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Dalby Forest “Starfest” 2014

Wow… what a weekend!

Stella and I had such a great time at the 2013 “Starfest” at Dalby Forest, organised by the Scarborough AS, that there was never any doubt in our minds that we’d go to the 2014 event, and we booked our tent pitch as soon as we possibly could. So, last Thursday lunchtime, with the car packed to overflowing with camping and astronomy “stuff”, and with Peggy in her box on my knee – her first ever camping trip, what could possibly go wrong? – we headed south, following our increasingly grouchy SatNav’s instructions on how to get to Dalby Forest.

After a promising start poor Peggy didn’t travel very well, at least not for the first part of the journey, and halfway to Dalby she was very quiet ad subdued, but after spending some time on my lap she perked up, and by the time we rolled onto the Adderstone Field site in the Forest she was feeling much happier…

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…and after checking in with organiser Mell Jeffery, the driving force behind the Starfest, we got her out of the car and into the fresh air as quickly as we could, and then set about putting the tent up… always fun, that part… :-/

Thankfully the BBC weather app was wrong with its prediction that we would arrive at the same time as the heavens opened, and we were able to put up the main part of our tent in dry conditions, but as we dragged the canopy out of the car God opened his bath on the campsite and we had to just leave it in a heap on the grass and retreat, Stella into the tent and me into the car. It took us ages to get it attached to the tent, and to eventually fill the tent with all our things, but eventually, by dodging gaps in the downpours, we managed it, and by mid-evening had our little “home from home” set up just how we like it and were able to cook our first meal. At this point there were already quite a few tents and caravans etc on the field…

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but we knew that the field wouldn’t really fill up until the next day, the Friday, when people from across the country would begin to arrive. By late evening the rain was lashing the campsite, wave after wave of it, so we retreated into the tent and stayed there. Poor Peggy hated the sound of the rain on the tent, and for the first time EVER crawled under my duvet and cuddled up in the crook of my arm, wanting protection from this strange, scary new environment she had been dropped into. Soon she was snoring soundly, little paws flicking in her sleep… but I couldn’t really get to sleep, not with the tantalising prospect of a clear sky in the wee small hours of Friday morning, so I could only drop into and out of brief dozes. And when I looked out at about two am… oh wow… the clouds had parted as predicted, and the sky was beautifully clear, stars EVERYWHERE…!! Amazingly I couldn’t see or hear anyone else about, I had the whole field to myself, and in the silence of the night the only sounds were my camera’s shutters snick-snicking and various animals in the woods. It was wonderful! Here’s the first pic I took, unprocessed, straight off the camera, a 6s exposure with no tracking or anything like that, just camera plus tripod…

1st pic Fri am

And looking towards the east…

Fri am pleiades etc

And I managed to get my first Starfest 2014 images of Comet Jacques, too…!

1st comet Fri am

But soon after that the humidity went through the roof and my lenses misted up, one after the other, so I called it a night, grateful for what I had seen and relieved that we hadn’t travelled all that way in vain; you always go to these things telling yourself that if you’re totally clouded out it doesn’t matter, it’s being there that’s important, but a starcamp with no stars is a pretty sad affair, and very disappointing, so as I crawled back under my quilt, to Peggy’s mewling “Where have YOU been!!” protests, I was very happy…

Next morning dawned bright and sunny, and a great day stretched out ahead of us. After a good breakfast we headed off the field for a trip into Scarborough, and as we left more and more cars, caravans and mobile homes were rolling  onto the field, boosting the starcamp’s numbers. By the time we got back the field looked very different to how we had left it…

Fri evening before talk

It wasn’t long until people were heading down to The BIg Tent for the “Meet and Greet” intro to the event by the organisers, and to tuck into a hog roast. After a very… very… very lengthy ‘welcome address’…

welcome

…the crowd broke up and we headed back to our tent to tuck into our hoisin duck and rice, leaving everyone else to their hog roast. Soon it was time for us to head back down to the tent too, for the first of the weekend’s two illustrated talks, so off we went to stake our places at the front, as you do! Thankfully a fellow EAS member loaned me a chair so I didn’t have to sit on the tiny foldable stool we take with us, and I was able to enjoy Paul Money’s interesting talk on some of the deep sky objects which lurk in Scorpius and Sagittarius, two constellations which are, oddly, quite hard to see from our latitude!

