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Kielder Autumn Starcamp 2014

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Yes, we did it again – we stuffed all our camping gear into (and on top of) the car, left Kendal behind and headed north, to the wilds of Northumberland, to attend the Autumn 2014 Kielder Starcamp, an annual gathering of astronomers and skywatchers from across the UK. The event is held at Kielder Campsite – which proudly boasts to being the most remote campsite in England, and it is, it really is in the middle of the back of beyond of nowhere – and is a Must Attend for a hardcore group of sky observers and imagers who love astronomy so much they’re willing to put up with the possibility of having to cower in their tent, or caravan, or mobile home, for several nights, hiding from howling gales and driving rain, just to catch a few hours of blissfully clear, star-frothed sky from one of the darkest places in the UK.

Wherever they live in the world The Weather is the mortal enemy of astronomers, amateur and professional, and it’s an almost Tolkienesque foe for Kielder Starcamp attendees. As if cursed by some ancient, star-hating Northumbrian witch woman, the area seems to attract godawful weather during and before a Starcamp, but amazingly, this year there had been no “The campsite is heavily flooded, so there might not be enough electric hook-up pitches for everyone… so… er… do you really want to come? You don’t have to if you don’t want to! We won’t mind! Honest!” email sent out by the organisers, so we were pretty optimistic as we headed north. We took Peggy with us, hoping she would have become a better and less nervous traveller since the infamous Dalby Forest Trip, when she rather spectacularly projectile vomited inside her travel box, but within half an hour of leaving Kendal she had chucked up all over my hand, and continued to look and be miserable until we were more than halfway and stopped at a Services to wolf down some pasties and bakes from Greggs and give her some fresh air. After that she was much better, and as we rolled onto the Kielder Campsite, welcomed by several of our fellow astronomers, she was looking much better.

But of course it was raining when we arrived, so we had to pitch our tent in the rain, again, and were both pretty damp by the time we had finished…

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Peggy watched from the car, comfy in her little camp beneath the steering wheel…

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With the tent pitched and our home for the next four days set up, we went for a wander, seeing who was there already, catching up with old friends, and, of course, wondering if we’d get to see any stars that night…

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As we wandered the campsite we saw that there were already quite a few tents, caravans and  mobile homes at the campsite, and several telescopes set up outside them, hidden beneath heavy cloths and tarpaulins, which proved to be a good move because not long after our first visit to the warm room the heavens opened and that was it, we were in our tent for the night. I kept checking the sky through the night, and once or twice a couple of stars peeked their heads out between the clouds but it never seemed clear enough to me to make it worth going out, not when I was there to take photos, so I stayed in the tent, safe and snug with Peggy and Stella fast asleep in their bed, Peg curled up on Stella’s pillow cross the tent from me…

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The next day, Friday, dawned overcast and grey, but it soon began to clear, allowing me to take some photos of the Sun, with its giant sunspot group, through my zoom lens and Canon DSLR…

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First photos in the bag it was time to head down the campsite and up the hill to the Castle, where the first of many “Stargazer Full Breakfasts” awaited. On the way I was able to look at the Sun through a kick ass solar telescope, and saw the sunspot group and its neighbouring filaments and prominences in stunning detail. Stella, having been told – to her delight – that free ice lollies were on offer in the warm room, made short work of one as we headed down the gravel path…

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Breakfast was gorgeous, as usual, a plate overflowing with sausages, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms and egg, with golden toast on the side, and filled us up well for the next few hours. Unfortunately, by teatime the rain had returned, with a vengeance, so back into the tent we fled, to read, eat chocolate and marvel at Peggy’s ability to squeeze into the smallest, tightest space available. The rain continued, so we put on a DVD to watch (the previous week’s episode of Doctor Who) but even with headphones on it was impossible to block out the sound of the rain, or of our neighbours, the loudest bunch of Scottish astronomers I have ever heard in my life, who seemed to have two volume levels – Loud and Ridiculously Loud – as they waited out the rain in their tent. I can still hear them now, I swear…

By ten pm it was still raining, but I was catching glimpses of stars through gaps in the cloud when I poked my head out of the tent, so I felt quite optimistic that I might see something… and that optimism paid off, because at around 11.30pm the cloud began to tear open and the sky began to fill with stars…

Which was wonderful! I’ve always said that seeing stars at a starcamp is a bonus, you have to go for the social side, to catch up with people, make new friends and contacts, enjoy the talks, browse the trade stands etc, and you can’t go to one expecting or demanding to see any because the weather will destroy you, but really, a Starcamp without at least a couple of starry hours is a crushing disappointment, so as I looked out of the tent and saw the sky full of stars on that Friday night my first thought was “YES!!!!” I grabbed my camera, pulled on my wellies, and headed out into the night, leaving Stella and Peggy curled up together by the fan heater.

