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Kielder 2015 Autumn Starcamp

We have been going to Starcamps at Kielder for a few years now, and always enjoy them, no matter what. I say “no matter what” because going up to Kielder to look at the night sky can sometimes feel like more of an adventure holiday, or an SAS endurance training course, than an astronomy event; the weather is often, to put it politely, “challenging”, and although the sky is often a beautiful crystal blue, mist, wind and rain can sweep in from nowhere within minutes, leaving frustrated and soggy starcampers sheltering in their tents and caravans (or the nearby Anglers Arms pub) for days on end, looking forlornly out the window at a sky smothered with cloud as thick and claggy as cold porridge.

And the rain… oh, the rain… We’ve got used to setting up our tent in the rain, and taking it down again in the rain, and to sploshing around a campsite so wet and muddy, scattered with so many puddles and pools of standing water that it looks like a cross between the Somme and Glastonbury. Last time we were there we pulled down – I won’t dignify our frantic scrabbling to pull out its poles and haul its waterlogged canvas off them with the term “took down” – our tent in horizontal rain and sleet, and poor Stella literally had to sluice the water off the tent with a mop before it was dry enough to cram into a bin bag and stuff into the car…

But when it’s clear, and dry, Kielder is glorious, its tall trees, gurgling river and woodland walks combining to create a beautiful retreat from the noise and bustle of civilisation. Add to that the yummy bar meals at the pub at the campsite’s end, the scrummy full English breakfasts up at the castle, and the chance to catch up with old friends and make some new ones, perhaps, and you can see why it’s our favourite place to go camping and look at the stars. So we were really looking forward to going back up there last week for the 2015 Autumn starcamp. This time, tho, we would be warmer and drier whatever the elements threw at us – we were in our folding camper!

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The weather could do what it wanted; as long as I was given one clear night to take my photographs, look through some big telescopes and just enjoy a dark, starry sky, I’d be happy…

It didn’t quite turn out like that.

This year we went up for five nights… and… are you ready for this…? Every Night Was Clear.

Not totally clear every night, and not crystal clear every night either  – the usual mist and moisture were ever present observing companions – but I managed to see and photograph the stars every night we were there for at least part of the night, and two nights were essentially clear right through until dawn, so I was delighted. I managed to see everything I wanted to see; take every photo I wanted to take; photographed some objects for the first time, and – perhaps most importantly of all – managed to show some newcomers around the night sky for the first time too.

And, even more remarkable – no rain! Well, it drizzled half-heartedly for a while one afternoon, and there was a spattering of misty rain one morning, but none of the monsoon conditions we’ve suffered through before. We even put up the camper in sunshine, and took it down in sunshine too.

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In fact, the whole time we were there we kept having to pinch ourselves to make sure we weren’t asleep and dreaming!

Inbetween putting up the camper and taking it down we had five wonderful days of stargazing, fellowship and basically just chilling out. And we’re already looking forward to returning to Kielder in the Spring.

We arrived a little later than planned on the Wednesday afternoon, and were immediately greeted warmly by event organisers Lynn and Kevin. To our surprise, the campsite was already quite busy, with tents, caravans and mobile homes scattered across it, and after helping Stella set up our home for the week I wandered up the hill to take a pic of the view looking down on the field…

pano33After setting up there was time to say a few hello’s before heading down to the pub for our traditional “First Night Bar Meal”, which was lovely, but ruined by a woman on the next table who would NOT SHUT UP THE WHOLE TIME WE WERE EATING!!!! Seriously, she just latched onto us like a limpet mine and yabbered the whole time we were eating. Hate people like that.

Anyway, when we emerged from the pub it was dark – and as we scrunched our way back up the gravel path to the campsite, and up the road to our caper, stars were strewn across the sky above us! In fact, the first night we were there was probably the clearest, and that’s when I got some of my best photos…

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…and that’s pretty much how it was for the next couple of nights too! Both Thursday and Friday night we stood there, in the dark, in the shadow of Kielder’s tall trees, beneath a myriad of stars, with the Milky Way airbrushed across the sky, the space station, lantern-bright, arcing from west to east, satellites drifting through the familiar constellations, just wonderful. Kielder really is dark, and with no passing cars to destroy your dark adaption you really can enjoy the stars at their best.

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It has to be said, though, that while we were there there was some noticeable light pollution from the nearby village of Kielder itself; clearly not everyone is joining in with the effort to make the area one of the darkest in the UK, and all the time we were there one particularly bright white security light, mounted on the side of a house in the village, was shining right across the campsite through a gap in the trees (see above pic), which made the sky less dark than we’ve enjoyed on previous visits, but I’m sure they’ll sort that out.:-)

Some of my best pictures from Thursday and Friday nights…

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I forgot to mention that on the Friday night the traditional “Meet and greet” was held at the brilliant new “warm room”. After a fascinating talk about the history of telescope making…

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…everyone was treated to mulled wine (pretty good stuff, actually, not the cheap stuff “tastes like petrol stirred with mouldy twigs” mulled wine ) by the organisers…

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…before heading off to their telescopes and trackers and cameras again. It’s a great opportunity for old friends to catch up, and for newcomers to start meeting people and getting a feel for the event. In fact, Friday night was probably the poorest night of the lot, with stubborn cloud that came and went, mostly came, and lingered for ages, and I eventually gave up and headed to bed just after 1am.

