Exploring Kielder Forest and Observatory..
About as far north in England as you can go, the Northumberland National Park straddles the land between the Scottish border, and what was once the Scottish (actually Pictish) border of Hadrian’s Wall. It is an area of vast rolling moors, many covered with the plantation forest of Kielder. Aside from this great walking potential, we had come primarily for another reason – Northumberland is one of the best places in the world, and the best place in Europe, to see dark skies.
We’re so used to the light pollution of towns and cities that we’ve forgotten what the night sky really looks like. And if you really want to know, head to somewhere designated as protected for dark skies. In the UK, this includes the Brecon Beacons and Galloway Forest, but reaches its greatest extend in Northumberland.
On the first night, we weren’t disappointed. The sun set in a clear sky and soon enough thousands of stars were visible, concentrated in the Milky Way and arranged in all the famous constellations right above us. The North Star was quickly identified, and we stood out to watch the incredible display, despite the cold.
Saturday’s walk was a wander through the great Kielder Forest up to the peak of Monkside, where after the smell of pine trees in the cold air we were treated to a view that stretched from the hills of the Southern Uplands of Scotland all the way down to the Lake District, covered in snow, and the Northern Pennines. Our route back took in some frozen lakes and a stroll along the shore of Kielder Water. Walking mostly on forestry tracks, we covered quite a lot of ground, and got an impression of how vast a landscape this is.
Later in the evening we drive up to the Kielder Observatory, high on the moors, for an evening of astronomy talks, stargazing through the telescopes, and hot drinks. Despite the cloudy sky and the total lack of stars to see, the talks were fantastic and the Observatory team put on a great show introducing people to the night sky, and enthusing us with a new interest in getting out and watching the stars. After a dose of hot chocolate, we were back in the hostel for a night-cap, and a closely contested game of midnight Scrabble.
Sunday dawned bright and sunny, so we headed south to Hadrian’s Wall, where it runs along the Whinsill. We walked a section past two milecastles and a few towers, and admired the famous Sycamore Gap, where we felt the presence of Kevin Costner even after all these years. Looking out from the Wall over Northumberland, where Roman troops would have gazed over hostile and unknown terrain, was a great end to the weekend, and the November chill made our subsequent visit to the pub for lunch even sweeter.
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