Dark Skies over Ullswater

By Donna Butcher

Banner image: Aurora Borealis above Brotherswater ©Jay Barker

We are so fortunate to live in a part of the country where we are able to enjoy our environment 24 hours a day. We have the spectacular panoramic views of the fells, lakes and dales during daylight hours and the amazing dark skies at night.

Imagine the dark skies of Neolithic times

Hopefully we can all contribute in some small way, and by various means, to enable us to retain, and at best restore, the dark sky to a level enjoyed in our valley for the best part of 5000 years, going back to Neolithic times. Stone circles and rock art may give us an indication, together with the earliest recorded movements of the stars and planets (clearly observed in the dark skies), of the important relationship to early timekeeping, e.g. navigation, map making, farming calendar etc.

When Neolithic people looked up, what would they have been able to see with little more than a campfire and rush torches for local light and warmth? Since then, of course, time has moved on significantly with the advancement of knowledge and the inventions in the 1700’s of the oil lamp, in the 1800’s the invention of gas lighting followed by electric lighting, all combining to have an impact on the visible night sky.

Milky Way from the Lake Shore ©Jay Barker, with thanks

Counting stars - a study to measure one effect of local light pollution

As previously said, we are fortunate in the Ullswater Valley to be able to experience some of the darkest skies in the UK. This is reflected in the results from the annual survey carried out by CPRE – Campaign to Protect Rural England.

The survey asks us to go into our own back gardens or outside our own front doors and, after we have given our eyes time to adjust (approx. 20 mins), count how many stars we see within the easily recognised constellation of Orion - the Hunter. A map is made of the data collected. It gives a good indication of how, depending on our locale, the sky is affected by local light sources i.e domestic and commercial property lighting, security and street lighting. CPRE is in no way suggesting that personal security and safety should be compromised, this is an information gathering exercise to reflect how our current use of un-natural light is affecting our night skies and our wildlife.

Comet Neowise above Glenridding Steamer Pier ©Jay Barker, with thanks

See the Milky Way and Aurora Borealis over Ullswater

The darkest spots will be very localised to an individual and their circumstances. With a few tweaks we can generate our own little dark spots, e.g. motion sensors, time switches, light shields etc. benefiting both us and our neighbours alike.

Imagine being able to see the Aurora Borealis – Northern Lights - reflecting in the water of the lake. Imagine being able to see the majestic celestial ribbon which is the Milky Way. These can and have been seen when there is a New Moon and our sky is at its darkest.

The images I have included are credited to a friend of mine, Jay Barker. Jay lives in Staveley, near Kendal, and makes regular night-time trips out to Ullswater, to do some astrophotography. Jay’s images are taken from places with limited light pollution by the lakeside. They demonstrate what is visible and possible for us to see with the naked eye.

Hopefully, they will also give a bit of encouragement to us all to consider our local lighting scenario and thus contribute to more of us being able to appreciate our dark night sky.

Aurora Borealis above Place Fell © Jay Barker, with thanks

Jack Ellerby, project officer for the Dark Skies initiative run by Friends of the Lake District has been very helpful in initiating various thought processes within our community and hopefully we will be able to take some of Jack’s suggestions going forward.

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.

Try to make sense of what you see and what makes the universe exist……”

Professor Stephen Hawking

By Donna Butcher

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