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( I know! Look how bright that tent is on the right! Looks like a ****** nuclear reactor is fired up in there! Not sure that classes as a “red light” to be honest…)

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And then, Saturday… always a busy day at Kielder, because that’s Talks Day up at the castle, when various guest speakers give illustrated presentations to star-camp attendees and members of the public who just come along for the afternoon. This year I was one of the speakers, giving a talk entitled “Skywatching – A Beginners Guide: The HONEST VERSION!” – and it seemed to go down really well, with many would-be stargazers telling me afterwards they were grateful for a no-frills guide to what becoming an amateur astronomer requires, and then gives you. One of the most popular parts of my talk was when I showed this slide, listing some of the things I’d heard wandering around the campsite during the past few nights…

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That slide was greeted with a lot of (bitter!) laughter, because the 2015 Autumn Kielder Star-camp will probably go down in history as “The Year of The Gremlins” because everywhere you turned someone was having problems with their equipment – batteries dying, cables breaking, gears grinding, alignment systems failing… Luckily, being a low-tech type who just wanders around with an iOptron, plonking it down where and when I feel like it and taking photos as I want, those aren’t problems I have, but it must be crushing to travel all the way there, with a car full of kit, and be under a rare clear sky only for your gear to break on you. I hope everyone managed to get something.

Then, Saturday night… and after another yummy meal down at the pub we headed back up to the campsite, to find the day’s forecasts of cloud had been wrong and it was a lovely night, with long periods of beautifully starry sky. It was misty at times, and dewy too, but after midnight that mist cleared and left behind a sparkling sky. I got some wonderful (I think!) photos…

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m106IMG_4532Saturday night was probably the night I enjoyed most at Star-camp, because that was when I managed to get some proper Outreach done, by showing some people around the sky for the first time. A young family from near Glasgow were pitched just opposite us, and really wanted to learn about what was shining above them, so I was happy to oblige, and spent a very enjoyable couple of hours pointing out and identifying stars and constellations for them. They were absolutely fascinated, and soon were starting to pick up the names of some of the amazing things glowing in the sky above their tent. At one point I took them up the track to the road that runs along the top of the campsite, and showed them Orion rising up behind the trees, the three Belt stars glinting like diamonds  through gaps in the low clouds hugging the eastern horizon. And when they told me they wished they could take some photos of the sky, to hep them remember how magical Starcamp had been for them, I had an idea…

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I went to bed about 2am, delighted with the evening’s viewing and photography, but set my alarm for half past four so I could get up again and hopefully see the “Parade of Planets” in the eastern sky before dawn: Venus, Jupiter and Mars are all gathered together in the morning sky at the moment, and having already photographed them from here in Kendal, and up at Shap, I really wanted to see and photograph the from Kielder’s dark sky. I had already tried to get up early on Friday morning to see them, but like an idiot I set my phone alarm for THURSDAY, so slept right through a golden opportunity to see them. This time everything worked, and at half four I pulled on my heavy jacket, unzipped the awning and looked out –

…to find the sky was spectacularly clear, strewn with stars shining like diamonds, sapphires and rubies! And there, shining above the trees – Venus, bright as a phosphorous flare, with Jupiter nearby. YES! Grabbing my photo gear I headed out, and bumped into a couple of the Scottish family again, so I spent some time with them, telling them about the planets, before heading off on my own, back up the hill, to take the photos I had wanted to take since getting there.. Note: dew and then *frost* on the camera lens made these first two images look the way they do…

conj1IMG_4538IMG_4589Eventually the sky brightened so much that the planets all but disappeared, so I headed back to the camper, wriggled into my sleeping bag, and got some much-needed sleep, more than happy with what I’d seen and photographed.

…and then, Sunday, our last full day, and a chance to unwind as people started to pack up and drift away from the campsite, heading home in time for work the next morning. Stella and I weren’t heading back until Monday afternoon, so we were able to just have a quiet day, spending some time with Peggy in the camper…

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…watching DVDs, going for a walk etc…

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…before treating ourselves to a huuuuge Sunday roast at the pub…

20151018_181246Incredibly, Sunday night offered up some stars too! But it was a patchy night, and instead of repeating photographs I’d taken already I concentrated on wide field shots before heading to bed…

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Monday morning dawned bright and dry, so we were able to pack up the camper and its fancy new awning without any repeat of the previously described horizontal rain incident, and we were home by mid-evening after a hugely enjoyable almost-a-week at Kielder. It was probably our best Kielder visit to date, and it was great to meet up with friends like Richard, Lynn, Kevin, Robert and Antoinette (and Louie!) again. It was also great to be at such a dark sky site with other members of our astronomical society – Carol and Simon, Moira and Ruth, David and Marilyn – and to see a couple of them making strides forwards in the hobby – getting to know their telescopes and equipment better and learning more about the night sky itself. An added bonus for me was being able to show “The Girls from Glasgow” the night sky, and help my new astro buddy from Cockermouth, Jayne, and her husband (at their first starcamp) take their first steps into our fascinating hobby, and take her first astrophotos too! And of course it was great for the two of us – sorry, the three of us – to just get away from the bright lights of Metropolis, I mean Kendal.

And it has to be said, finally, that the campsite is looking fantastic now. A lot of work has been done, the drainage looks to have been sorted out, and it feels even more homely and welcoming than before.

Thanks to all the event organisers for making the Kielder Autumn 2015 Starcamp such fun.🙂 We’re already looking forward to returning to Kielder in the Spring –

I wonder if the weather gods will make us pay then for last week’s good weather..?

2 Responses

  1. A great write-up of what was, for us, the most brilliant first-ever StarCamp. Huge thanks to you for ‘outreaching’ us and helping me take my first ever photos of the night sky. Compared to yours they are no more than kiddie scribbles but everyone has to start somewhere🙂

    Look forward to seeing you both again soon, and once again, thank you.

  2. Really enjoyed your account of the weekend. I’m a friend of Jayne and she pointed me towards your blog. Really interested in astronomy too but need to buy a DSLR to get me started on Astrophotography. You have some fabulous photos.

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