Dark matters

This blog post welcomes in the forthcoming Dales ‘dark skies’ festival (14th Feb to 1st March 2020). See here for more details.

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.

If you’re familiar with Under Milk Wood you can probably hear Richard Burton’s unforgettable rendition in your mind’s ear. And if you live in Swaledale you can probably imagine a bible-black small town in your mind’s eye. But that’s an increasingly rare ability.

Just as a starless sky can transport you into the world of Dylan Thomas, a genuinely dark cloudless sky can stir up the sense of wonder that inspired our Neolithic ancestors to unravel the celestial patterns and record their knowledge in stone circles and cave paintings. Being in awe of the night sky has enriched human experience and spurred creativity for thousands of years.

Image from www.vangoghstudio.com

Yet more than half of Britain’s children have never seen the Milky Way. On a cloudless, moonless night in a city, you might manage to see a dozen or so stars. On the same night in Swaledale or Arkengarthdale, young eyes could pick out two to three thousand. Let those eyes accustom to the dark and they will soon be able to pick out not just our galaxy, the Milky way, but other galaxies, entire systems of stars as vast and complex as our own. Point a small telescope at an ‘empty’ patch of sky on such a night and an unsuspecting viewer is likely to parrot David Bowman’s famous line ‘oh my God! – it’s full of stars!’.

This is why dark matters. The night sky is not only beautiful in its own right, it connects people with space, time and the glory of nature like nothing else. It matters to sustainability because it reminds you of where you live and the importance of looking after it. Human behaviour is hardly going to mess with distant galaxies, but it does mess with our ability to experience them, and it is only in places like the Dales where light pollution has not yet fully masked this appreciation.

The Yorkshire Dales has amongst the darkest skies in Western Europe and winter is the best time to immerse yourself in their splendour. The Dark Skies Festival has been set up to make it easy for people to step out and experience the wilderness of the heavens and we have two very local events that everyone can engage in.

At 7:30pm on Tuesday February 18th at Low Row Institute local astronomer and astrophotographer Paul Clark will take you on a journey through the night time year in Swaledale using time lapse videos and images of the glorious Yorkshire Dales night sky. More information is available at https://www.yorkshiredales.org.uk/event/the-swaledale-night-sky/. Proceeds go towards the Institute’s roof fund.

From 9:30pm on Friday February 21st you can join astronomers from Go Stargazing for an evening exploring the fabulous dark skies above Tan Hill Inn. You’ll enjoy a laser guided tour of the constellations and observe distant galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters using powerful telescopes. Find out more at https://gostargazing.co.uk/events/go-stargazing-at-tan-hill-inn/.

And if you can’t make these, there is a full list of Dark Sky events across the Dales at https://www.yorkshiredales.org.uk/things-to-do/whats-on/?tag=dark-skies.


The International Dark Sky Association: https://www.darksky.org/

Stargazing in the Yorkshire Dales National Park (leaflet) https://www.yorkshiredales.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2019/08/Dark_Skies_leaflet2017.pdf

World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness: https://cires.colorado.edu/artificial-sky

3 thoughts on “Dark matters”

  1. Lovely post Rob, thank you.
    There is evidence emerging that light pollution negatively affects animals and insects causing unusual (and sometimes self destructive) behaviour. It can also affect our sleep patterns. ‘Dark skies’ are precious and – as part of our environment – we should cherish and protect them.

    1. Quite right Delyth and thanks for adding that point. I’ve heard that light pollution is perhaps the biggest negative impact from human activities for for nocturnal animals,

  2. ‘The night sky is not only beautiful in its own right, it connects people with space, time and the glory of nature like nothing else.’ Your words are much better than mine. Yes! Thank you Rob.

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