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The pleasures of stargazing

Star trails in Ilkley, West Yorkshire Star trails in Ilkley, West Yorkshire © Martin Priestley/Alamy

Astronomy author Bob Mizon on his Campaign for Dark Skies, and why we can no longer take them for granted.

Darkness finally comes. The bats, visible just now against the last glow of dusk, fly unseen. The field, several miles from the nearest town, loses its identity to the night: now, a place of sounds beneath the gathering stars. You have come to find the comet, back again after thousands of years on its path through the ice-worlds of the outer solar system. No great spectacle – a mere faint smudge against the background of myriads of stars, the well-remembered constellations now hard to identify among the crowds of lesser points of light covering the heavens. Binoculars sweep – and at last, there it is, small but distinct, glowing at the edge of the river of light that is the Milky Way, your own galaxy of a hundred billion stars spanning the sky from horizon to horizon. Venus, low in the west, throws your diffuse shadow against the oak behind you, and the only earthly lights visible are occasional glow-worms beckoning in the grass.

If only… In the 1950s , that might have been the kind of adventure that sparked a child’s imagination, and opened the gate to the path that led to a degree in science or a book of poems. For thousands of years, the human race has been able to draw inspiration from its environment. It may well be that the aching desire to know more about the mysterious and unsettling vault of lights above us, and its seemingly inexplicable motions, sharpened our faculties of wonder and mysticism. The night sky made us scientists, dreamers, poets and explorers.

Urbanisation through illumination
However, in the 21st century that dark place, uninvaded by human lights, is hard to find. Many town-dwellers nurture a fond image of the countryside as a haven, an escape from the innovations and urgencies of urban living. Yet most rural spaces in England have gradually, without much complaint, become urbanised in one very obvious way – by the wasted light from poorly directed light fittings in towns and villages. Stargazing beneath the truly dark skies our forebears knew is no longer possible in most of England.
(Below: the 'skyglow' caused by light pollution over Brighton spills into the South Downs National Park. Photo: Darren Baskill)darren-baskill-img-3976-light-pollution-brighton-900x600

Since the 1960s, vast numbers of lights have appeared in both urban and rural parts of the developed world, illuminating roads, car parks, industrial areas, buildings, gardens and driveways. Seen from space by night, our remaining dark areas are hedged in by ever-growing skeins of light. The design of many modern lights is such that their emissions escape sideways and upwards, causing most of the skyglow seen from the deep countryside.

Reversing the tide of light
The Campaign for Dark Skies (CfDS) was founded in 1989 to try to reverse the tide of wasted light and energy we have unleashed upon ourselves, and works with central and local government, industry and environmentalists to try to ensure good lighting practice – the right amount of light, emitted only where and when needed. We work with CPRE, which has made light pollution a prominent part of its agenda, to organise annual national Star Counts. Observers all over the country have submitted reports on the visibility of stars in selected sky areas, creating a national light pollution map. More than half of respondents report seeing fewer than ten stars in the area between the four brightest stars in the constellation of Orion – a tally that indicates severe light pollution. Only one per cent consistently saw enough stars to suggest they had a truly dark sky.

At a CfDS conference on planning, lighting and the environment earlier this year, David Hook of CPRE Norfolk described how unregulated lighting on industrial units in the countryside can spoil the night-time landscape, veil the stars and interfere with local wildlife. Nature needs the night, and there is increasing evidence that species from the humblest to the most complex, including ourselves, cannot do without that regular period of real darkness to thrive.

Armed with a sun-lounger, warm clothing (hat essential!), good binoculars and a copy of Philip’s Dark Skies Map of the UK, it is still possible to venture out and discover the night sky for yourself. Choose a cloudless, moon-free night (the week around new moon is best), and head to a dark site recommended by your local astronomical society, who will know the best places – or see our pick of the country’s best spots for stargazing, right. Let your eyes adapt to the dark, and savour the stars. And if you agree that poor lights offend, and should not rob the human race of the inspiring view of the vault of stars above, nor sully the environment below, ask your council's planners and engineers, your MP and your MEP what steps they are taking save money, energy and the environment by curbing inefficient lighting.

Bob Mizon
Campaign for Dark Skies

Stargazing beneath the truly dark skies our forebears once knew is no longer possible in most of England.

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