious through binoculars – new shapes and details can be teased out.
Just like binoculars, telescopes magnify and gather even more light, revealing objects not visible to the naked eye.
Saturn’s rings are easily discerned, as are Jupiter’s stripes, and larger telescopes can even reveal Mars’ polar ice caps.
Telescopes make star clusters look almost three dimensional.
Often invisible nebulae and distant galaxies pop out against the inky blackness of space.
Comets rarely become bright enough to be naked-eye visible, but they can often be spotted through small telescopes.
Five top tips for stargazing
Convinced that you want to give stargazing a go? Land Rover asked expert Dr Jenifer Milard for her top tips for stargazing novices.
Wrap up warm – astronomy is a static hobby so it’s very easy to get cold. Hot drinks are a must too.
Use a red-light torch – it takes your eyes around 30 minutes to become ‘dark adapted’, with pupils fully dilated so your eyes are sensitive to faint starlight. Exposure to white light, from any source, even your phone screen, will ruin your dark adaption. A red-light torch or red-light filter on your phone screen will preserve your dark adaption.
Moonless nights are best – moonlight makes the whole night sky brighter, making it harder to see faint objects.
Averted vision – by looking slightly to one side of your target object, you activate the more light-sensitive cells in your eyes, allowing you to see faint objects like nebulae and galaxies more easily. The light sensitive cells in your eyes do not detect colour, so only the brightest objects, like planets and bright stars, are not black-and-white.
Star maps, apps, and a compass – these will help you plan your observing session and navigate the night sky, so you can find the objects you wish to view.
Dr Jennifer Milard comments: “It’s worth stargazing all year round because our view of the cosmos slowly changes night-by-night. As earth moves around the sun on its orbit, we look out onto different parts of the universe. Some constellations, and the astronomical objects they host, are only visible at certain times of the year. Additionally, moonless nights are ideal – the moon’s light simply washes out fainter stars and objects, like nebulae and galaxies, although it has little effect on bright stars and planets.”
To find out more about the best places to stargaze in the UK, and what can be seen when you get there visit Land Rover Best places to stargaze in the UK: https://www.landrover.co.uk/explore-land-rover/one-life/adventure/best-stargazing-spots-uk.html
*Article Source http://www.landrover.com