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Eddington Astronomical Society’s Grand Day Out to Jodrell Bank…

Yesterday some of the members of the Eddington Astronomical Society of kendal went on a long overdue “Grand Day Out”! Split between a van – sorry, “band wagon” :-) – and a car, ten of us headed south from Kendal to the world famous radio telescope at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire. And a cracking day it was too: the weather was kind to us, the company was great, and the telescope wasn’t pointing skywards, as it is sometimes, so we had a fantastic view of its huge dish.

After arriving we delayed briefly our exploration of the observatory’s “attractions” to grab some food after the long drive. While some of our group headed for the visitor centre cafe, the rest of us braved the rather cool afternoon to sit outside in the open air, at one of the sets of tables and benches scattered around the attractive grounds… With the great dish of the Lovell telescope behind us, it was a pretty fine place for a picnic… :-)

Then, having munched our sarnies, crunched our Scampi Fries and drank our coffees and Cokes, it was time to head off and explore! The Great Dish awaited!

Now, I’ve been to Jodrell Bank a few times now, but it still makes me gasp with surprise and delight when I see the radio telescope. It’s just… huge. It’s so big it’s hard to put it into words, the feeling you get when you see it. This great smooth-sided bowl looms ahead of you, filling a third of the sky, supported and surrounded by a mass of grey metal girders, beams and struts. And then, ridiculously, impossibly, it starts to move! Gears screech, metal grinds, wheels turn, and the whole thing, the whole damned thing starts to pivot around, lining up with Something new out there in the universe. There should be a deep, heaving groan when it comes to a halt, that would be very fitting – and that’s how they’d show it in a film, I’m sure – but there isn’t. It just… stops. The noises stop too. All is silent again. And the Lovell Telescope is doing science again, drinking in radio waves from the green, grassy heart of the Cheshire countryside. Quite amazing.

So, we wandered around for a while, just enjoying the view, taking lots of pictures of course. Here are a few of mine…

Then we went inside to take a look at the attractions offered by the visitor centre’s “Space Pavilion”.

I have to be honest here – and I’m not having a go at the observatory, I just need to report what I found and how I felt about it, ok? And I’m speaking here purely as an individual, as a paying customer/visitor, NOT on behalf of the Eddington AS.

It might be a budget thing, it might be a management problem, I don’t know, but I’m afraid I found the contents of the Space Pavilion quite uninspiring, and a poor imitation of the Jodrell Bank attractions of the past. Really, you’re done looking around the Pavilion in ten, maybe fifteen minutes, unless you are willing to sit through all the various films on offer. I’ll come back to them. The “hands on” parts of the Pavilion are ok… but there’s too much reliance on just looking at things on the wall – and although my mate Carol clearly enjoyed listening to the headphones dangling from the walls…

…I’m not a huge fan, I think that isolates people and puts other people off. Having said that, the infra red camera and screen are brilliant fun, loved them… here’s a pic of Stella and I taken off the screen…

…but one whole wall is taken up with a big map of the world and small pictures of the various telescopes scattered around it. It’s meant to highlight the international nature of astronomy, I know, but most people who were there when I was there gave it a curious glance as they passed on their way to look for the loo, and that was it.

Those films, yes… The films being shown inside the “Film Pod” (I think it was called) are very interesting – they recount the history of the telescope, from construction to the present day- but shown in a long narrow room, so the screen is hard to see if there are more than a few people in there; it’s a matter of trying to find a chink of light between the heads of the people in front of you…

Then, in another, circular side room, there’s a rolling presentation of short films produced by the European Space Agency, which – like most ESA Outreach material – are interesting, and informative, and very well produced, but they’re shown on a small screen, in a room that has nothing covering its huge circular skylight s it’s like broad daylight in there, meaning they were hard to see. It just struck me as a rather lazy – and cheap – way of putting across information. If the room had been darkened, and the screen bigger, it would have been much better. And really, it didn’t help that there were cardboard boxes scattered over the back tables, making the room look like it was half film room/half cupboard. Disappointing.

But I forgave that, because as I sat there, shielding my eyes from the light pouring in from above, I was looking forward to going around the corner to the small 3D movie theatre which was there the last time members of the EAS visited Jodrell Bank. That was one of the highlights of our trip! Only a small room, admittedly, big enough for maybe twenty, thirty people, but the 3D show was GREAT, a thrilling trip around the Sun, flying low over it, through prominences and through the corona… I was *so* looking forward to seeing that again..!

It’s gone.

Where the 3D movie room used to be there’s now just a big room full of chairs, I guess for school groups to sit in. Which is very valuable and useful from an educational outreach point of view, but what a shame it cost the 3D movie theatre.

Not going to mince my words here: whoever made the decision to take that 3D movie theatre out of the Space Pavilion is an idiot. An *idiot*. I don’t know why it was removed, but without Jodrell Bank’s own famous planetarium (that was ripped out long ago, sadly, and I don’t think there are any plans to put one back, which is a great shame) it was, at least, a chance for visitors, young and old, to get some sense of the amazing stuff “out there” and, more than anything, a chance to see something actually *moving*, because almost all of the other attractions there are static. No, I was really gutted about that 3D movie theatre being taken out. If it was a budget problem, well, ok, times are hard, but I can’t help thinking that some of the money from the cafe/restaurant could be used there (at £8 plus for a burger and chips there’s money flowing into there, definitely). And if it was a Management decision, based on what they thought visitors might want to see, well, congratulations, good job, you numptie.

But I don’t want this to sound completely negative! Jodrell Bank is still very definitely a great place to visit. It is drenched in history, and offers people a chance to visit a working scientific instrument and get a sense of what modern astronomy is all about. And yes, there is stuff for old and young to do, just – I feel personally – not as much as there could, and indeed should be. Someone please give them some more money so they can add to what’s there.

I also need to point out how good the lone “guide” inside the Pavilion during our visit was. I never got his name, (edit: I’ve since been told, by someone on Twitter, that it was “Eric”) but he was very enthusiastic and welcoming, made the effort to talk to everyone, and answer questions, etc, a real asset to the place. And the kids running around the Pavilion were enjoying some of the things in there – the biggest hit was definitely the “black hole simulator”, being demonstrated here by Stella…

Anyway, back outside, into the fresh air, and a chance to enjoy the *real* Jodrell Bank – a big, big, big radio telescope, set in beautiful surroundings. Anyone going to Jodrell Bank today should go expecting to spend most of their time outside – walking along the paths that meander through the grounds, seeing the beautiful telescope from all sides, just to appreciate its size, and having fun with the acoustic dishes that stand in the radio telescope’s shadow – rather than spending a lot of time indoors looking at “stuff”…

So, yes, we had a great day out. Jodrell Bank is definitely worth a visit, if only to stand beneath the enormous telescope and marvel at its size and the engineering achievement. Everyone in our group enjoyed our visit, and we’ll definitely go again. But, being perfectly honest, it does need more than it’s offering visitors right now. Hopefully they’ll find some money from somewhere to boost the attractions in the Space Pavilion, or, even better, to build a planetarium there again. That would just about make Jodrell Bank perfect.

Update: I’ve written an astropoem about the visit, which you can find here:

http://astropoetry.wordpress.com/2012/04/23/jodrell-bank

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