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    St Martins, Isles of Scilly (Credit: Tamara Weber)

    7 staycations for stargazers

    8 January 2020

    Stargazers are in for a treat in 2020 – from an unusually bright Venus in April to August’s Perseid shower and the Geminids meteor shower in the winter. So why not escape the city lights and seek out a dark sky of your own?

    St Martin’s island, Isles of Scilly

    St Martins island, Isles of Scilly

    St Martins island, Isles of Scilly (COSMOS)

    Just two kilometres in length and famed for its white sand beaches and azure waters, the tiny island of St Martins in the Isles of Scilly is also making waves in astronomy. It boasts a newly opened observatory in the middle of the island, between the Community Hall and the Reading Room, and, last October, hosted a stargazing hike as part of the annual Isles of Scilly walkers’ festival. There is virtually no light pollution on the islands, making it the ideal bolthole for intrepid stargazers in search of unspoilt skies.

    Where to stay

    Karma St Martins, Isles of Scilly

    Karma St Martins Hotel, Isles of Scilly

    It is difficult to beat the newly refurbished Karma St Martins for far-flung island luxury. The hotel lies on the fringe of a white-sand beach that, on a bright summer’s day, could be mistaken for the Caribbean. The superior ocean view rooms have triangular windows which lend themselves very well to some lazy stargazing from the comfort of your bedroom. Sneak out for a midnight swim under the stars or wander over to the observatory, just a short walk away.

    Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

    Milky Way over landscape of Freshwater West beach, Pembrokeshire

    Milky Way over landscape of Freshwater West beach, Pembrokeshire

    Pembrokeshire boasts all of the coastal beauty of Cornwall and yet, in the summer months, attracts half the crowds. Its sparse population means minimal light pollution.  It’s perfectly possible to find yourself alone on a beach, even in mid August, especially if you venture off the beaten track. Poppit Beach and Newgale beach are considered two of the best for viewing the Milky Way at night. Venture inland to the Preseli mountains for even clearer skies.

    Where to stay

    Farm Cottage, Stackpole, Pembrokeshire (National Trust)

    Try this National Trust period property in Stackpole, just yards from the coast path and close to what is arguably the county’s most beautiful beach – Barafundle Bay.

    Cranborne Chase, Dorset

    Cranborne Chase, Dorset (Credit: Paul Howell)

    This stretch of unspoilt Dorset countryside was made an International Dark Sky Reserve in October 2019 – the first area of outstanding natural beauty to be given this status in the UK. IDSRs have to meet stringent criteria, including the ability to see the Milky Way with the naked eye and a lack of artificial light sources such as streetlights. While many people flock to Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, few take the time to venture inland. Due to protective Victorian land owners, the railways never made it to West Dorset and, as such, it remains beautifully unspoilt.  For more information on the best stargazing spots on Cranborne Chase, visit chasing stars.

    Where to stay

    This rural Airbnb near Shaftesbury offers doorstep access to a bluebell wood and a pond. What’s not to love?

    Kielder observatory, Northumberland

    The Kielder Observatory, Northumberland

    The Kielder Observatory, Northumberland

    Kielder forest plays host to over 50 per cent of the UK’s red squirrel population with deer, owls and other birds of prey frequently spotted but, wildlife aside, it is also one of Europe’s largest dark sky parks. Northumberland enjoys some of the best night skies in the country and Kielder was chosen as the site for the observatory because it is one of the locations in the UK which has the least amount of intrusive light pollution. The observatory, which is set in the heart of the forest and reached via an off-road track, can be visited whenever an event is on so be sure to check the website for the latest programme. Booking advised.

    Where to stay

    Sky Den at Calvert Kielder, Northumberland

    Sky Den at Calvert Kielder, Northumberland

    Close to the observatory, in the same forest, is the architecturally unique Sky Den, which has been featured on George Clark’s Amazing Spaces on Channel 4. This quirky treehouse affords plenty of opportunities to drink in the sky from indoors and is available to book through Canopy and Stars.

    Brecon Beacons and The Black Mountains, Wales

    The Brecon Beacons is an international dark sky reserve

    For an atmospheric introduction to astronomy, head to Llanthony Priory in the Brecon Beacons where you can gaze up at the heavens with the priory ruins forming a gothic backdrop below. Situated in one of the most beautiful valleys in the National Park, the ruins enjoy pristine dark skies with a limiting magnitude of 6.35. The Priory is officially closed from 4pm onwards but the owners are happy for stargazers to use the carpark and enjoy the views into the Priory and upwards onto Hatterrall Hill.

    Those wishing to roam even further from the madding crowds can seek out the Olchon valley, where poet and novelist Owen Sheers set his 2007 bestseller ‘Resistance’. Here you can avoid the usual honeypot locations of the Beacons and be rewarded with a wealth of unpolluted nighttime vistas.

    Where to stay

    Fishermen will enjoy the genteel surrounds of the Gliffaes country hotel nestled in The Black Mountains which boasts direct access to the river Usk and plenty of dark skies, of course.

    The South Downs

    The eighteenth century Halnaker Windmill lit by moonlight. Photo by South Downs National Park Authority.

    The eighteenth century Halnaker Windmill lit by moonlight. Photo by South Downs National Park Authority.

    Londoners not wanting to stray too far from the big smoke can try out the South Downs for size. The newest of Britain’s National Parks, the South Downs’ Moore’s Reserve is a designated International Dark Sky area and has Sir Patrick Moore to thank for its monicker. It’s something of an astronomical miracle to find dark skies this close to London and hopefully the area’s National Park status will help keep it that way.

    Elsewhere in the Downs, Devils Dyke and Birling Gap have both recently been earmarked as dark sky discovery sites and their proximity to Brighton means you can enjoy the city lights alongside the starlight if you don’t fancy leaving behind your creature comforts for too long.

    Where to stay

    For bohemian city comforts, look no further than the The Artist’s Residence in Brighton. But for those in search of something more remote, this converted dairy, complete with roll top bath in Midhurst is bound to do the trick.

    Exmoor

    Exmoor at night

    Night skies in Exmoor

    North Devon’s moorland is full of wild ponies and ramblers by day but at night the skies take centre stage. Hire a telescope from one of the National Park visitors centres and head to County Gate, Webbers Post, Holdstone Hill or Wimbleball Lake – all recommend by Ordinance Survey as top spots for taking in the constellations.

    Where to stay

    Kentisbury Grange

    For a slice of rural, quintessentially English luxury within the National Park, head to Kentisbury Grange