Dark Skies Festival 2018 North Yorkshire & Hidden Horizons Deep Sky Exploring at Dalby Forest

I've always loved looking at the stars. Living in the city means I don't get to see more than one or two if I'm lucky due to the high levels of light pollution. Generally it's planes and helicopters that glow in the night sky over Leeds yet it doesn't stop me from gazing hopefully upwards. I've read several books on astronomy, am utterly obsessed with Stargazing Live and would love to get a telescope of my own as I find it fascinating.  So I was delighted to be asked to write about the Dark Skies Festival 2018 in North Yorkshire as well as attending a  stargazing event that was taking place in the beautiful location of Dalby Forest. 

In February 2018, the Dark Skies Festival in North Yorkshire returns for its third year. Jointly organised by the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors National Park Authorities, the event has been extended from nine days to seventeen as it has proved so popular with visitors. Both the Dales and the Moors have some of the darkest skies in England and it is possible to see over 2,000 stars on a clear night as well as the Milky Way, meteor showers and planets. On the coast looking over the North Sea there are stunning views of the Northern Lights to enjoy too. 

Rievaulx Abbey cRussell_Norman NYMNP.jpg

During the run of the festival there are over 50 events run by local astronomy clubs and other organisations.  From a night run around Dalby Forest,  a mountain bike ride in the dark on Sutton Bank, a celestial safari in the grounds of Bolton Castle near Leyburn whilst sipping mulled cider to zipping through the treetops in total darkness under the stars with Go Ape at Dalby Forest, there  is something for everyone. Star gazing events will run from the Dark Skies Discovery sites as well as an outdoor deckchair cinema, a ghost walk around Robin Hood's Bay and night vision walks with forest rangers. Kids are well catered for with forest schools running night time forays in Freeholders Wood near Aysgarth where they will learn woodland skills and have dinner around the campfire. There will be lots of crafty events too, building rockets, telescopes and planet lanterns. The festival runs from 9th to 25th February 2018 and you can find out more on the Dark Skies Festival site here. We'll definitely be heading to one or two events as they sound amazing. 

One of the organisations involved in the Dark Skies Festival are Hidden Horizons based in Scarborough. Throughout the summer they lead events in fossil hunting, dinosaur footprint walks and rock pooling all over the North Yorkshire Coast. From September they run several events a month  stargazing at Dalby Forest.  As my husband was working, I asked my good friend and her daughter Lucy to come along for the event. So on Saturday night we drove through the pitch black forest to reach the Visitors Centre with the thermometer on the car reading zero degrees. We were over the moon (terrible pun, sorry) to have almost clear skies and could already see that there were hundreds of stars to view. 

At 7pm we were welcomed by Will from Hidden Horizons and led down to a courtyard where their large telescope was  set up.  We were here to do some deep sky stargazing - looking at objects that are far away from Earth within our Milky Way galaxy and beyond.  To make sure you get plenty of time to look through the telescope the events are kept to just a small number of people and ours had a nice mix of kids and adults. It's perfect for beginners as everything is explained in layman's terms too. 

Andy was our guide to the galaxy and started by highlighting different stars with his laser pointer. We began by looking at the Plough found in the constellation of Ursa Major (the Great Bear) and from there we were shown how to find the North Star, Polaris.  Moving on we looked at the Summer Triangle - a pattern of stars that make up an imaginary triangle from the three brightest stars from three different constellations - Aquila, Cygnus and Lyra. 

Using the telescope, we climbed up the little ladder one by one and gazed further into deep space. Firstly we were shown the planet Uranus, visible as a bright blue colour due to the methane gas in it's atmosphere.  We were impressed at the Ring Nebula in the constellation of Lyra which Andy described as looking like a 'polo mint' and it was astonishing looking through the lens and being able to see thousands of stars that are not visible to the naked eye. We viewed the star cluster, Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters and even another galaxy - Andromeda, the nearest major galaxy to the Milky Way. My friend's daughter Lucy was completely engaged and noticed something moving across the sky as she looked in the telescope. Andy explained that she was looking at satellites moving across the sky. Lucy came up with brilliant questions for Andy too asking him about what shape stars were and could there be life on other planets. We also learned that stars can be different colours depending on it's temperature - the hotter the star, the bluer the colour and the colder the star, the more orangey red it appears. He told us to remember it as the opposite of the taps in your sink. Lots of people had questions and he answered them all enthusiastically as it was clearly obvious he is passionate about the subject.

Although it was really cold and we'd wrapped up well, Hidden Horizons make sure you get the chance to warm up and Will supplied us with mugs of hot chocolate and toasted marshmallows on the glowing fire pit. It was a really nice touch for the kids and provided some much needed heat for my fingers too (I stupidly forgot my gloves). Burnt marshmallows on a campfire taste way better than ordinary ones don't they?

Hidden Horizons also bring along their immersive star dome to sit inside and view the night sky on film. We climbed into the dome, all sat down in a circle with our backs to one another and then watched the planets pass over our heads in great detail. It was a little like a virtual reality experience and at times I felt I was flying across the galaxy. We looked at several other objects through the telescope but stopped gazing at the stars about 9pm as we were completely freezing (although others were more hardcore and stayed a little longer) and we left with very rosy cheeks and bright red noses and headed back to our little cottage in Thornton-le-Dale to get warm in front of the wood burning stove. We'd had a totally brilliant night that was both fun and inspiring.    

Hidden Horizons are running lots of stargazing events over the next few months including several during the Dark Skies Festival. I think an evening with them would make the perfect Christmas present  as experiences are a brilliant gift but be quick as they sell out fast. You can see the list of events here or follow them on Facebook here. They also have a blog which you can check out here. 

Tips for visiting - take a torch as you will need it to walk to and from the car park. Wrap up warm - extra socks required! Not only did I forget my gloves but we also forgot our binoculars too which would have been useful. Woolly hats are vital. If you are going to try to take photographs you cannot use flash, it will prevent everyone from being able to see the stars properly.

We stayed in the North York Moors for the weekend and I'll write more on that in my next couple of posts but when I asked Lucy about what her favourite part of the weekend was she said it was the Stargazing night. She was reading her book on the stars all the way home to Leeds and was excited that she had actually seen them through the telescope. I think she's asking Santa for a telescope too!  

Thanks to Dark Skies Festival North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales National Parks for inviting us to attend this event and also to Hidden Horizons for such a great and inspiring evening. 

* I'd love to be able to take the credit for the image of the night sky in the top left of this post but I can't. Trying to photograph the night sky is extremely difficult. So this image is courtesy of Unsplash and is by Wil Stewart but it reminds me of looking at the starry sky over the treetops at Dalby. I tried to take photographs and took my tripod knowing that I'd have to have a really long shutter speed, but my camera said no, not going to happen and it refused to focus on the black sky. It's definitely something that is going to take a lot of practice and I'm hoping to learn more about astrophotography in the future. The top right image and the feature image of Rievaulx Abbey are both courtesy of the North York Moors.