All-night Norwich: Stargazing

Simon ParkinThere is nothing more awe-inspiring to do after dark than look up at the star-studded night sky. And this weekend Norfolk plays host to a gathering of amateur stargazers, drawn by the county's amazingly dark skies. SIMON PARKIN reports.Simon Parkin

There is nothing more awe-inspiring to do after dark than look up at the star-studded night sky. And this weekend Norfolk plays host to a gathering of amateur stargazers, drawn by the county's amazingly dark skies. SIMON PARKIN reports.

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Stargazers from all over the country will be bringing their telescopes to North Norfolk this weekend for some celestial entertainment in some of the country's most dark skies.

Hundreds of keen amateur astronomers, many with equipment that would put NASA to shame, are attending the Spring Star Party at Kelling Heath Holiday Park.

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Though the Spring gathering - run by Norwich Astronomical Society (NAS) as a spin-off from the similar autumn equinox event - was initially aimed at experienced observers it has grown.

Now its not just the experts that take in the amazing night sights, the event also welcomes the general public - and the good news is all you need is a decent pair of binoculars.

Mark Thompson, NAS chairman, said the event draws people from across the country to view the stars and far off galaxies that are clearly visible - cloud cover permitting - throughout the weekend.

The Norfolk Star Party began 15 years ago as a small scale jamboree for Norfolk's community of amateur astronomers. But it was soon attracting enthusiasts from across the country and quickly outgrew its original site near Thetford. It has been held at Kelling Heath for the past nine-years.

The reputation of the events is such that it the autumn gathering - now the biggest amateur-run stargaze in the UK - has been named among the world's 10 best star parties in Sky At Night magazine.

The reason is simple - Norfolk, a rural county still in large parts untroubled by industrial and domestic light pollution, is blessed with some of the country's darkest skies.

Inky black clear skies are a rare thing in today's Britain, where the orange glow of light pollution is steadily blotting out more and more of the stars.

'Kelling Heath has some of the best skies in Britain,' says Thompson. 'For many people across the country, artificial lighting shines up into the sky. This has the effect of brightening the night sky, rendering many fainter objects invisible. Because Norfolk is a rural county, industrial activity is sparse. As a result, clear night skies at Kelling allow visitors an unrivalled view of the night sky for this part of the UK.'

At dusk all size and shape of star-spotting equipment will be pointed towards the inky black skies, from Huge Dobsonian telescopes - known as 'light buckets' and used to peer into the deepest recesses of the sky - to the more familiar Newtonian telescopes of the type you see on the high street for �100.

At the more advanced level of interest is Martin Stirland, an NAS member and astro-imaging enthusiast. At home in Winterton, he's built two giant domes in his garden to accommodate his hi-tech equipment. But he insistents that nothing more than a pair of binoculars is really necessary.

'I used binoculars for 15 years,' he says. 'I used them to learn the night sky, the constellations, and even with binoculars you can still find soon of the brighter objects between the stars. Obviously as time went on I got the time and money to invest in better equipment.'

Like a lot of other amateur astronomers, Martin developed his passion for gazing heavenward in 1969 when he went out into the garden and used a pair of binoculars his father had given him to stare at the moon, amazed that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had taken one giant leap.

Forty-years later, technology has advanced to give amateurs the tools to give the big observatories a run for their money. 'What we do now is cutting edge,' he says.

'People have been observing through telescopes for hundreds of years, but it's less than a decade that this equipment has been available to the amateur.

'We are seeing and imaging bits of the universe that haven't been pictured before. Amateurs are making discoveries through this. If a super nova explodes in another galaxy, nine times out of 10 it is discovered by amateurs, then all the big scopes move over to it.'

There is no charge for attending the event, but car movements on the observing field are restricted after dark. Visitors are advised to wrap up warm and avoid torches or headlights.

Thompson said: 'It's a fantastic event not just for keen astronomers but also those who are interested in taking a closer look and learning a bit more about the sky above. Astronomers are a friendly bunch and always happy to offer advice to those first time star gazers.'

If you cannot make it this weekend, fear not - the sky isn't going anywhere. Camping at Kelling at any time will give you an unrivalled view.

Kelling takes this reputation serious too. To help reduce light pollution, lighting is kept to the main public areas and amenity buildings. The park's countryside consultant, Kevin Hart says: "We also take great pride in the fact that the night sky seen from the site is unspoilt and spectacular. Some of our night time wildlife walks looking for bats or Nightjars pause to take in a bit of astronomy, looking at the differences between stars, planets and even some of the satellites that can be seen moving across the sky."

So what should we look for? 'Campers will be able to marvel not only at the Milky Way - the combined light from the millions of stars in our galaxy,' says Mark Thompson, 'but you will be able to search around the many dark rifts from huge interstellar dust clouds, search out elusive galaxies that have never seen before and enjoy crystal clear views of our planetary neighbours.'

t The Spring Star Party takes place at Kelling Heath on April 17-18, with the main public day being tomorrow.

t Kelling Heath offers a mix of lodges, caravan and camping pitches throughout the summer. For more details call: 01263 588181 or visit:


t Norwich Astronomical Society - Established 63 years ago, the society is now based at a purpose-built observatory at Seething, and runs regular public events throughout the year, including open evenings where beginners and youngsters can get the chance to peer through their telescopes. The next public event will be a talk about Galileo and Jupiter by Dave Cook on April 23/24. More details: 01953 602624 or visit:

t North Norfolk Astronomy Society - Small group of 40 members that organise viewing evenings and host occasional talks by visiting experts. Visit:

t Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth Regional Astronomers - Hold regular events and viewings at a purpose built observatory containing a 10 inch reflector telescope in the grounds of Kirkley High School, Lowestoft. More details: 01502 585916.

t Kelling Heath Autumn Equinox Star Camp - The next major gathering of stargazers will be held on September 11-12. Visit:


Observing the sky on a clear, moonless night can be inspiring. You can get the basics with the naked eye. Don't rush into buying a telescope. A good pair of binoculars (approx �100) is a cost effective way of seeing more. They should be about 10X50 magnification and it's handy to use a cameras tripod to keep them steady. If you want a telescope, a 6 to 10in Dobsonian is a good starting point.

If you're not sure where to start looking the best thing to do is to buy a planisphere, a circular plastic device that will show you which constellations can be seen in the sky at any time of the year. Planispheres are made up of two plastic disks. The bottom disk has a map of the sky, the top disk has the hours of the day around the edge. By lining up the date with the time of day you will get a map of what you can see in the sky.

Stargazing means you'll be outside at night. As it can take up to an hour for the eye to adapt to the dark and white light from an ordinary torch destroys the dark, it's worth buying a red torch. This are cheap and will help you read your planisphere without losing your ability to see in the dark.