There were plans afoot to make the Isle of Wight a ‘Dark Skies Park’ but the larger towns to the north east are just a little too bright. For this reason the best locations on the Island for stargazing do tend to be down the west coast or along the chalk downs that stretch across the middle. The high downs to the south and the more remote parts of the countryside are also good, so to help you out we’ve put together our top ten stargazing locations.
This is one of the darkest coastline locations on the Island and there is a public footpath across the fields to the edge of the cliff to the right of the former Atherfield Holiday Camp. In the summer there are campers in this field who will have lights on so it is better in the winter months.
The top of the cliffs at Compton has to run a close second as it gets very dark around here. The lights of Freshwater do glint in the distance, as do those on the mainland, but don’t interfere with the low horizon.
3. Brighstone Beach/Cliffs
The IW Star Party meet here every year so if it’s good enough for them, it must be a good bet. It’s best over on the cliff edge and there are campers during the summer in these parts so you do need to pick your spot carefully.
It’s landlocked but it’s very dark in this valley, that has sparse development and lots of open fields and it is also home to the Island’s public Observatory that is owned and operated by the Vectis Astronomical Society.
5. The Longstone
It doesn’t have a low horizon but you are in a bowl in total darkness looking up at the stars that the druids, who used this spot for worship, would have seen 4000 years ago. Walk over to the edge of the downs and you will have a panoramic view of the coast – there will be some light pollution from Brighstone below but the skies are big here. Anywhere along Brighstone Downs is good for stargazing as there are no streetlights and dark skies above you. There are also gates, stiles and animals grazing so be sure to take a low energy torch to help you negotiate your way and find a safe spot to set up.
6. The Needles Headland
High above the Needles on the top of Tennyson Down is a great place to stargaze on a clear night. Walk over to the southern side of the downs and you can see the former rocket testing site too. It’s better to explore the old gantries in daylight as the land is very steep and covered in chalk scree but this is the ideal place to set up your ‘scope’.
7. St Catherine’s Down
Walk up from the ‘Viewpoint’ carpark at Blackgang to the old Pepperpot lighthouse for a fantastic panoramic view or you can get onto the downs from various pathways including one up to the Hoy Memorial at the other end. You’ll have a amazing view of the Island and a big sky to choose from.
8. Culver Down
Whilst the lights of Ryde, Bembridge, the bay area and the mainland are visible on a clear night you do also have a good view of the skies from Culver Down on a dark moonless night. This is a good place to lie on your back and watch for shooting stars.
9. Brading Down
Views across the Solent to the mainland are good from here and across the south east of the Island to the Bay area and the lights of Sandown, Lake and Shanklin. But the skies are dark above you and the horizon to the south is clear even if the land below is littered with light.
10. St George's Down
It's above Newport off of the Blackwater Road - take the signposts for Newport Golf Club. Even though this spot is very near to our capital it is sufficiently high to avoid the glow from the streetlighting.
“I always intended to do astronomy as a retirement hobby and then I moved to Winford and discovered that there was an observatory down the road, so retirement came early,” he laughed. “I’ve only been studying it about four years and have been the director here for two. You learn a lot in a short space of time if you’re keen.
“The original members of the VAS used to meet in hotels across the Island and always had plans to get their own observatory. Eventually John Smith got involved in the Society and he was on the Newchurch Parish Council and they decided that when they built the Pavilion next door that we’d have some land for an observatory. The money was raised in grants and long term loans.
“John Smith really kick started this observatory and we’re lucky enough to have a peppercorn rent and a lease with quite a few more years. We’re reaching a point where we need to think about replacing some of our equipment – an update.”
In the large classroom area are various telescopes, including a very large ‘mirror’ telescope that looks like two big metal boxes, the top one cylindrical. “There are two types of telescope: some use lenses and others mirrors,” explained Brian. “This big one is just made with mirrors and is for serious astronomy – it’s not the sort of thing you’d have at home.
“We’re a registered charity and part of our remit is public outreach; education on all astronomical subjects. This has become one of the most used bits of the observatory.”
Walking through into the smaller ‘viewing’ room, Brian pointed out some disconnected pieces of equipment and there is also a large viewing screen on the far wall. “We used to be able to control the telescope upstairs (in the observatory) from here, but now we have different options,” he explained taking out his iPhone. “There’s an app on here that allows me to control that telescope,” he said pointing upstairs. “If I had the control installed I could tap Jupiter into the keypad and the telescope would go there.”
Up in the observatory, Brian showed me the large telescope in the centre of the dome. “This is completely computer controlled and on top of it is another telescope. You can put a camera on the upper one to take photos of what we’re looking at,” said Brian. “A camera acts differently from an eye – it has permanent storage on it. You can see colour through a camera that you won’t see through an eye.
“The telescope tracks what you are looking at and you can have a ten minute exposure for example. Or you can use a close circuit television camera and we can take the feed out of this telescope and show it on the screen downstairs. That’s the sort of thing we’re playing with at the moment.”
“Every Thursday we are open to the public from 8pm (large groups please arrange your visit beforehand) and when you’re a member and have been trained up to use the equipment you can come down and use the observatory whenever you like.
“It’s the sort of hobby where you can disappear off into a small corner of it. Cameras or planets or galaxies – some people are just interested in looking and others sketch what they see. Our Chairman Faith Jordan is into deep sky astronomy and she sketches what she sees. Some people like looking at clusters of stars. This stuff is advancing at a rate of knots and it’s difficult to keep up.
“I was a technical author writing instruction manuals. My last job was the Help system for NTL Technical Support. We came from Wiltshire to the Isle of Wight – my wife Sue’s parents live on the Island – and that was eight years ago. We lived in Swindon and you could see stuff but it was hard work compared to here. I’ve been to Australia and seen wonderful views where there is no light pollution.
“I’m interested in lots of things: photography, natural history, golf…it was a case of not being able to do everything, but when I found this I couldn’t avoid it.”
Every month each member gets a copy of the newsletter about what’s going on and once a month the Society has a speaker at the Newport Parish Church Centre in Town Lane, Newport. Patrick Moore is an honorary member. “He rang up the other month to say thank you for sending him the magazine and how much he enjoys it,” enthused Brian.
“We have Stargazing events to coincide with the BBC Stargazing programmes. It’s a popular subject and we had at about 80 people to the last two and the BBC send educational material to give out to people.”
The next Stargazing Live event at the Observatory is on Friday 20th January 2012 from 8pm till 10pm. Hands-on activities and Stargazing will be supervised by the Society’s experienced amateur astronomers. The darkness of the sky will be measured by using a Sky Quality Meter and then you are invited to see how many stars you can see, and to repeat this in your own garden at home. If you live in the West Wight you may get a higher count at home as our darkest skies are between Whale Chine and Atherfield and around Compton/Brook.