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Kielder Spring Starcamp, March 2013

Like most amateur astronomers, I have a list of “astronomical ambitions”. I want to see a very bright, naked eye comet (COME ON ISON!!!!), I want to see a supernova, and I want to be around when the first person sets foot on Mars, and when someone, somewhere, or something, discovers extraterrestrial life. Admittedly they’re all at the “Ha! You’ll be lucky!” end of the spectrum, but also on that list was the rather less ambitious ambition ofย  “Go to a starcamp”. I’ve heard and read and been told about them for ages, for literally years, and always thought “That sounds really good! I’ll have to get to one of those sometime…!” But sometime never came, other stuff always got in the way, you know what it’s like. Life, huh?

Well, last weekend I actually did it! With two fellow Eddington AS members, our friends Carol and Simon, Stella and I went up to the Kielder Spring Starcamp. And did it live up to expectations?

Oh yes…!

We arrived mid-afternoon on the Friday, after driving north from Newcastle, and every mile we travelled the weather got worse. By the time we reached the famous Kielder Reservoir the sky was leaden grey and icy mizzly rain was coming down. We stopped by the reservoir to take in the view…

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Then headed further north, along and around the reservoir, to the campsite. When we pulled into the car park we were greeted very warmly by one of the organisers and shown to our pitch. It was definitely a good decision to have “gone electric” by paying for a hook up to the power, because even by then it was perishingly cold, and we knew as we put the tent up – flapping about in the growing wind and icy rain – that we would be needing both of the heaters we had brought. Soon after we started setting up our friends arrived, and there was room tyo pitch their tent next to ours, so by sunset we had established the Eddington Astronomical Society “Base Camp” for the 2013 Kielder Spring Starcamp..!

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Soon our tent was all set up, cosy and snug and warm. Well, it had to be, as we’d brought company…

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Yes, we took our rabbit with us. Well, she’s called “Cassiopeia”, what were we supposed to do? Leave her at home and have her miss all the fun? ๐Ÿ™‚

After setting up it was time to get out and explore…

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Kielder Campsite is long, with trees on both sides, and when we got there there were already quite a few amateur astronomers and event organisers milling about, most, it has to be said, looking up at the sky with expressions on their faces ranging from disappointment to disgust and hatred. The forecast was for absolute cloud that night, and probably the next as well, with a *CHANCE* of a clearer sky on Sunday night, the last night of the starcamp. Lots of fingers were being crossed! So we milled about a little, talked to some of the people there, and everyone was really friendly, more than happy to welcome us to the event, ask where we’d come from, ask about our Society, etc, and we were made to feel very welcome, which was something of a relief, because I had been a little worried that a starcamp might be a bit like one of those saloons you see in Westerns, where newcomers walk in and everything stops and all eyes turn towards the strangers. But no, nothing like that at all, we were welcomed with open arms, and everyone was glad we were there!

So, with no stars to see, and no prospect of any stars to see later, we just went to look around the site, and down the bottom end, past the Anglers pub, at the foot of the hill, we found the Minotaur Maze..!

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But what do you do when you’re at a Starcamp and there are no stars to see? Well, you wander around the Starcamp, taking in the view, meeting and talking to people, and looking at poor telescopes huddled under tarpaulins and sheets, starved of starlight and looking very sad indeed…

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Then you retire to your tent early, and, as the rain starts to spatter against the canvas, turn in, get warm under your quilts and inside your sleeping bags, and look forward to the next day, when there are talks to go to and vendors to go and buy things from..!

After a yummy tent-cooked breakfast the next morning we headed up to the Castle, where a programme of illustrated talks had been arranged, with a roomful of telescope and astronomy equipment retailers available to sell you anything and everything from an eyepiece or filter to a full size telescope. I succumbed and bought a tripod for my small refractor, and a yellow eyepiece filter which I wanted to use on Comet PANSTARRS (having read on a forum how yellow filters are good for bringing out detail in the tails of comets…).

The talks, four of them, were very good and the room was full to the sides. We heard about telescope building from Roo Powell, and Rob Ince told everyone about the amazing things being done at the Galloway Observatory too. Gary Fildes who runs the Kielder Observatory gave a fascinating and very personal talk, and he really came across as a force of Nature, tremendously driven and focussed and absolutely one million percent determined to make Kielder a world class facility and something of a Mecca for amateur astronomers. he has grand plans for the observatory – a telescope for disabled people to use, a planetarium, an astronomy “village”, and I have no doubt whatsoever he’ll make them all happen…

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I wouldn’t like to try standing in Gary’s way when he’s trying to get something done!

