Craning my neck in a fire-lit farmyard in Goathland, Yorkshire, along with the (equally entranced) owners of the on-site guesthouse, I realise with shame that I can’t remember the last time I bothered to really look up.
Astronomer Andy Exton from Hidden Horizons wastes no time in setting up a telescope so large that (as someone of limited stature) I have to climb a step ladder to press my eye to it. I’m seemingly looking at a smudge. It’s the Andromeda galaxy, which is the furthest point you can see with the naked eye, and is made up of one trillion stars. Directly over our heads, a cloudy crease of light – it’s the Milky Way, and it’s a measure of the velvet darkness around the North York Moors that we can make it out with the naked eye.
There’s seemingly nothing Andy can’t answer. We discover how the zodiac crosses the sky; how desert ‘diamonds’ are created; why stars twinkle. My favourite fact of the night might be the theory that painting an asteroid white could change its temperature enough to alter its course. Or that the star that makes the ‘eye’ of Taurus is distinctly crimson, hence the expression ‘seeing red’.
After hot chocolate and marshmallows, we have a quick projected show in a cleverly inflated tent – and see incredible images of the planets. As if all that wasn’t enough, the sky then blows us a goodnight kiss – two shooting stars.
My weekend is a taster session for the third Dark Skies Festival, held in both the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks this February. It’s jam-packed with over 100 after dark activities, from organised runs and bike rides, to zip lining, caving, children’s craft classes, and lots of astronomy – all designed to make the most of the low light pollution levels in these rural spots.
I also try two of the other experiences, firstly, meeting some of the 100 or so residents of the National Centre for Birds of Prey. We arrive at the centre, just outside Helmsley, at twilight, and are given a torch-lit tour of the enclosures. Then it’s from the skies to the shore, when, in picturesque Robin Hood’s Bay, I’m given a tour of the smuggling haunts of yesteryear by the Whitby storyteller. She spins yarns of shipwrecked bodies, ghostly visitors and moon-lit hauntings on the moors, it’s not just the weather that leaves my knees knocking.
In a world of flashing lights and screens, taking time out under the murk of torchlight, or the shimmer of stars seems to slow down time. I’m more aware of sounds and I’m able to recall so much more than when I’ve got one eye on my phone.
You can read Lizzy's article here.