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Starfest Memories…

I have a few regrets as an amateur astronomer. One is that I didn’t get to see Comet West blazing in the sky in 1976. It was a real beauty by all accounts, far better than Hale-Bopp or any of the other comets we’ve had recently. Because of the poor performance of the now infamous Comet Kohoutek two years earlier – which promised the world but didn’t deliver – Comet West wasn’t promoted much to the general public by astronomers so only astronomers “in the know” got to see it and enjoy it.ย  As an eleven year old I definitely wasn’t “in the know”, so even though I was “into” astronomy then, in a big way, and would have happily got up early to see it, I didn’t have a clue it was doing its thing. (That’s one reason why I can’t get my head around the sugestion from some comet “experts” that we should be keeping quieter about Comet ISON – do they WANT non-astronomers to miss it? Do they want it all for themselves perhaps?

Another regret is not being just a *little* bit older when Apollo 11 flew. I wasn’t quite five, so although I have fuzzy memories of watching it on TV, I’m not sure if they’re memories of watiching the landing as it happened, or of watching repeats of it on TV when I was a little older, and that bugs the hell out of me.

Another regret is that I never got off my backside and went to watch a shuttle launch. My own daft fault – that and, of course, not having the money to do it, but you can always find a way can’t you. I kick myself regularly about that.

Now I have a new regret – that I didn’t start going to “star camps” earlier. I was told by lots of people how good they are, how much fun they are, how welcoming and friendly they are, but that voice in the back of my mind kept telling me “No, no, they’re lying, you’ll be out of place there, they’re all deadly serious people, experts, imagers and observers with huge telescopes. If you go it’ll be like when someone walks into a bar in a Western and everything goes quiet and everyone turns to face you, knowing you’re not from there and have no right to be there…” so I held off. I’m quite timid that way, to be honest.

Then last March Stella and I went to the Kielder Spring Starcamp and that voice in the back of my mind was silenced. Yes, it was freezing cold. Yes, our tent was almost buried beneath 5″ of snow, but everyone else had been right, and I had been wrong. From literally the very first moment we pulled onto the muddy field, on that grey, dingy day, we were welcomed with enthusistic open arms by everyone there, and made to feel part of the Kielder – and starcamp – family. After several days of talks, chatting to other astronomers and looking through other telescopes we were hooked, converted, assimiliated, whatever you want to call it, and we left determined to not just go back to Kielder in November (we’re booked) but to go to other starcamps too.

And so last Thursday Stella and I rolled onto a field in the heart of Dalby Forest, North Yorkshire (near Scarborough) for the 3 day “Starfest” run by the Scarborough and Rydale Astronomical Society, and what a fantastic, fantastic time we had. That’s it, we’re officially Starcampers now. That voice has been silenced forever.

The “Starfest” prides itself on being the “friendly” starcamp. Not that the others aren’t, of course, but I think the Starfesters make a special effort to make it a family event, and make sure there is something for everyone, whatever their age or level of astronomical experience. We were welcomed by Mell and her family upon arrival, and soon had greeted other members of the Eddington Astronomical Society who had also come to the Starfest. Pitching up alongside them, and keeping a space next to us, meant we had an Eddington Street” to call our home for the event, which was really good.

E street

With our tent set up – magnificent work by Stella with the gazebo, which gave us so much more room and flexibility –


…and with our rabbit (not shown) and cat (shown) settled in and settled down (they were soon to become big celebrities on the campsite!)…

s chi

…we wandered off to explore, and found quite a few telescopes set up already. The forecast wasn’t too promising for that first night, so the telescopes were mostly under cover, but everyone had their fingers crossed; optimism is one of the main requirements for going to a starcamp…

…and of course that night the sky was cloudy, so we didn’t get to see anything. But the next morning dawned bright and sunny, and hopes were high for some serious stargazing after dark that night. Through the day more and more mobile homes arrived and more and more cars trundled onto the field, some towing caravans, some – like ours – packed to the roof with camping gear, and by teatime a veritable tent town had set up in the middle of Dalby Forest (click to enlarge)…


Friday night marked the start of the Starfest proper, and after a “Meet and Greet” session and a Hog Roast and Wine supper, and catching up with some old friends from the Border Astronomical Society, it was time to head into the big marquee for the first of the Starfest’s 3 speakers to give a talk – me! I think my talk on “Mars Rovers” went down well, I certainly got lots of kind comments afterwards, so I hope they’ll ask me back to give another talk next year.

