Keep on looking up - where to stargaze in Norfolk

Norfolk's dark skies are perfect for stargazing

Norfolk's dark skies are perfect for stargazing - Credit: Archant

Stargazing Live has again proved a big hit for the BBC and sparked renewed interest in the thrilling sights to be found in the night sky. SIMON PARKIN looks at how to take the next steps into amateur astronomy.

His first glimpse through a telescope at the age of 10 sparked a passion that this week again saw Mark Thompson bring the stars into the nation's front rooms as part of the BBC2 Stargazing Live.

'I remember it vividly,' said Mark, also the One Show's astronomer and president of the Norwich Astronomical Society. 'I looked through the big telescope and saw Saturn, looking exactly like it did in books. Creamy brown with the trademark rings, it looked as if it was just hanging in this huge, black, velvety sky.

'I don't think I've ever seen Saturn looking better, although I've definitely seen it more clearly since. It was incredible. I was hooked from that moment on and I've never looked back.'

Stargazing Live, which was back on our screens for a third series, aimed to encourage us to forgo the comfy sofa in favour of gazing skywards to take in the glorious sight of the star-filled night sky.

The programmes, fronted by Wonders of the Solar System presenter Professor Brian Cox and comedian Dara O'Briain, best known for his comedy skills but also the science-mad holder of a physics degree, also featured Mark co-presenting from various locations on to topics including how to unravel the mysteries of the universe, how best to observe the moons of Jupiter and how to use a telescope.

The three-programme event has again been a big hit attracting more than four million viewers and proving that if you present it in the right way the general public does have an interest in science — and with the dark winter nights there is no better time to continue that interest.

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There are a number of events happening in Norfolk over the next two weekends (see panel right) that seek to follow up on the interest generated and encourage us to take the next step — from watching on our sofa to getting out into the dark to see for ourselves.

'How often have you gazed into the velvety night sky and wished you knew which constellation was which, how to spot a planet or even how to find the North Star?' says Mark. 'A lot of people think astronomy, the universe, is a big scary subject but people can understand quite a lot of it. It's a great leveller and I think this is one of the appeals of it.

'You don't need to be an astronomical expert in order to be a successful stargazer. What you do need is three things: a clear view of the night sky, a simple guide to help you map your way through the constellations and, above all, curiosity.

'With the naked eye, amateur stargazers can see galaxies two and a half million light years away; with binoculars you can spot Jupiter's moons.

'There are some real treasures in the skies in January, February and March, and because the skies get darker much earlier than at other times in the year, the best thing of all is that you don't need to stay up really late to see them.'

Mark began gazing heavenwards when he was a child and his father, Neville, took him along to an open evening at the Norwich Astronomical Society's observatory, then based at Colney.

'I think it was one of my dad's passing interests, but when I looked through the telescope, that was it for me,' he said. 'From then on, I spent many a Friday evening at the observatory. Bless him, my dad would drive me to Colney and then sit in the car for ages, in the cold, waiting for me. He did everything that a parent should do to develop my interest.'

His first telescope was from Norwich's Secondhand Land and cost a princely £20. Complete with a home-made stand, it allowed him to chart the progress of Halley's Comet in 1986.

'To be honest, a pair of binoculars probably would have been better, but when you're a child, you want a telescope. People watch birds through binoculars, astronomers use telescopes!' he recalls.

After completing a correspondence course in astronomy, Mark put aside his dreams of becoming an astronaut — 'I was put off by all the degrees and work!' — and took several jobs in photography before taking a job at Norwich Union in IT.

Throughout, Mark had maintained his love of astronomy. He set about building his own, more powerful, telescopes. 'In the early days, there were a lot of very cold nights spent outside looking into the sky. Now, I have a clever telescope with a cam-era attached that I can set up outside and then control from indoors while I'm in the warm.

Mark is keen to promote astronomy as a hobby that everyone can enjoy without feeling they need to have a scientific or academic background.

'It can be seen as a bit 'anoraky', but you don't need loads of kit or degrees in astro-physics to enjoy astronomy,' he said. 'I'm a real enthusiast, and I want to get other people enthusiastic about stargazing, too.'

To that end he has just published a new book, A Down to Earth Guide to the Cosmos, which is described as an accessible guide to the night's sky throughout the 12 months of the year.

t Stargazing Live 2013 can still be seen on the iPlayer.

t A Down to Earth Guide to the Cosmos is published by Bantam Press, priced £16.99.


Viewing the Night Sky

Breckland Observatory, Great Ellingham, January 11, 7pm-10pm/January 12, 7.30pm-10pm, free admission, small charge for monthly talk, 01953 850626,

Breckland Astronomical Society gets into the Stargazing Live spirit with two nights aimed at beginners. They will be observing Jupiter, the Orion Nebula and Andromeda with a 20' telescope linked to a screen so that people can see at the same time. Other telescopes will be in use. Members will be on hand to explain what is being seen and guide around the sky.

Introduction to Astronomy

Binham Village Hall, Warham Road, Binham, January 12, 5.30pm-9.30pm, free admission, 01328 830770,

North Norfolk Astronomy Society hosts a special beginners' introduction to astronomy evening starting with Astronomy for kids at 5.50pm. The chance to view Mars in 3D starts at 7pm and there will be telescope viewing, weather permitting. There will be a small charge to cover cost of 3D glasses.

