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Northumberland’s all-year-round celestial lightshow

Posted by Jonathan Broom on 16 August 2018
Related property: Lucker Hall
Northumberland’s all-year-round celestial lightshow

Many visitors to Northumberland go there in search of the spectacular coastline, studded with majestic, unspoilt sandy beaches and hidden coves; of fantastic walks through one of England’s most beautiful counties; or of noble, ancient castles, and a wealth of history, legend and magical myth.

Some might argue, however, that it’s at night when the real magic happens.

The dark skies over Northumberland, and the county’s northern latitude, make the place an astronomer’s delight. The picture above shows the night sky above Lindisfarne Castle – and yes, that is the Aurora Borealis, creeping into shot in the bottom left-hand corner.

But for a truly stellar show, Lucker Hall holidaymakers need to head inland, just a bit.

The least densely populated county in England, Northumberland is home to the eponymous International Dark Sky Park. Thus designated in December 2013, at 572ms² (1,483kms²) the park is Europe’s largest area of protected night sky – awarded Gold Tier status by the International Dark Sky Association, making it officially the best place in England for people to go to enjoy the heavens.

The park lies just to the west and south of Lucker Hall, less than 20 miles distant at its nearest point.

Here, on a clear night, you can see millions of stars, the Milky Way and even the Andromeda Galaxy (2.5m light years away) with the naked eye. And every night, there is something different to see.

Serious astronomers flock to the park to observe Saturn at Opposition; to witness the Transit of Mercury; to mark the Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter; and more. Amateur stargazers simply stare aloft in awe and wonder at the vast panoply of the Universe. But lovers of spectacle come to see the meteor showers.

The planets are not the only objects orbiting the sun; there are also many, many comets, made of ice and rock, whose orbits (unlike Earth’s, say) are quite eccentric. As a comet gets closer to the sun, some of its surface burns off. The resultant debris – meteoroids – gets strewn out along the comet’s path. Then, several times each year as Earth travels around the sun, its orbit crosses that of a comet, which means that Earth has a close encounter with a load of comet debris. The meteoroids, which range in size from a grain of sand to a small boulder, burn up as they meet our atmosphere; and as they burn, they incandesce.

And that is a meteor shower.

Meteor showers take place all year, with barely a break; but some are more spectacular than others. These are the main showers that happen each year (with dates for 2019), which, on a clear night, Lucker Hall holidaymakers might expect to see, enjoy, and marvel at:

At the beginning of the year, the Quadrantid meteor shower takes place from 28th December to 12th January. With a new moon in prospect, the optimum viewing time is 1am to 2am on 4th January, with an expected 120 meteors visible per hour.

The Eta Aquariid shower occurs between 19th April and 28th May, with optimum viewing on 6th May; a new moon will ensure dark skies for these meteors, made up of the detritus from Halley’s Comet. Expect to see 40 meteors per hour, appearing to ‘radiate’ from Aquarius.

From mid-July to mid-August it’s the big one: the Perseids, which will peak at around 2am on 13th August with 110 meteors visible per hour. A waxing gibbous moon may spoil the show a little; but it will still be well worth getting up for.

Also associated with Halley’s Comet, between 2nd October and 7th November it’s the turn of the Orionids, peaking on 22nd October with 20 meteors visible per hour. This is one, however, that the less-than-fully-engaged stargazer might choose to sleep through. The shower shows up best in the southern hemisphere; plus which visibility will be compromised by a moon that’s only just starting to wane.

From 6th to 30th November, the Leonid meteor shower peaks on 18th November with around 15 meteors expected per hour. Which, in comparison with January’s Quadrantids, may not sound like much; but a waning gibbous moon should at least ensure reasonable visibility.

And the year ends with a bang, courtesy of the Geminids – a comparatively short, sharp shower lasting from 4th to 17th December and peaking on 14th December with 140 meteors expected per hour from 1am onwards – and the Ursids, between 17th and 26th December and peaking in the early hours of 23rd December with up to 50 meteors per hour. The Geminids have to contend with a full moon; but the Ursids have the stage to themselves.

Stars of the show? Well maybe, maybe not. Set against the awe-inspiring majesty of the Milky Way as a backdrop, and the Cosmos around and beyond – unchanging yet ever-changing – you might argue that these celestial firework displays are just a flash in the pan.

But what a flash. And what a pan.

Committed astronomers, or those eager to learn more, might want to head for the Kielder Observatory, which lies to the far west of the International Dark Sky Park, 63 miles from Lucker Hall along the A1 and B6341; or the Battlesteads Observatory, 53 miles south west of Lucker along the A1, A697, B6342, A68 and B6320. Both host stargazing events throughout the year, which are chargeable; however, the expertise and astronomical equipment on hand could be worth the price. Details of events at Kielder Observatory can be found by clicking here; those at Battlesteads by clicking here.

If, however, you fancy just heading off to ‘see what you can see’, these are numerous free-of-charge Dark Sky Discovery Sites dotted around the park. Frills will be limited, but there’s usually free parking and toilet facilities. Two of the closest are:

  • Ingram Village Hall, 19 miles south-west of Lucker on the B6348, the A697 and a road called simply ‘68’
  • Kirknewton Village Hall, 18 miles west of Lucker on the B6348, the A697 and the B6351
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Jonathan Broom

Jonathan Broom

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