Something extremely special is on show all year round within the North Pennines AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). But this reached a crescendo with the fifth North Pennines Stargazing Festival.

While the beauty and majesty of The Lakes and The Dales is a given, there is something breathtakingly authentic about this upland landscape, which stretches across the highest and most remote parts of Northumberland, Cumbria and Durham.

Much like their larger cousins, National Parks, AONBs are selected for their important landscapes and wildlife. We are incredibly lucky to have 38 AONBs in England and Wales.

Dark Skies have rightly become cherished and protected in recent years, and there are more Dark Sky Discovery sites in the North Pennines than anywhere else in the UK. With 16 locations, including Allen Banks in Northumberland, Cow Green Reservoir in Durham and the RSPB site at Geltsdale in Cumbria, the sites are dispersed in such a way that accessing them from either York, Newcastle or Liverpool takes no more than a couple of hours.

Dark Sky Discovery sites are a nationwide network of places that are, well, dark. They are also easily accessible sites where it is not at all difficult to observe the Milky Way or the constellation of Orion with the naked eye. The initiative is part of an international programme to protect dark skies, initiated by the International Dark Skies Association, and it is important stuff.

In addition to the exquisite views above, the North Pennines AONB is the custodian of 40 per cent of the UK’s species-rich upland hay meadows and home to High Force, England’s biggest waterfall. This 770 square-mile oasis, which looks east to the North Sea and west to the Irish Sea, is definitely the place to head to if you’re keen to wonder in detail about the Space-Time Continuum.

North Pennines AONB Stargazing Festival 2021. Image by Andy Gray.So, back to this year’s festival. All of the events have been amazing and there has certainly been something for everyone. One of the brilliant things about a Dark Skies Festival is that you can keep on having your own special moments any time and anywhere (when it’s dark). But, during October and November 2021, the AONB team and its partners have pulled out all the stops.

Its priority? To encourage people to become emotionally connected with the natural world. After all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that people who make an emotional connection with nature go on to take direct action for conservation. But what the organisers have managed to achieve here has been truly out of this world.

While most of the organised activities were timed to coincide with UK half-term, a number of ideas, advice and additional things to do can be found at the North Pennines website. There’s also a must-see exhibition at Bowlees Visitor Centre, Newbiggin, set to run until the end of November 2021, collated by a selection of North East photographers who specialise in capturing night-time landscapes and dark skies across the North Pennines.

North Pennines AONB Stargazing Festival 2021. Image by Andy Gray.Although I didn’t want to miss a single event, I had to impose a limit. So, first on my list was Aurora nights at Grassholme Observatory. Alongside a team of brilliant astronomers, astronomer Gary Fildes, who has done amazing things at Kielder Observatory, took me and the rest of my fellow well-wrapped-up and excited troop of welly-wearers on a journey centred around the Aurora Borealis. Grassholme Observatory is only a short hop from Barnard Castle. I wondered if the Cummings family might join us, but remembered that Dom’s eyesight can sometimes be problematic so stargazing was possibly not the best activity for him.

On certain nights throughout the year, you can see the Aurora Borealis from Grassholme. It’s visible in the North Pennine skies but conditions must be just right. Unfortunately, this wasn’t such a night. However, I certainly left better informed on what they are and how best to spot them in the future. 

Next was Dark Skies Photography, which took place at Kirkoswald Castle near Penrith. I’ve always been amazed by the images on display at the Bowlees Visitor Centre and so the opportunity to be taught the basics by Gary Lintern, one of the exhibiting photographers, wasn’t to be missed. Despite putting a call in to the Met Office Magicians at RAF Leeming, who carefully plotted my position and at what time we might get a break in the clouds, it wasn’t to be. But the castle was quite something, and Lintern’s tuition was superb. His tutorial about how to take your own astro-photographs is now live on the AONB website. I am practising.

North Pennines AONB Stargazing Festival 2021. Image by Andy Gray.The final event for me was Pies and Skies at The Hive in Nenthead. The Hive is a beautifully repurposed Methodist Chapel, now a gallery, café and events space managed by Nic Cullens.

While anyone who knows me is aware that even the suggestion of a pie is always enough, it was Andy Gray, research chemist, astronomer, PGCE teacher of teachers at Newcastle University and all-round North Tyneside top man, who had me heading up the M6 on a night when @MetOleeming confirmed it was a certified no-go for galaxy gazing.

This event was wonderful. It deserves its own piece. The steak pie, chips and peas really were special. David and Alison Hymers from nearby Garrigill kindly allowed me to join them and they were the best supper companions. Not only were they passionate about the night sky, they are also dedicated community movers-and-shakers in Alston and beyond (see what I did there)?

Gray, owing to the masses of experience he has with switching on Year 13s who are trying to look at their phones, was brilliant. “Planets are pretty heavy, but they’re also a long way away,” he said and, initially, he was pitching it just right for me. But then he added: “There are enough stars in our galaxy for everyone on Earth to have 10 each.”

North Pennines AONB Stargazing Festival 2021. Image by Andy Gray.Eh?

He continued: “Our Milky Way is 100,000 light years across.”

Once we got to the Gedanken Thought Experiment, all I could do was look down at my empty plate.

“If you look at a grain of sand on a finger at the end of an outstretched arm and see how much of the sky that covers, behind that sand grain could be up to 10,000 galaxies,” Gray enthused. “That applies for every similar sized piece of sky.”

I rubbed my temples, only rallying when he ended with the promise that “If you’re having a bad day, it doesn’t matter. Space doesn’t care.” 

And that was my North Pennines Dark Skies Festival experience. I came away with a greater understanding as to why I’ve had a lifelong love of looking up at the stars.

By Colin Petch

All images by Andy Gray


North Pennines AONB Stargazing Festival 2021. Image by Andy Gray.A host of interesting information about Dark Skies and a number of activities can be found here

Colin is currently refining his Star Art competition entry, (closing date December 2, 2021). Although it’s actually for our younger people, Colin states that he thinks his “intellectual understanding and colouring-in capability should give me a wildcard entry”.