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Stargazing at Housesteads Roman Fort

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Had a very enjoyable time up at Housesteads Roman Fort last night, assisted as ever by Stella, holding an astronomy outreach event for the National Trust…

The Fort is literally in the middle of nowhere – not far from Kielder, where we were recently – so is a great dark sky site for observing the night sky. And that was the plan: to do some Moon- and star-gazing after one of my illustrated talks, in a building up a path, away from the visitor centre, up close to the fort ruins, with a lovely big screen and a big, wide open area to set up the telescopes and stargaze from. Perfect!

…unfortunately someone had decided to take it upon themselves to change the plan at the last minute, and I ended up giving my talk at the visitor centre/shop itself, in a cramped upstairs mezzanine room that was long and narrow, like an airplane cabin, with more windows than a greenhouse and no blackout curtains either. It was possibly the worst room I’ve ever had to give a talk in in all my years of doing this, and I wasn’t able to start my talk until gone 6.30, when it was dark enough to actually see the screen. But we improvised – you learn to be versatile and adaptable when you do Outreach! – and I took everyone outside to look at the Moon through my telescopes before the talk. All the 45 or so people who came along to the event were clearly amazed by the view. Adults looked through my main reflector, the little ‘uns through my small refractor – set at perfect Munchkin height! – and there were lots of gasps of “Wow!” and “That’s amazing!” as many people looked into a telescope for the first time.

Back inside then for my talk, “A Tourist Guide To The Universe”, which everyone seemed to enjoy, despite the rather cramped conditions, before heading back outside to look at the sky again. Thankfully the sky was still clear enough for a really good view of the Moon and Jupiter, and with the wind too strong to risk going up to the Fort as we had originally planned, instead we all went out onto a small area behind the visitor centre to look through my telescopes again, and enjoyed stunning views of the 1st quarter Moon, and all 4 Galileans were on view too…

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I used a laser pointer to point out some of the sky sights I’d mentioned during my talk – Orion’s Belt, the Plough, Little Dipper and more – before taking everyone back inside, out of the wind, and showing some of my meteorites, which were very popular.

So, all in all a very successful night – despite the unnecessary interference at the last minute – mainly thanks to Jonny Tomlinson, the event organiser, and his great team, who battled on through the changes to keep the event on track and also made Stella and I so welcome, showing us around the incredible fort before we got started, which was hugely atmospheric, with the buffeting wind and low Sun!

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I took some photos from the car park before we headed home, and was very impressed with how many stars are visible on them, in spite of the hazy cloud and blindingly-bright Moon…

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…and it left me wondering how stunningly starry the sky there would be on a night with no Moon… Looking forward to going back soon and finding out!

If you’ve never been up to Housesteads I can heartily recommend it. The Fort ruins are very accessible, and the whole site is so atmospheric it’s like stepping back in time. Looking forward to going back there already.

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