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Starry Nights and Northern Lights: The Best Places in the UK for the Enjoying the Evening Sky

Pollution affects every part of our lives: water pollution, air pollution, noise pollution. There is also light pollution, the effect of millions of home, industry and street lights filling the night sky and depriving us of one of the great joys of being alive – staring into the vastness of space.

But there are still some places, even in our heavily developed UK, where you can get a good view of the constellations and the planets.

Dark Sky Places

The International Dark Sky Association officially recognises a number of locations around the world. Apart from the very specialised Dark Sky Sanctuaries, there are Dark Sky Reserves, Parks and Communities.

The UK has a surprisingly good representation among these. Inevitably, most of them are in relatively remote parts of the country, but the newest reserve, Moore’s Reserve in the South Downs (named after Sir Patrick Moore) is within easy reach of the most populated region of England. Other areas include:

  • The Brecon Beacons in South Wales
  • Exmoor National Park in South West England
  • Snowdonia National Park and the The Elan Valley Estate, both in North Wales
  • The Galloway Forest in Scotland
  • The Northumberland National Park

Photo CC by by c@rljones

In any of these places you will be able, on a clear night, to see with the naked eye thousands of individual stars, along with the Milky Way, our own galaxy. With decent binoculars you can see a great deal more. Some locations also have an observatory that is open to the public, like Scottish Dark Sky Observatory in the Galloway Forest.

There are just two drawbacks. First, British weather never guarantees a clear night, so much patience and perseverance is required to get the best conditions. Second, the best views are on the darkest nights, and that means in the winter – so come prepared to spend hours outside in bitter cold.

The Northern Lights

The Aurora Borealis is one of nature’s great displays, and most people have a note on their bucket list to see it one day. Unlike star gazing, it does not require the darkest of nights, but it is considerably more unpredictable.

The main rule is that the farther north you travel, the better your chance of seeing the Aurora. The effect is created by the way that waves of charged particles, travelling across space from the sun, interact with the earth’s magnetic field at the North Pole, so the closer you are to the pole the more you will see.

However, the greater the solar activity, the farther south the Lights can be seen. They are sometimes seen in northern England, and very occasionally as far south as London. The best way to check on your chances in any location is to log onto the hourly forecast of the Aurora Service.

Photo CC Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

Capture the Moment

When presented with any natural wonder, our first and best instinct is to stand and gawp. The best memories are those of being in the presence of something overwhelmingly magnificent.

Our second instinct is to ask questions. The more you look at the night sky, the more you will want to understand what is going on out there. Star atlases will help you appreciate the moment, and there are many apps for phone and tablet to help you indentify stars and planets. Be aware, though, that any light source at all will affect your ability to see clearly.

Our third instinct is to record, and the most likely choice is to photograph what we see. To get really good photographs of the night sky requires specialised equipment costing thousands of pounds, but with some basic kit you can get reasonable shots. You will need at least two things:

  • A tripod. Exposures will be long, and there is no way you can get clear shots without one. Camera shake reduction features are not an option.
  • A camera with a wide aperture (f/2.8 is recommended), and manual control of the ISO and the shutter speed. You will need to experiment with lots of different exposures at the highest resolution your camera can manage, so it will need a memory card with plenty of space on it.

A World on Your Doorstep

You do not need to travel to the Andes to see the glories of the heavens. With a bit of patience and a willingness to endure a little frustration and discomfort you can see the night sky from many places in the British Isles. It may be a single night of wonder, or the start of a consuming hobby.

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Megan is an Australian Journalist who has been travelling and blogging since 2007, with the main aim of inspiring others to embark on their own worldwide adventure. Her husband Mike is an American travel photographer, and together they have made the world their home.

Committed to bringing you the best in adventure travel from all around the globe, there is no mountain too high, and no fete too extreme! They haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on their list.

Follow their journey on Facebook, TwitterYouTube, Pinterest and Instagram.

John Stowe is an amateur photographer based in Leeds UK. He got the digital photography bug back in the early 2000’s and has since had many different models of cameras. He loves to share his ideas and thoughts online for others to read.

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