And for the next two hours or so, on and off, I was able to take some of the best photos I’ve ever taken. At first the sky was a bit misty, a bit out of focus, and banks of cloud rolled in and out again, but for about half an hour, maybe a little more, there was not a cloud in sight, and the sky above the campsite was cold as flint and just as sharp too, allowing me to take images of the Milky Way I’ve dreamed of taking for a long time. I took other photos too – the Big Dipper shining above our tent, the stars of Cassiopeia and Perseus hanging above the treetops, M31 glowing softly in the night – and here are the best ones from that blessed time…

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But as pretty as those pictures are, I was there to take portraits of the Milky Way, really, and that’s what I did, image after image after image, which I later stitched together using the freeware “Autostitch” software and then enhanced with my various image processing programs. Here are the best. I hope you like them…

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That’s our tent, beneath the Milky Way…

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Gorgeous, aren’t they? I am so pleased with those! But obviously the Milky Way wasn’t actually that bright, I’ve enhanced and stretched those images to make them look more dramatic. If you want to know what the Milky Way actually looked like, I’ve made a Before and After comparison. left – the images straight out of the camera, and stitched together with no processing, which pretty much shows what the Milky Way looked like to the naked eye. And on the right, the enhanced version…

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I wonder which one you prefer..?

Kielder can be a cruel, cruel place for its loyal, visiting astronomers. Time and time again over the course of a starcamp it allows us brief, tantalising glimpses of stars through tattered gaps in its clouds, only to close those gaps up again and run away, laughing. Other times the sky clears enough to see stars, but the air between us and them is so saturated with dew that telescope and camera lenses mist up as if breathed on by a wraith. Other times a lone gap appears in the cloud cover, perfectly clear, a window onto the universe beyond, sprayed with jewel-like stars… but that’s all, everything else remains hidden. It’s enough to make even the most dedicated astronomer sink to his or her knees into the mud, like Charlton Heston collapsing before the shattered Statue of Liberty, and howl “Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!” at the sky…

But…

Sometimes the wicked Kielder SkyGods take pity on the poor, pathetic, optimistic mortals cowering in their saturated tents, caravans and mobile homes far below, and with a wave of their hands sweep the sky clear of cloud, leaving behind something… wonderful. And that’s what we had on Friday night. Just for a couple of hours mind, no longer than that, but it made everything else worthwhile.Standing in the mud outside our tent I took more than a hundred photos, and when I was done I did what I always tell others to do – I deliberately stepped away from the camera and just looked. I put my head back and looked at the Milky Way cutting the sky in half, as if someone had airbrushed it across the sky. I watched icy Capella winking at me through the swaying treetops, following the silver sequins of the Pleiades into the sky. I watched a shooting star skip across the heavens like a flat stone skimmed across a pond, slicing through the Great Square of Pegasus before fading away like an ember spat out of a fire. I looked up and just breathed it all in, marvelling again at the sheer, pure beauty of a clear night sky, when the stars look like a sackful of emeralds, sapphires and garnets tossed up into the sky…

Of course it couldn’t last. By half one there was more cloud than stars again, so I retreated to bed, more than happy with the photos I had taken, and telling myself that if every other night was cloudy I would be happy with what I’d seen and photographed during that clear couple of hours… which turned out to be a good thing, because I never managed to take my camera out under the stars again…

Saturday is “Trade and Talks” day at Kielder Starcamp, with an afternoon of events for attendees to enjoy up at the castle. I was one of the guest speakers this year, so after another scrummy breakfast I headed back to the tent fo finish my talk by adding the very latest images of Comet 67P taken by Rosetta into my Powerpoint. Then back up to the castle, and there was just time for a quick temptation-fighting look around the trade stands before I went into the lecture room to set up my laptop and prepare to give my talk…

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The room was full, as usual, for the talks, and I think my talk – on the exciting Rosetta mission to Comet 67P – seemed to go down well, and lots of people came up to me afterwards to say how much more excited about the mission, and Philae’s Nov 12th landing, than they had been, which was good to hear. The other speakers’ talks were fascinating. Ace astro-photographer Dave Williams, a Kielder veteran, explained the story behind the taking of his beautiful, award-winning image of the California Nebula…

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…and astronomer Andy Newsam spoke enthusiastically about the Liverpool Telescope and how it is being used by schools to do serious astronomical research…

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After the talks there was just time to look quickly again at the trade stands, and drag myself away from the table selling the iOptron star tracker I want so, so much, then back to the tent. We had hoped for the sky to be clear at tea time, to allow us to leave the campsite and head up to the Kielder Observatory to watch the Saturn Occultation, but as we headed back to the tent the few scraps of blue were being devoured by banks of big, angry, black clouds that scudded across the sky like phantoms, and by five pm the sky was completely overcast and the rain was spattering our tent again, so we gave up on the occultation, zipped up, cooked tea, and then settled back to watch a DVD – “Alpha Papa”, the Alan Patridge film which was hilarious, I can recommend it very highly – and enjoyed it, even with a horde of increasingly-inebriated Scottish stargazers braying like extras from “Braveheart” in the background…