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But it was a very enjoyable talk, very animated, very humourous, and by the time it ended everyone was straining at the leash to get out and do some real observing. And we were all delighted to find that the sky above the field was looking very promising, with big clear patches! ( Delighted, but surprised, seeing as all the weather forecasts had predicted Sunday night would be the best night of the weekend.) So we dashed to our scopes, and cameras, and got stuck into a good night’s observing.

Straight away, even though the sky was still quite light, I was able to start taking pictures. Here’s my first shot from that night…

Fri after talk #1

Which you can probably tell shows Cassiopeia. A little later, with the sky a little darker…

Fri after talk comet 1

..and the night just got better and better. I was out there for hours, until almost 3am I think, just taking photo after photo, wandering around the field, chatting to others and looking through their scopes, which is what you do at starcamps like this, you share. I was glad to be able to show an absolute newcomer her first comet, galaxy and star cluster through my humble but trusty 70mm refractor, before heading away from our tent to just browse and mingle. I managed to take some really nice pics before cloud and mist eventually came in…

Fri night MIlky Way processed

Fri night crop M31

Fri night Plough1

It’s not until you’ve been somewhere like Dalby that you truly appreciate the beauty – and rarity – of a genuinely dark sky. To stand there, in the middle of a big, big field, with a huuuuuge sky above you, dwarfing you, pressing down on you under the weight of the stars in it… to see the Milky Way looking like a great fat speckly mottled vapour trail cutting the sky in half… to actually lose familiar constellations because suddenly they are being drowned by myriad fainter stars around them is quite magical. All you can do is stand there, look up, look around you, and drink in the view. Which is what I did for hours, But eventually we did lose the sky, and I headed back to bed, thrilled to have been under such a gloriously clear and dark sky and to have been able to take such lovely pictures…

Saturday dawned bright but a little misty, and after a big breakfast we headed out again to take a trip into Whitby, hoping to track down a mineral and fossil shop we had visited last time, just in case they had anything new in within my budget! Of course, we didn’t manage to find the shop until we were almost back at the car, and I didn’t buy anything, but it was still a good day out, and we had ice cream, so what more do you want? 🙂

Back at the campsite,the field was now almost full, with tents and caravans in all directions…

day pano....,

…which was good for me because Saturday night was the night I was giving *my* talk, and the more the merrier as far as I am concerned. Wandering around the site meant seeing lots of people and their telescopes…

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…and there was a trade stall too…

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…offering a bank account’s worth of eyepieces, equipment and accessories, including an iOptron star tracker I was **this** close to buying, several times… !

But as we headed down to the tent at 6.30 there was a problem – as you can see from the pic below, with the Sun yet to set, and the sky still very bright, inside the white tent there was just too much light for a presentation, it was impossible to see any of my pictures on the screen…

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…so it was agreed to delay the start of my talk for an hour. But that was ok, because outside the tent some of our fellow star-campers were playing a game with blocks of wood and sticks that was drawing a large and intrigued / baffled crowd…

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So, I started my talk at eight, instead of seven, and it seemed to go down very well judging by the applause and comments at the end, but as I finished the sky outside wasn’t too good, very cloudy and murky, so like many people I headed to bed for a nap, catching up on some of the previous night’s lost sleep. But by midnight the sky was starting to clear, with stars shining through the mist and fog in strangely beautiful soft focus, and I headed outside, joining Stella who had already gone out to chat to some of our neighbours, just in time to catch a magnificently bright Iridium flare detonate above our tent, in the south like a small nuclear warhead, its brilliance only enhanced by the mist. Soon after the sky really began to clear, and within half an hour of that flare going off the sky was absolutely strewn with stars, and we all knew that we were going to have another beautiful clear sky – at least for a few hours – to enjoy…

