A Night at Kielder Observatory
Tucked onto a ridge overlooking the rest of Kielder Forest, the track that led to the astronomical observatory was like every other track I had encountered there: bumpy, and a little traumatising for the shiny white hire car I had picked up at York station, perfect for city breaks and trips to the supermarket, not crepuscular drives into the depths of a 250 mile timber plantation. I had already spent the afternoon at Kielder, attempted a walk along one of the trail routes, tried and failed to see a red squirrel, got lost three times and returned to the visitor centre for a consoling coffee and caramel shortbread. Nevertheless, the forest had captivated me, and I followed the track as it continued further up into the forest hills until, at last, the trees cleared and the observatory appeared in the last rays of the evening light.
It was a square timber building, simple and beautifully designed against the backdrop of the forest, as if it had grown out of the earth itself. First opened in 2008, it was originally built to offer a unique astronomical experience in one of the best dark sky sites in Europe, where low levels of light pollution mean the stars and other cosmic phenomena are bright and easily visible to the naked eye. Tonight I had come to experience the Kielder sky for myself, but as the summer sun had not quite faded to darkness, we were first offered a digital slideshow on the universe and its contents. Afterwards, we stood on the observation platform beneath the stars, sipped hot chocolate, watched Saturn through a telescope, and finally saw these noctilucent clouds. Noctilucent clouds are formed when clouds form so high up that they are able to reflect sunlight back over the horizon after the sun has set, causing this beautiful, shimmering display of clouds that seem to be glowing.
We watched the sky until after midnight and then, feeling the draw of my cosy B&B, I left the astronomy and returned to earth through the dark and winding forest.