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Kielder Spring Starcamp 2014

Yes, we did it again. Undeterred by our previous visits, which involved snow, or rain, or mud, or all three, Stella and I went up to Kielder Forest last week to attend the 2014 Kielder Spring Starcamp, for a weekend of stargazing, talks and astronomical cameraderie. Joined by two of our fellow EAS members, Carol and Simon, we had our fingers crossed that this time the weather gods would look generously upon us and bless us with clear, starry skies. The drive up was promising, two hours or so of sunshine and showers, through breathtaking scenery, a new rainbow every five minutes, or so it seemed…

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…and when we got to the campsite the sky was beautiful, crystal blue, with just a few clouds piling up in the south west…

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When we arrived we were greeted by the usual friendly, familiar faces, but given the bad news that, after all the recent rain – the UK has almost sunk under the weight of all the water that’s fallen from the sky, and Northumberland has clearly had more than its fair share – a lot of the electric hook up pitches were unavailable, the ground just too waterlogged to be usable. We briefly considered pitching here, but thought better of it…

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…and eventually settled on a site at the very top of the field, snuggled up amongst several caravans, motor homes and other tents, which looked very much like the last available patch of ground that looked like it had a sporting chance of supporting our tent. Eventually we were set up and ready to dive back into the starcamp experience…

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Darkness fell, and, peeking through gaps in the cloud, the stars came out…

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… but with the forecast looking rather dodgy, to say the least, Stella and I decided to head right down the campsite for a bite to eat while we had a chance, before getting soaked. That’s when things started to get interesting…

While we were sat in the pub, Twitter began to twitch with reports of aurora from the far north of Scotland. Then from central Scotland. Then from our part of the world, Northumberland… then Yorkshire… then, incredibly, Devon. DEVON! Something big was going on, but when we went outside we found our sky – typically and frustratingly – cloudy, but for a couple of tiny starry gaps in the west. Of aurora, there was no sign. But as we made our way back up the campsite, heading back to our tent, the northern sky’s blanket of cloud began to thin, the odd star appearing, so I set up my camera and took a couple of test shots, not really expecting to see anything but figuring it was worth a try…

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There was something there. The sky behind the cloud was red…!

But there was a lot of cloud, a LOT of cloud, and although it was clear from the breathless reports on Twitter and Facebook that a major auroral storm was going on, and being observed across the UK, we were being cheated of it. Typical! We travel north, to one of the darkest places in the country, at the time an aurora kicks off, only to be thwarted by cloud, while people back home, in Cumbria, were seeing it!

There was nothing to do but wait it out, so for the next five hours or so, until gone 03.30 the next morning, several of us played “Hunt The Aurora”, hiding in the campsite warm room, dashing out whenever a gap in the clouds appeared. And eventually our patience and perseverence paid off, because around 2am there was a big enough gap in the clouds to allow us to see what was going on. Activity had died down a little by then, but I was still able to get photos like these…

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Eventually the colours faded and the aurora lost its power, and as the clouds rolled over the northern sky, hiding any further activity from us, I decided to call it a night and headed back into the tent and went to bed…

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The next morning dawned misty and cool, but apart from when its night sky is clear and starry this is my favourite time to be at Kielder because it just looks so beautiful…

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Friday was a beautifully sunny day, and we took advantage of the good weather to head up to the famous Kielder Observatory, which is about a ten min drive from the campsite, way up on a hilltop, overlooking the Kielder countryside like a castle, or a survivalist fortress…

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Inside the observatory has some stunning-looking telescopes, through which visitors are able to enjoy beautiful views of the universe…

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And of course the view from the observatory is just beautiful…

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Later, back down at the campsite, the weather took a bit of a turn for the worse, and we caught up with Carol planning her evening’s viewing…

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…and later the stars did come out, but it was a misty, hazy, murky kind of night, and the photos I took, although pretty, and far better than I’d take on a clear night from the middle of Kendal, weren’t a patch on those I’ve taken during our previous visits…

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Eventually cloud rolled back in and bed beckoned…

