on February 2, 2013
I remember the excitement as a child when my father occasionally used to wake my sister and me up pre-dawn to go on one of our expeditions. We were never quite sure whether it was to see spiders webs delineated in fine beads of morning mist or just to watch the sun rise over the river. However, one of my favourite early morning excursions was to go out star gazing while my father pointed out the various star constellations. When our friends booked us all a night at Kielder Observatory at £10 a head, I didn't quite know what to expect. One thing we certainly underestimated was just how far out into the wilds the building was. Obviously to get the best of the night sky, the observatory has to be in a very dark place, and Kielder is estimated to be in the darkest spot in the UK (in the middle of a forest). So it was that we were driving 90 minutes through the night from the outskirts of Newcastle. No fun when the talk finished at the wrong side of 11pm, and when the 30 minutes drive closest to the observatory is through forest along winding roads. Next time we will stay a little closer if we can. During the drive we were grateful for the full moon, and the view across the trees down to Kielder Lake itself looked magical. Unfortunately while the moon made our journey a bit easier it also would prove to be our downfall, as the Northern Lights that we had a vague chance of seeing can't compete with a full moon. Unfortunately during our end of year trip that it then started snowing while the initial presentations were ongoing simply added insult to injury. The people that manage the Observatory explained that they got about one night in 5 where they could see the stars without rain, mist or cloud obscuring their view. Oh, to go and visit the Observatory in Tenerife. We were treated to a lecture on the Observatory and the Northern Lights. The talk was reasonably pitched for everybody although I guess your child would need to something of a science geek if they were to get too much from it. However, the technical bits are interspersed with pretty time lapse displays of the northern lights and a few bad jokes from the presenter. While I'm post graduate educated, science and physics in particular is a weak spot, so the technical niceties of how a telescope worked lost me a little, although I got the gist.Unfortunately, while we got to look at the microscopes they didn't show us anything as by then it was pouring down with rain and even the moon was hidden from view. This gave us chance for another fascinating lecture about how big the cosmos is and what the Hubble telescope have taught us. There was also a bit of a scary piece about solar flares and how in 1859 they caused major disruption to the then telegraph system, and what it might do if (no in fact the word is "when") we got another one in the modern world. Scary indeed.We also learnt about the history of Kielder Observatory and how it had been built 4 years ago largely though the eco architecture of the wooden building. They are however already hoping to refurbish the telescopes, and perhaps even to extend the building. Towards the end of the evening we were rewarded with mugs of hot chocolate, although to be fair with the live fire stove in the corner of the room it was not too cold despite the driving snow outside. Our fascinating 3 hours plus cost £10 per person, and we left before they got into some more technical geeky discussion. It was well past 11pm and with another 90 minute drive back to our hotel we thought we would quit while we were still awake. The Kielder Observatory is open most evenings for presentations and talks of one kind or another, but pre-booking is essential as they don't just accept people arriving on the off chance. It is also an out of the way place so it's not really an ideal drive for a whim.
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