The final talk was all about the hunt for exoplanets, and was given by Dr Sue Bowler from Leeds University.

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It was a fascinating talk, a very professional presentation, and I’m going to be cheeky and email Dr Bowler and ask if she’s be willing to travel up to Kendal to give the talk to my astronomy society!

With the talks done it was time to wander around the vendors’ stalls one last time, then we headed back down to our tents. In our absence the sky had darkened and rain was in the air again, and prospects for any stargazing looked bleak, so we decided to come back up to the Castle after freshening up and grab a bite to eat at the Duke’s Pantry cafe there. Then back down the hill, and into the Anglers pub for a couple of drinks before retreating back into our tents as the snow started to fall. On the way we actually caught glimpses of several stars, but the cloud soon swallowed them up again, and that was that. I did wonder if they were the only stars we were going to see…

The next morning, Sunday, we woke up to this view…

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Which was fun! Overnight a light dusting of snow had covered the campsite, but look! Blue sky! Surely a sign of good things to come later!! I headed down to the toilet block, to go and sit in The Warm Room for a while and check my emails and Twitter on their new broadband connection there, and while I was there the snow started to fall a lot more heavily, and by the time I got back to our tent it looked like this…

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Soon the snow was falling thick and fast, and we retreated into our tents, fired up the heaters, and just watched the tent ceiling grow darker and darker and darker as snow settled on it… When I looked outside again I saw this…

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Stargazing that evening didn’t seem very likely! And as the hours passed, more and more snow fell, on and off, flurry following flurry with half hours of sunny blue sky inbetween… Carol was loving the snow, as you can see…!

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Mid-afternoon we were invited to go for a walk with some of our fellow would-be stargazers, so we wrapped up as warmly as we could and headed for Scotland! We nearly reached the border, but it started to snow heavily again so we turned back, but it was a lovely walk through some spectacular scenery…

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But by this time the snow still wasn’t *that* heavy, and the campsite still looked very pretty, and as we headed back up the hill to the Duke’s Pantry for dinner, to meet some of our fellow Starcamp attendees there, it really was looking very poor. By this point most people had just gone back home, either because they were scheduled to or just because they’d lost heart and had given up. Only a few hardcore optimists were left, and the campsite had a very empty feel to it. But those of us who were left were determined to make the best of it, and there was a real feeling of astronomical stiff upper lip! In the Dukes everyone chatted very happily over dinner, swapping stories – some of them horror stories – about mounts, camera trackers and telescopes, and inbetween courses I (ever the optimist!) sneaked out to see if there was any sign of Comet PANSTARRS through the trees. There wasn’t. And the final time I tried I went out to find really heavy snow falling, great thick, fat flakes of it, and it looked like we were doomed to see no stars at all…

But…

As we walked down from the castle stars started to pop out above us, more and more of them, and by the time we were down on the campsite field again the sky was beautifully, magically clear, a vivid shade of deep, dark grey-blue studded with stars. Jupiter! Sirius! Orion! They were all there! YES! We were going to see stuff at our Starcamp!!

With our boots and wellies crunching and crumping through the snow we scattered to our tents to set up our gear and do some observing. Being just a humble 4.5″ GoTo – with no GoTo actually fitted to it! – I was able to set up my telescope and start looking at things before everyone else had even started putting theirs together, and soon I had the Orion Nebula in my eyepiece. It was… unbelievable. The grey-green wisps and billows of nebulosity filled the eyepiece, actually overflowed it, and I could hardly tear my eyes away from it.

As the sky grew darker and darker it started to literally fill with stars, and I grasped for the first time what it’s like to be under a truly dark, light pollution free sky – and reealised too just how badly light polluted my own sky is. By ten pm I was feeling a little bewildered, there were just so many stars above and around me. The constellations – as I’d been warned they would – began to be hard to recognise, as their outlying, fainter stars blazed brightly. Orion was a revelation, his raised shield and club suddenly clearly visible, and the faint stars which make up the legs and head of Ursa Major were obvious too. I never see those from Kendal, never…

