Located at the end of a lonely track dividing dark swathes of pine forest, Kielder Observatory finally appears on a bare plateau. Visually striking, the modern timber building stands in a landscape devoid of any other man-made structure. As dusk falls it appears almost other-worldly, jutting into the landscape. Somewhere below is the imprint of Kielder Water, the only identifiable feature far in the distance, and above, nothing but stars.
The wilderness site was first identified for development by observatory director Gary Fildes, who steered the plans from their conception. “The clarity of the skies, the light pollution free vistas were astounding to me when I first visited in 2000,” he recalls. Miles from the light pollution of cities and towns, the night skies here are primed to reveal the wonders of space: the Milky Way, shooting stars and planets.
The observatory officially opened in 2008 and since that time 40,000 people have visited, illustrating the interest in what can seem an overwhelming subject. “The universe belongs to all of us, not just the scientists,” stresses Gary. “People are becoming more interested in astronomy. We take visitors on a journey through the galaxies, and even if the skies are too overcast to view by telescope, there’ll be plenty to see with our audio-visual displays of the night skies and tours of the observatory.”
To survive an evening here, the visitor must be suitably dressed against the worst of the Northumberland elements; the observatory website stresses a need for excessive layers of warm clothing, but temperatures have never put off stalwart stargazers.
“Our next major project is to develop accessibility for the disabled which will enable them to look through our telescopes. It’s a simple concept but something that only the able bodied can currently enjoy,” explains Gary. “No other observatory in the world currently caters for the disabled, so this will hopefully help increase our appeal.”
For more information on Kielder Observatory, visit www.kielderobservatory.org
For more on the area, go to www.visitkielder.com
For more about the Dark Sky Park, see www.darksky.org