Northumberland is looking to secure status as a dark skies park, but what is the night sky like when it is really dark?
I’ve never been to one of the international dark skies parks, but I have been to Sark, which was named the world’s first dark skies island in 2011.
Even by day, the Channel Island is known as a world to itself: the island has no public street lighting, the electricity goes off regularly, and unless you fancy a ride on the back of a tractor, you’re not likely to get a motor vehicle ride anywhere.
I spent two days there at the end of August, and while the daytime was truly beautiful – think dipping in pools around the craggy coastline and bike riding between the fish restaurants and local bars – it was the night time we were really waiting for.
Of course, you can’t count on the weather for anything, and on the first night, it was cloudy. Dark skies status and the British weather are not the best of bedfellows (something that prospective visitors to Northumberland might like to keep in mind when planning their dates).
Roll around to the second night, though, and the hype suddenly made sense. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, giving an unobstructed view of the screensaver-like night sky.
For starters, you forgot how darned big the sky is when you get out of the city. That, however, you can experience anywhere in the countryside. What you generally don’t see is the detail of the sky: the fuzz of galactic clouds, the clear view of planets, and above all else, the sheer number of stars.
It doesn’t matter how many hours you spend looking at skies that dark: it’s never quite enough to drink in how many stars there are in the sky. You look at one part and then realise there’s a whole other side of your vision you haven’t looked at. You switch from one section to another, but no matter how long you take, there’s no way to see it all at once.
The following week I was in Chelmsford in Essex, a town that is experimenting with turning all their streetlights off at night to save money. But even without a torch, I could navigate the dark streets by the harvest moon and see the stars. It was beautiful, but it was hardly panoramic. The details of the galaxies and the mind-aching numbers of stars simply weren’t there. It was a simple reminder of just how potent dark skies status can really be.
The film below follows someone else’s journey from London to Sark to try and find dark skies:
Photo: aerial shot of Sark from 1995 by Phillip Capper