Then out of the marquee to see what the sky was doing…

Oh look at that…

fri night

A beautifully clear sky, with just a few clumps of cloud here and there! LIke Spitfire pilots racing to their planes, everyone dashed back to their tents and camper vans to ready their telescopes, and begin a night of wonderful stargazing…

I couldn’t believe the view from the forest. The stars were just beautifully bright and clear, and it made me realise how much I’ve been kidding myself about Kendal not being too bad for light pollution. Sorry, but when you stand outside your tent and see the Milky Way rearing up behind it like this, you can’t ever think of your own sky as “dark” again…

m way tent

Until around 3am the next morning I enjoyed a remarkable view of the starry sky. There was so much to see, just wandering around the field looking through one scope after another was a joy, everyone happy to step away from their eyepiece to let me “have a look”. Old favourites like M31, M13 and others were shown to me in new and literally breathtaking detail, and it was almost giddying to see new objects too. Like meeting the night sky for the first time.

But it was the Milky Way which impressed me the most. It was a vapour trail as thick as my arm, cutting the sky in half, and scanning along it with binoculars and then my small refractor revealed countless millions of stars, dense as salt grains on black cloth, just magical… And on my long exposure photos, the Milky Way’s dark dust lanes and rifts stood out more clearly than I’ve ever seen before. I took photos that night I never dared to imagine I would be able to take unless I headed south to Australia and stood in the Outback, in the shadow of Uluru. I’ll never forget seeing the Milky Way from the heart of Dalby Forest.

m way 1

mw 2

Saturday was a day to leave the campsite and go exploring, in search of gifts, things to read, and of course food! Two guest speakers were scheduled for Saturday night (one had originally been scheduled for the afternoon but the inside of the marquee was so bright in the sunshine that the screen was completely awash with light, so it was postponed), so before then the citizens of Eddington Street came together for a communal meal and had a fine old time, before heading down to the marquee to listen to a talk by Gary Poyner on “Variable Stars” and then Gary Fildes (Kielder Observatory) talking about images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Gary is, literally, a force of Nature, and his talk was almost evangelical in tone in places, illustrating the passion he has for astronomy and Outreach. He’s a very inspiring person, and his talk was – to use one of his own favourite words – phenomenal… (And well done Gary for talking over the kids who were trying their best to disrupt your talk with thrown bottles and melodramatic yawns, you handled them very diplomatically!)

But what about the sky? Were we going to get some more stargazing in? Sadly not, not for any great length of time anyway. It was partly cloudy after the talks finished, and the sky never really cleared, but gaps in the cloud did allow us to see a wonderful view of the space station as it slid across the sky, so bright it was even visible THROUGH the cloud… I turned in early, because there wasn’t much to see, and after a very late night the night before I was quite glad of it to be honest… ๐Ÿ™‚

Sunday, the last full day of the Starfest, and the much anticipated “Rocket Building Contest” which is aimed at kids but clearly gets hijacked by their parents and adult groups and becomes VERY competitive! Essentially, Coke bottles are decorated to look like rockets, 1/3 filled with water, and then pressurised by a pump until they are launched into the sky with a great whoosh and spray of water and cheers and whoops from a watching crowd. It was great fun, and although it didn’t win the Eddington entry – “Voyager” – had a very successful flight, and its flight team were justifiably delighted!

