Seeing stars: a night-time visit to Exmoor International Dark Sky Reserve

Hilary Bradt goes stargazing with expert Seb Jay.

Exmoor is rightly proud of being Europe’s first such reserve. It has taken a combined effort to achieve this, with the two county councils and Exmoor land owners working together to reduce light pollution.

We can all look up on a moonless night at the thousands of stars visible to the naked eye and say ‘Wow!’ but, like all things in the natural world, you need an expert to show you what you’re seeing and explain its significance, and you need a telescope.

Blagdon Cross Startrails Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve England UK by Hilary Bradt
Blagdon Cross Startrails © Exmoor National Park

I achieved both on a wonderfully clear (and cold!) night in September when I went to West Withy Farm which has become the centre for stargazing in southern Exmoor. Seb Jay, Mr Telescope himself, was there with his Dobsonian reflector telescope and his infinite knowledge of infinity. My own knowledge was limited to recognising the Plough, or Big Dipper, and that was about it. The first eureka moment was identifying the North Star and then the nearby constellation of Cassiopeia. It helps when stars form recognisable patterns (such as a saucepan or dipper for the Plough and a W for Cassiopeia). I shall remember those and they’re visible to the naked eye.

Seb explained that Saturn had just set below the southwestern horizon, which was a shame because its rings definitely have the wow factor, but we were soon transported a brain-numbing distance to two galaxies called Messier 81 and Messier 82, which Seb told me were 11.8 million light years away. In comparison the Andromeda galaxy was a baby at 2½ million light years. Remember that light travels at close to 200,000 miles per second, and do the maths. If distance wasn’t enough to cause brain shut-down, the oldest cluster of stars we looked at was the Hercules globular cluster, which is a whopping 12.7 billion years old.

Exmoor International Dark Sky Reserve England UK by Exmoor National Park
Capturing the beauty of the International Dark Sky Reserve © Exmoor National Park

Is there any other word but mindboggling? Here’s the huge sweep of Exmoor sky, and Seb can not only identify but give the vital statistics of everything up there! I asked him how he got into it. ‘I grew up in North Wales which was pretty dark, so when Mum heard that there was to be a total eclipse of the moon she let me stay up late to see it. We looked at it through binoculars – and I was hooked! I bought a cheap telescope and a wobbly tripod and saw Saturn. Wow!

That led to a better telescope, while I was still a teenager, and my doing careful drawings of what I saw so I could learn about it.’ Seb studied geology at university, and in 2009 decided to set up his own star-related business which eventually led him to become one of the few companies in England to hire out telescopes – and knowledge.

I know I’ll only retain a tiny proportion of what I was told that night, but I will look at the night sky with a new appreciation and a little bit more understanding. It’s a start. Seb Jay’s Exmoor Dark Skies: Our Window into a Universe of Fragile Starlight, published in 2014, is the definitive book for Exmoor stargazers.


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