So Stella and I just headed away from our tent and wandered around, chatting to people, watching shooting stars dash across the sky, and enjoying it all. There were telescopes of all shapes and sizes set up beside tents of all shapes and sizes, and in the darkness only the soft purr of motor drives and an occasional “wow…” could be heard as the stars wheeled above us. Here and there a red light bobbed about, as someone moved around their telescope, swapping an eyepiece or standing aside to let someone else have a look. Peaceful. Quiet. Just as a Starcamp should be. Here are some of the pics I took on that Sat night/Sunday morning…

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mway our tent s

night pano

pano1s

pano4s

pano7s

Stella tent Sun am

tent sky s

tents sky s

Sat 2am Milky Way

As you can see I go for scenic shots, using just my unguided camera with all its settings pushed up to “max”. But there were some very serious astro imagers there, taking long exposure, high resolution images of nebulae, clusters and galaxies with mega-expensive telescopes dripping with wires and guiders, connected to whirring laptops and clicking cameras, and if I was getting pictures that good with my simple set up I can only imagine how good THEIR pics must be!

Sunday dawned quite muggy and close, but soon the Sun burned off most of the mist and left us with a beautifully sunny day, which was good because Sunday is always “Rocket Day” at Starfest, when people make rockets out of fizzy drinks bottles and compete to see whose can fly furthest. It’s a brilliant event, a real family event, and is one of the highlights of the weekend, This year the standard of the entries was very high, some of the rockets flew for *miles* (not literally miles, don’t be daft!) and it was a really good laugh. Here are some of the pics I took…

rocket crowd s

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After the conclusion of the rocket contest, Stella headed down to the tent to join in with one of the organised yoga sessions. I took the chance to clean my poor dew-stained camera lenses, cook our lunch and spend some quality time with you know who…

sun lunch

Then I set up my meteorites outside the tent, and while the “Percussion “Workshop” created music inside the tent, outside I put on a brief “Show and Tell” with them, which quite a few people came along to and enjoyed. Then it was time to head out one last time, down into Thornton-le-Dale to take a look at its Scarecrow Festival… which was dominated by ghosts and Minions… 😉

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Having looked around the scarecrows we went on to Pickering and had a lovely Indian meal in a restaurant there, before heading back to the campsite, where a rather glorious sight was waiting for us in the sky – a very bright “Sundog” and a hint of a solar halo, too…

sunday pre quiz sundog

solar halo sun prequiz

And then we took a leap of faith and headed down to join in with the “Astroquiz”.

Why was that a “leap of faith”? Well, because we took part last year – having been told in advance what great fun it was – and, to be honest, it was awful, so we were wary of joining in this year. Last year it wasn’t so much a quiz as an exam, with often ridiculously hard questions newcomers and beginners, who had been encouraged to take part, didn’t have a hope in hell of answering, and a question-master who seemed to delight in showing off his own knowledge and making fun of beginners who mispronounced things or got questions wrong. It was so uncomfortable and humiliating that we came out vowing we’d never put ourselves through that again. But we had been told this year’s would be different – more of a “fun pub quiz” with no individual questions, and questions for everyone, not just experts – so we went down, fingers crossed…

…and it was absolutely FANTASTIC, really, really good fun. With new question masters, picture rounds, almost a dozen teams and questions for the kids too, it was such a good laugh, just like a really good pub quiz should be. Everyone was made to feel involved and welcome, and no-one was spoken down to. Full credit to everyone involved for changing the format and making it such a highlight of the weekend. If you were wondering, our team came third, which we were well chuffed with, and we came out delighted we had joined in…

…unfortunately, that was when our luck with the weather finally broke, and as the quiz was ending the rain started to come down. I did think, I’ll admit, that that was it, that all our stargazing had been done. But that was ok; I’d have taken one clear night out of the four, but by Sunday night we had already had three clear nights, so if Sunday night was going to be cloudy, well, fair enough…

But a little while later it cleared up again, the clouds rolled away and we were under a starry sky again!