I started taking photos, just of anything and everything really, panning the camera around to all directions, just making sure I captured something of the sky, and had some memories recorded on my memory card as well as lodged in my brain. In the bitter, bitter, biting cold, with the ground covered in snow, I stood there grinning like an idiot, photographing Orion… Leo… Cassiopeia and Perseus… the Andromeda Galaxy… and more. A couple of times other Starcamp attendees wandered past to check we were okay, and to join with us in delighting in the starlight. At one point I called Carol over to look at The Crab Nebula in my telescope eyepiece, marvelling at my best ever view of it. Ot looked like a misty grey, smudged thumbprint in the eyepiece. The Pleiades were a pocketful of sapphires shining on black velvet, and the Double Cluster looked like two piles of salt spilled on a black tabletop…

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And M31… M31 was a long, oval smear of yellowish-grey light in my telescope. It was HUGE in binoculars, just huge. A truly magical view…

Carol and I took some time to go for a wander around the campsite, seeing what everyone else was up to. One poor guy was ready to throw his telescope into the river, as it had suffered some kind of mechanical failure just as the sky had cleared, and he could do nothing with it. Another of our fellow stargazers was happily imaging the Heart Nebula, and yet another was using some of his very impressive collection of cameras and lenses to take astrophotos… And all the time, above and around us, a sky filled to overflowing with stars. Just wonderful.

Suddenly those stars started to go out – a big snowstorm was approaching from the NE, and soon we were in the middle of a blizzard! Covers were quicklly thrown on scopes and cameras before we fled back inside… and boy, did the snow come down. All through the night one mini-blizzard followed another, it was so frustrating! To head out and see stars, and to grab half an hour under them, only to be forced back inside again when another blizzard rolled in like a snowy tsunami was exciting but draining, and by midnight I’d had enough and zipped up the tent flap for the final time, surrendering the night, and the stars of Kielder to then snow. But I didn’t mind, I didn’t feel cheated. We’d gone up there to see stars, and we’d seen them, thousands and thousands of them, and as the tent roof started to sag under the weightof the falling snow I drifted off to sleep, with the whirring of the fan heater and the orange glow of the halogen heater turning our tent into a little sauna…

Next morning I woke up and could tell right away that there had been heavy snowfall overnight. The air was deathly still, and I could see snow and ice on the tent’s sides and roof, silhouetted against the fabric. Shivering I pulled on my wellies, zipped open the tent flap – and stepped out into Narnia…

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Snow was piled up against the side of the tent, and our Base Camp looked like it had been set up at the foot of Everest rather than in a forest in Northumberland! Sensing great photos were there for the taking I headed out into the morning…

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Yes, those are icicles hanging off our tent..! I later found out it had fallen to minus nine degrees overnight, with wind chill making it feel more like minus twelve..!

Stella and I had decided to treat ourselves to a cooked breakfast up at the Castle before leaving, and the walk through the campsite and up to the castle was just spectacular…

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(Thanks to Carol for taking that picture of us!)

Eventually it was time to pack up, so after a few last pictures…

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…we reluctantly packed up our tents and the Eddington AS Kielder Spring Starcamp Base Camp was no more…

gone

๐Ÿ˜ฆ

So, that was that… an ambition achieved, one of my longest standing To Do items ticked off. Was going to a Starcamp everything it’s cracked up to be? Absolutely. We met some brilliant, very friendly people, who welcomed us into the Starcamp community from the very start. We listened to some fascinating talks, and met some very interesting vendors too. We saw telescopes of different shapes and sizes, and chatted with their knowledgeable and enthusiastic owners, who were more than happy to share their experiences and advice. And although we only saw stars on one night out of the three we were there, when the sky did clear it was – well, stunning is an over-used word but it’s the only one that fits to be honest. To be at a truly dark site, under a truly dark sky, absolutely strewn with stars… to see stars spattered from horizon to horizon, like white paint flicked off a paint brush onto black card… to see the constellations as they truly are, and not the edited, watered down, half-arsed versions we get from our towns and cities… well, it was humbling, exciting, bewildering, and so much more. It made me realise why I fell in love with astronomy in the first place, and made me determined to go to more Starcamps to have that experience again. I can’ wait.

Should YOU go to a Starcamp? Yes. Absolutely. Find one near you as soon as you’ve finished reading this post, and book a place/places on it. You won’t regret it, in fact you’ll kick yourself that you didn’t do it years ago, like I did.

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One Response

  1. Wow that Orion looks incredible! And you don’t have to Photoshop out the sky glow when you get home ๐Ÿ˜€ Time I had a go at this!

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