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Dark skies and stargazing - our galactic guide

December 12, 2013
by Laura Canning | guides | misc

Milky Way Have you been stargazing in Northumberland yet? It's been a year since we cheered congratulations, felicitations and a big celebratory whoop to Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park, for landing the status of Dark Sky Park for 580 square miles, to become the biggest Dark Sky Park in Europe.

(We almost said it ‘eclipses’ all the others, but we made enough astronomically bad puns in our guide to World Space Week last September that we thought we shouldn’t. But such fun.)

The International Dark Skies Association (IDA) in the US awarded the area the status of Gold Tier Dark Sky Park, meaning it’s recognised for the quality of its starry nights and is a nocturnal environment that’s protected for its scientific and natural heritage (so there). We think having Britain’s biggest public observatory, Kielder Observatory, couldn’t have hurt the bid either…

If you haven't been to see the north-eastern skies for yourself, take a squint at these two starry sites in Northumberland , both available now and into 2015:

Riverside Country Park, Wooler

You'll feel starry-eyed at the camping pods at Riverside Country Park by Wooler Water on the edge of Northumberland National Park, which start from an unastronomical £20 a night for two adults and a child. And dogs are included for free. Yes, Siriusly.

Border Forest Caravan Park, Otterburn

More camping pods here at Border Forest Caravan Park, with direct access from their bridge into Kielder Forest. Don't forget to squeak hi to the Kunekune pigs and to the site's Shetland ponies Ant and Dec. The heated pods at Border Forest start from £35 a night, with pod room for two dogs included.

All campsites in Northumberland

Elsewhere in the land, here’s how to get your stargazing groove on:

Space (man) centres

National Space Centre. Pic courtesy of the National Space Centre. World Space Week may be over, but science centres in the UK are open all year round and run events for all ages in the art of astronomy, alongside an impressive amount of exhibitions and interactive displays to entice all ages. The award-winning National Space Centre in Leicestershire is h ome to the Sir Patrick Moore Planetarium and also has a planets gallery, Tranquillity Base for trainee astronauts and stacks of spacey events such as Steampunks V Zombies and grownup Christmas parties.

Full list of UK space centres here .

Campsites in Leicestershire

Galloway Forest Park

Galloway Forest Park was the first Dark Sky Park in the UK, awarded in 2009. The car parks at the Red Deer Range, Clatteringshaws Visitor Centre and Loch Doon West are among the best Galloway stargazing spots.

Campsites in Dumfries and Galloway

Exmoor National Park

While not a Dark Sky Park , Exmoor is nevertheless an International Dark Sky Reserve (do keep up), and was the first to be given this status in Europe. The park peeps have put together a handy guide to dark sky seeking in the park (we particularly like the Star Wars designed page) – pick it up in any of the park visitor centres or download it from here .

Campsites in Somerset

Campsites in Devon

Brecon Beacons National Park

The Brecon Beacons became the world’s fifth International Dark Sky Reserve in 2013, covering an area of 520m2 – wahey to Wales.

Stargazers can see meteors, major constellations and the Milky Way from various parts of the park: the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority sister site has put together a stargazing top ten and a video here that they promise will ‘blow you away’.

Campsites in Brecon

Campsites in Powys

Dark Sky Discovery Sites

The UK has dozens of Dark Sky Discovery Sites – with 18 added last year alone including Fort Victoria Country Park on the Isle of Wight and Cow Green Reservoir in Cumbria , and with several more due to be announced in 2015. Dark sky sites are grouped by location , as well as by where you can see the Orion constellation and the Milky Way. Got a dark sky spot you’d like to see on the list? Nominate it here .

National Trust Stargazing Trails

Yay to the National Trust and its ‘Night walks for dark skies’ info, with details of starry strolls in Suffolk , the Lake District and Peak District and more. There’s also a walk around Cardigan : stars by night, dolphins by day...

And because it’s nearly Christmas...

Night sky calendar for the UK and northern Europe

GoSkyWatch app for iPad (free)

SkEye astronomy app for Android (free)

The Independent’s ten best astronomy apps

First published December 2013; updated November 2014