No stars that night, just rain and wind, nothing too serious, but enough to destroy all hope of my camera taking any more images. But in our tent all was peaceful, and as I lay on my bed, reading “Red Mars”… again… Peggy and Stella were curled up again, oblivious to the rain…

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On Saturday night we treated ourselves to a proper meal at the Anglers Arms – Cumberland sausage and onion gravy, in a huge Yorkshire Pudding, with chips, followed by Sticky Toffee Pudding and Ice Cream if you were wondering – then headed back to the tent, hopeful of seeing some stars but that was not to be…

Sunday dawned cloudy, misty and damp, and we went up for breakfast in the rain, and came back in the rain too… but it takes more than a drop of rain to get Stella down… 🙂

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By the time we reached the tent it was raining pretty heavily, and everywhere we looked people were packing up, determined to get away before the forecast bad weather hit. But we were going nowhere, it takes more than a bit of wind and rain to stop us camping, so we just stayed in and watched another DVD in the afternoon (the most modern version of “The Three Musketeers” which had had a real slagging off when it was released but turned out to be shamelessly over the top good fun). Sometime during the afternoon the wind started to pick up big time, and our tent was shaken several times by really strong gusts. By the time I started cooking tea the wind was really getting up, ..and that set the pattern for the day, really. We just stayed in the tent, as the rain went on and on, only venturing out to refill water carriers and check emails etc in the warm room. As the hours passed the wind just got stronger and stronger until it really was battering the tent, and at one point our kitchen unit was sent crashing to the floor, scattering cups, plates and stuff in all directions. That was when I knew we were in for a rough night. When I visited the warm room one last time the site manager, Steve, kindly offered us the use of one of the site’s pods if things got to the point where we had to evacuate our tent, which was very good of him. I thanked him, but hoped it wouldn’t come to that…

Back at the tent, with the camping field plunged into darkness, we just battened down the hatches and, after moving all the heavy stuff to the outside edge of the tent, for extra weight, waited to see what would happen. And as the rain slashed against us, bucketload after bucketload, the wind just got stronger and stronger, brutally slapping our tent again and again and again, slamming it from side to side and making its Tardis-blue fabric crack and smack like the sails of a ship caught in a storm out at sea. At one point we actually heard a gust of wind coming at us through the trees, like that T Rex in Jurassic Park… a deep, angry growling, growing in volume – and then WHUMPF!!! It hit our tent full on, pushing the whole thing – and us inside it – forwards as if we had struck an iceberg…

And we had that all night. All night. Peggy and Stella slept through most of it, only waking occasionally, but I hardly slept; I couldn’t, knowing that if our tent collapsed, or was blown over, we wouldn’t have much time to grab Peggy and get out. So I lay there, reading “Red Mars” as the tent bucked around me, never turning my torch off, just in case…

At around five am the winds finally died down, and I allowed myself to sleep, pretty sure we were finally safe…

Monday, our last day, and I headed out to check our poor tent was still in one piece. It was; none of its poles had buckled, despite groaning in protest all night as the wind tugged them to and fro. It was thoroughly soaked tho, the saturated fabric hanging off its poles, and it had come loose at the front too… Below: before, and after…

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I headed out to take a look around, and found that the campsite had been transformed overnight into a series of small ponds surrounded by green…

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Eventually the wind and rain died down enough to allow us to head up for breakfast, after we had made a start on packing away the tent and its contents, stuffing our sleeping bags and quilts into their bags and unplugging all the electrics. After our last hearty breakfast we refilled the car and then collapsed the tent – which, after countless hours of rain, was absolutely saturated and weighed twice as much as it does when dry – cramming it into its bag and physically heaving it into the back of the car.

And that was that. Our Kielder Autumn Starcamp was over for another year.

Kielder was our first Starcamp. and it holds a very special place on our hearts. When we drive onto the campsite that first time, wide-eyed, innocent newbies not knowing what to expect, and fearful of being ignored, or worse, we were – literally – welcomed with open arms by the organisers, Lynn and Kevin, and since then I like to think we’ve carved out a little place of our own there. We’ve made some great new friends there, and always look forward to going and dread leaving. Yes, the weather can bad – no, let’s be honest, it can be soul-sappingly godawful, and can leave you feeling you’ve been fighting in, and lost, a war of attrition with Nature itself – but somehow that’s part of the Starcamp’s charm. As you hide in the warm room with a handful of others, listening to the wind howl and the rain lash beyond the blinds, checking your emails on your phone, you exchange knowing looks with your fellow frustrated stargazers and smile a resigned “What can we do? It’s Kielder!” smile before heading out into the night, wondering if tonight is going to be The Night the rain stops and, alerted by the sudden silence, everyone emerges from their tents and caravans and gazes up at a spectacular starry sky…

We’re back there in February, of course, for the Spring starcamp. Hope to see you there.

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