Outside the UK’s cosmopolitan hubs, the stars piercing the darkness are sometimes more dramatic than the lush countryside unfurling below. As the world celebrates International Dark Sky Week, rural Britain antes in with starscapes that rival its historic castles, Gothic architecture and wild sweeping moors for off-the-charts beauty.
Most notably, Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales just won special protection as the world’s fifth Dark Sky Reserve. It joins southwest England’s Exmoor National Park, Canada’s Mont Mégantic, New Zealand’s Aoraki Mackenzie reserve and the NamibRand Nature Reserve in Namibia.
Part of Astronomy Month, Dark Sky Week (April 5-11 this year) calls attention to our night vistas… as well as the ecological, energy-wasting and health issues of light pollution.
Here are three of the best places to experience Britain’s stargazing majesty.
Galloway Forest Park, Scotland
Catch a glimpse of the galaxy from Britain’s largest forest park, set in southwestern Scotland. Goats and red deer flit among Europe’s first Dark Sky Park (as opposed to reserve), crossing 300 square miles of heather-clad hills that rival China’s Great Wall in visibility from space. The International Dark-Sky Association rated the area a 23 on its quality-o-meter (a photographer’s darkroom scores 24). The nearby city of Glasgow, in comparison, only earns a 15-16. Head to Loch Trool or the Machars peninsula, south of the 17th-century market town Newton Stewart, for the region’s most glorious stargazing.
Four hours west of London, moors blanket cliffs over the Bristol Channel at Exmoor National Park. At night, a low level of light pollution lets the constellations dazzle down. A pocket guide details advice for newbie astronomers — such as “avoid the moon” and “bring a red-filtered flashlight” — and recommends some good spots, such as Anstey Gate and Holdstone Hill, in the park. Keep an eye out for bats: Exmoor shelters all the native British species, including the squash-faced Lesser Horseshoe bat. These plum-sized night fliers have traded up from caves to barns, unused mines and stately home attics.
Brecon Beacons National Park, Wales
Bronze-Age standing stones (menhirs) dot the rolling pasturelands of this park, alongside ancient tombs and Celtic hillforts. But the haunting atmosphere of Carreg Cennen — castle ruins on a limestone crag overlooking Black Mountain — steals the show… by day, at least. The Milky Way can blaze at night, competing with nebulas and meteor showers.
Horatio Clare, author of the best-selling memoir about his local childhood, “Running for the Hills,” praises the move to preserve these views. “The stars are mankind's first and last navigation lights. They are nurseries and reserves of myth, poetry, literature and science… In an age where darkness, peace and silence are constantly threatened, the Brecon Beacons National Park now has a new role, and the marvelous responsibility of honoring and protecting its night skies.”
On the lookout for more sky sightseeing in the United Kingdom? Download one of the National Trust’s walking guides to top stargazing sights like Mam Tor in the Peak District, Wales’ Penbryn Beach or even Salisbury Plain, near the solemn shadows of Stonehenge.
Getting there: The national carrier British Airways flies into London and 23 other domestic destinations.
by Amanda Castleman
Photos: The wide-open landscape and low light pollution of Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales, makes it one of the world’s best dark-sky locations. (Photo by Joe Cornish/Visit Britain)
The Peak District National Park in Derbyshire, England is ideal for both hiking and stargazing. (Photo by Daniel Bosworth/Visit Britain via Visit Peaks & Derbyshire)