Stargazing Live for Young People

Seething Observatory, Toad Lane, Thwaite St Mary, January 12, 3pm-6pm, £1 per person, 01953 602624,

A special stargazing for children event with Norwich Astronomy Society — whose chairman is the BBC Stargazing Live and One Show presenter Mark Thompson. There will be drawing competition, short talks, rocket making, comet making and viewing through telescopes — if the skies are clear. Whatever the weather, this will be a great day out.

Astronomy for All

Kettlestone Village Hall, The Street, Kettlestone, January 18, 6.30pm-10pm, free admission, 01328 878012,

North Norfolk Astronomy Society gives another beginners' introduction to astronomy starting with a special event aimed at for kids between 6.30pm and 7.30pm followed by Mars in 3D at 8pm (small charge for 3D glasses). There will also be outside observing using society equipment (weather permitting).

Stargazing Live Extra Time

Seething Observatory, Toad Lane, Thwaite St Mary, January 18/19, 7.30pm-10.30pm, £3 adults, £1.50 children, 01953 602624,

Two nights featuring a special family talk run by Norwich Astronomical Society on the themes raised on the BBC's Stargazing Live programme, plus chance to view through telescopes and quizzed the experts. Dress warmly and take a red torch if possible. Hot drinks will be available.

Solar Eclipses by Yet Wha Lam

Seething Observatory, Toad Lane, Thwaite St Mary, February 15, 7.30pm-9pm, free admission, 01953 602624,

Why are solar eclipses so special? What are they and when do they happen? And interactive beginners' talk by Yet Wha Lam who has travelled the globe and witnessed many solar eclipses, followed by a Q&A session. If skies are clear then there will be stargazing with experienced members in both the domes and with members' scopes outside. Free to visit and stargaze, £3 charge to attend the talk.

The Search for Planet X

Seething Observatory, Toad Lane, Thwaite St Mary, March 15 , 7.30pm-9pm, free admission, 01953 602624,

Interactive talk by the BBC's Mark Thomson on the fascinating hunt for Planet X. A hunt that has captivated and perplexed astronomers for decades. Followed by stargazing with experienced observers from the domes and members scopes, provided the skies are clear. The dark skies at Seething are magnificent and not to be missed. Free to visit and stargaze, £3 charge to attend the talk.


1. Buy A Red Torch — There are two items that every amateur astronomer has in their equipment bag, and the first is a red torch. Most stargazing is at night, and you'll sometimes need extra light. Red light is the least likely to affect your eyes' dark adaptation. Some people suggest using a rear bike light, but even they can be too bright. You would be better advised to go to a specialist for a purpose-made torch. They cost from as little as £3.50.

2. Use A Planisphere — A planisphere is the other must-have item. It's an easy-to-use chart of the night sky. They are usually made of two plastic discs, fixed in the centre but able to rotate against each other. The bottom disc has a chart of the whole sky and the top disc has a transparent window through which you can see the sky for the night in question. Simply set it for the date and time and the planisphere will show you what is on view that night and where to look for it. Available in all good bookshops.

3. Seek Out Your Local Astronomical Society — Whether you intend to stick to casual stargazing or want to get more involved, a great and very enjoyable way to enhance your new hobby is to seek our your local astronomical society. These are great places to go for advice and help. When you eventually want to buy equipment, members with telescopes will be happy to talk about their experiences. Norwich Astronomical Society was established 64 years ago and is now based at a purpose-built observatory at Seething. It runs regular public events throughout the year (see panel left). Beyond Stargazing Live, the next major gathering of stargazers will be the Spring Star Party at Kelling Heath which attracts amateur astronomers from across the country. It runs from April 11-15, but the main public weekend is April 13-15. For more details visit:

4. Buying Equipment — After you've become familiar with the night sky with the naked eye, you may want to move on to binoculars or a telescope to see things more clearly.

t For children — Youngsters often want a proper telescope. Don't worry too much about quality, definitely don't spend more than £150 and don't allow your child to use a solar filter.

t For adults — Don't go out and buy a telescope straight away – consider a pair of binoculars, which are a great way to start. While they won't show you great detail on planets, you will be able to see the four Galilean moons of Jupiter and get a hint of the rings of Saturn and you'll also be able to see some of the larger, more distant objects such as the Orion Nebula, Andromeda and the Pleaides star cluster. If you're determined to buy a telescope you will need advice as to the best piece of equipment that will suit your needs and your budget. There are two main types – refractors which use lenses and reflectors that use mirrors. Reflectors are cheaper for instruments of the same size and same quality of image. The most important thing to bear in mind is the size of the main mirror or lens – bigger is definitely better! For the complete beginner, a good starting point would be a modest-sized reflecting telescope – around 150mm (6in) aperture.

5. Subscribe To A Magazine — There is no better way to keep up to date with what's going on in the world of astronomy than subscribing to an astronomy magazine. Make sure that you buy a UK magazine if you want to make sure the sky charts are relevant to you.

6. Just Look Up — The best thing you can do is to get outside in the dark and start looking. Quickly, you'll find that you're able to spot certain constellations or planets. It's then up to you how technical you get – whether you buy binoculars or a telescope, or whether you rely on your eyes!