Next day, Saturday, was very busy. Saturday up at Kielder is “Talks and Shop Day”, when activity moves from the campsite up to Kielder Castle, where several tradespeople set up stands of eyepieces, telescopes and other tempting astronomical goodies, and several guest speakers give illustrated talks. I gave a talk back in October – when we were all hoping Comet ISON would put on a good show – and I offered to give another one this time, but was told they try to not have the same speakers at consecutive events, so I was a little surprised to find that people who had spoken in October’s were going to be speaking again this time, but not to worry, the talks were all very good, on a wide variety of subjects…

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I didn’t buy anything from the trade stands, nothing caught my eye this time, so I headed back to the tent where poor Stella was struggling with a really nasty cough. Didn’t manage any stargazing that night because the weather just didn’t co-operate, and the next day dawned drizzly and a bit bleak, and soon after a gorgeous Stargazers Special full breakfast up at the castle the rain set in, so we retreated back to the tent again. It rained on and off for the rest of the day, and then – after a last get together meal up at the castle – all night too, so much so that soon the floor of our tent was rippling like a water bed as water built up underneath it. Not a very comfortable feeling – unless, of course you’re a mischevious cat (seen below, plotting), who thinks it’s great fun to jump off the bed and land on the ripply floor and fee it undulate and roll beneath you, before jumping back onto the bed and doing it all again…

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The next morning our little pitch looked like this…

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…but at least it was sunny as we packed up our tent and prepared to head home. By now there were very few people left on the campsite, only a few die hards left on the field, everyone else having gone home, but eventually our things were packed away, cat and rabbit were tucked safely into the car, and we were off too.

Again, we had a very enjoyable time – the Starcamp organisers are brilliant, the campsite staff couldn’t be more helpful or friendly, and the skywatchers who go to the Kielder starcamps are all friendly too, and more than and happy to share equipment, views and experiences (although some are friendlier than others, it has to be said; some there this time didn’t seem quite so keen on mingling, but some people go there to do serious observations and photography so they won’t want distracting or interrupting, I realise) – and it was great to catch up with some of the new friends we’ve made there. Kielder is a beautiful place, and the campsite is very pretty. But it was a bit like an astronomical Glastonbury this time. Although it’s true that the weather has been absolutely appalling recently, and everywhere has suffered as a result, they do need to tackle the drainage issues there; it was more than a little miserable being in a tent this time, with all that mud and water everywhere, and it has left us wondering if next Spring – if we haven’t moved up from a tent to something a little more advanced (and more waterproof) we should maybe take a stargazing holiday further north, way up in the north of Scotland. But we’ll see. It’s such a great starcamp to go to I’d hate to miss it. I’m sure they’ll get a grip of the drainage thing.

The one low point of the weekend was when we drove to nearby Bellingham, seeking some medical advice re Stella’s awful cough. Foolishly we assumed that calling into the pharmacy there would gain us some expert advice and care from the pharmacist and their staff – after all, we’re always being told to seek their advice instead of bothering doctors, aren’t we? – but they really couldn’t have been less helpful. The pharmacist couldn’t even be bothered to come out front and talk to us in person, preferring instead to stay out of reach in the back, and mumble something about a “chest infection” to one of her staff, who then suggested we could try ringing NHS Direct before selling us a bottle of expensive cough syrup and a box of paracetamols. Very poor service indeed.

If you’re wondering if you should go to a starcamp, my advice would be a resounding YES! JUST GO! You’ll love it! You’ll meet only friendly, enthusiastic and generous people, and even if you don’t get to see the stars themselves you’ll learn a lit while you’re there and make some great new friends too. Starcamps aren’t elitist, or snobby, they’re great opportunities to get out under the stars, with people who share your interest. If you’re pondering going to one, stop faffing about and book your place. You’ll be glad you did!

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25 Responses

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  2. Thanks for coming guys. It’s a hospitable week when you vets come in. Thanks for the photo’s. See you in October.
    You know there is no such thing as rain in Kielder…..it’s just liquid sunshine.

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