voyager team

Below – the winning rocket streaks skywards…


…and the winning team celebrate…


With the rocket contest over there was just time to head out exploring the area again, and wolf down a lovely All You Can Eat Indian buffet in Pickering, before heading back down to the marquee one final time for the traditional “Astromind” quiz, which is held every year and is one of the highlights of the Starfest. Wanting to join in with the spirit of things, and always game for a laugh – and not taking it too seriously! – 3 of the residents of Eddington Street entered as Team “Cumbria Sausages” (there was a food theme, ok?!) and we did pretty well, coming 3rd out of the 4 teams. I got the impression that the Astromind is usually won by either a team from Durham or Scarborough, so it was no surprise that they were 1 and 2 in the rankings, so we were pleased with our honorable 3rd. I have to be totally honest and say that the quiz went on waaay too long, and at times I was a little uncomfortable when answers from inexperienced astronomers (who had entered in good faith to make sure there were plenty of teams to take part) were laughed at by the question master, but on the whole it was very enjoyable, and we didn’t disgrace ourselves. ๐Ÿ™‚

The end of the quiz marked the end of the Starfest’s organised events schedule, so all that was left to do was to head back to our tents and hope for some more observing. As we walked back from the marquee it looked very promising, with large areas of clear sky, and a beautiful crescent Moon shining big and bright and yellow low in the SE, but soon the clouds rolled in and we were let with a night of on-off observing. It rained, on and off, and the stars peeped out, on and off. I managed to get a lot more photos, hoping to capture some early Perseid meteors, and I managed to grab a couple of faint ones, but all the bright ones, which drew gasps and shouts of “Ooh!!!” from across the field, were always JUST out of my camera’s field of view, which is always the way, isn’t it?

This is my best meteor shot from Sunday night… it’s the streak lower right…

best m

Quite pleased with that!

At one point on Sunday night the sky cleared totally, absolutely, not a cloud in the sky, and the seeing was incredible. It only lasted a short time, maybe twenty minutes, but those twenty minutes were wonderful, and even though I didn’t manage to capture any more meteors with my camera I did see a lot of them, and I got more Milky Way shots too, especially at the end as the cloud started returning…

m way end

And as an illustration of just how dark the Dalby Forset sky is, here’s a comparison of the Milky Way photographed from light polluted Kendal, beside a similar area of the Dalby sky, taken with similar (but not EXACTLY the same) settings on my camera…

M Way Kendal vs Dalby

Says it all really…

Monday was wet and windy, showers coming and going, making it very hard to get the tent and gazebo packed away, but eventually we got everything packed up and crammed into the car, and it was time to go, after thanking Mell and Andy of course.

So, what did we bring back from Starfest 2013? Well, some very happy memories of meeting great, very friendly people, and of some magnificent views of the night sky. We can’t wait to go again next year, and will book our places as soon as we can. Hopefully I’ll get to give another talk, but we’ll see.

Congratulations to everyone involved with Starfest 2013 for organising a truly Friendly Star camp, especially Mell and Andy, who made sure everything ran smoothly.ย  See you next year!

And if you have always fancied going to a starcamp, but a voice in your own ear has been telling yopu not to, for whatever reason – ignore it. Find one happening near you, go, and have fun. You’ll be welcomed with open arms – and you’ll kick yourself for not going to one years ago.



One Response

  1. Thanks for making an older guy feel good! Growing up, I thought I was born at just the right time to experience the beginnings of our human and robotic exploration of space. I was 13 when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon.
    I’m glad you enjoyed star camp. I went on my first multi-night star outing last week (Rockland Astronomers’ Summer Star Party in western Massachusetts) and got two nights of superb views of the Milky Way.
    I used the 50mm lens we talked about. It was a bit hard to keep in focus, even with live view, but I brought home some good photos (see Heads UP! blog) and great memories. I’ve also never seen so much dew in my life.
    I endorse your recommendation for star camps (or parties!)

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