It was at this point that the only real upset of the weekend happened. Basically, this is how it works: Adderstone field is reserved for the Starcamp and its attendees for that weekend, no-one else is allowed to camp on it, simple as that. The cost of the weekend includes that exclusivity, which means that people can leave their ridiculously expensive and valuable equipment outside their tents without having to worry about it being damaged or nicked. It’s a peace of mind thing. But at some point during the quiz a group of non-astronomers had rolled onto the field and set up in the bottom corner. When told about the arrangements and asked to move on they had refused, and eventually the police were called…

sun night intruders

As it turned out there was nothing they could do, for a variety of reasons, so the intruders were allowed to stay in their corner, on the understanding that they would keep,out of our way and keep their lights down to a minimum, and that worked out ok, but it was a rather uncomfortable time, and I felt *desperately* sorry for the organisers, especially Mell, who had put so much time and effort into planning and staging the event. They shouldn’t feel bad tho, it was totally out of their control and I don’t think it spoiled it for anyone.

By midnight the sky was really quite clear, and once again we were looking up at countless stars…

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sun night starclouds

sun night post quiz

…and Stella and I had another wander around the field, chatting to people. She eventually turned in around one am, as clouds started to push in from the south, leaving me to wander the field on my own one last time, taking my last set of pictures, just savouring each and every minute I had left under that big, big sky…

Around half past two the stars were getting hazy again, so, reluctantly, I turned my back on them and headed back into the tent. Inside Stella and Peggy were cuddled up together, fast asleep, and it wasn’t long before I was asleep too…

Monday morning dawned cold and cloudy, but dry, and I enjoyed a quiet cup of tea before The Girls got up…

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After breakfast we set about packing up, always the worst part of trips like this. You can see that someone really, really didn’t want to go…

mon am

Rain showers came and went, but we managed to stay mostly dry as we packed up, and all too soon we were on our way home after a truly wonderful weekend.

Without being too gushy, it really was a fantastic weekend, a starcamp that was brilliant for accomplished and experienced stargazers who wanted to make the most of a beautiful dark sky, and so serious astrophotography and observing, but also enjoyable for newcomers and beginners, and any accompanying non-astronomer family members too. It was a true family friendly event, where everyone was made to feel welcome, and I didn’t see or hear of one beginner being refused a look through a telescope. Indeed, the experienced observers there, with their cannon-sized Dobsonians and finely-polished refractors were only too happy to show newcomers the sights through their telescopes, which is exactly how it should be.

Thanks to Mell, Andy, Laura and everyone who worked so hard to make Starfest 2014 such a huge success.Next year’s Starcamp will be held between August 13th and 17th, around the time of the Perseids meteor shower, and with no Moon in the way the prospect of standing under that huge dark Dalby sky with meteors zipping across the heavens is already making me drool! We’ll be booking our places as soon as we can, and hopefully I’ll be asked to give another talk too.

If you’ve never been to a Starcamp before but are thinking about it, go to Dalby Starfest in 2015. You’ll love it, I promise.

 

 

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3 Responses

  1. What an epic post, Stu! You clearly had a great time and I am seriously thinking of coming next year.
    The photos are great and I did wonder what camera and settings you use for the astro shots?
    I love the “real life” asides; like the rain, the cat, the disturbance in the bottom-corner, it all adds to the real story you are telling.
    Thanks for sharing your experiences and thanks for the 67P C-G (almost) daily updates too, yours is my “goto” blog for the latest ROSETTA images – and your enhanced versions of course.

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