If you live anywhere near the sprawling, light-filled metropolis that is London, the light pollution of our streetlamp- and building-packed capital will prove itself to be quite the intrusive inhibitor of any decent star-spotting. However, if you fancy yourself a budding astronomer, there are scores of rural nooks in the UK where you’ll be treated to proper darkness, and therefore the chance to spot not just a few stars, but maybe even the whole Milky Way, and more.
Closest to London: South Downs National Park, Sussex and Hampshire
With dark skies in the South East under threat from the pandemic of light pollution, it was quite an achievement for the South Downs to be named an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2016. From the darkest spots in this expansive national park, which stretches through Sussex and Hampshire, you can spot the Milky Way and, on a clear night, maybe even the Andromeda Galaxy. The best (aka darkest) places are Harting Down, Old Winchester Hill and Bignor Hill.
For star-themed events: Exmoor National Park, Somerset and Devon
In what was Europe’s first Dark Sky Reserve in 2011, stargazing and family fun go hand in hand, with a whole smattering of events and festivals throughout the year that celebrate the twinkling night sky. On the clearest of nights, 3,000 stars can be seen with the naked eye – in contrast to the several dozen you might see in London if you’re lucky. For several weeks in October and November, head here to take part in the Dark Skies Festival which features events like astrophotography workshops and night mountain biking.
For sea and stars: Carnewas and Bedruthan Steps, Cornwall
After a magical day on one of Cornwall’s Mediterranean-like beaches, settle in with a cosy jumper, a blanket (and maybe a bottle of wine) and wait for it to get dark. This Dark Sky Discovery spot combines stunning stars and splashing seas, so you can stand in the surf while you watch the milky way appear in front of you, lighting up the beach and dramatic rocks that erupt from the ocean – it’s quite the sight to behold.
For the most stars: Galloway forest park, Galloway and Dumfries
Due to this expansive forest park’s 185,000 rural acres and the limited number of buildings, light pollution can really be kept to a minimum here. As a result, the arching centre band of the Milky Way stands out proudly, and even with just your eyes you’ll be able to see 7,000 stars when the sky is really clear. You’ll find almost total darkness here, at a maximum level of 23.6 (a photographer’s darkroom measures 24), so you’ll almost definitely see more stars than you ever have before.
For a star-focused island: Coll, Inner Hebrides
The Isle of Coll, located far west in the Inner Hebrides, is an island almost entirely dedicated to marvelling at the night sky. This tiny spot of land, with a population of just 32 people, is the world’s second Dark Sky Island, an achievement which doesn’t come easily. This title means that the entire community are dedicated to maintaining a dark sky; therefore there are no streetlamps, making every trip out after dark (particularly on a New Moon) quite the adventure. The sky here is so dark that you’ll even have a strong chance of spotting deep sky objects, like the Great Orion Nebula.
For the Northern Lights: Shetland, Northern Isles
Thanks to their rural location high up on the northern peak of the UK, the Shetland Islands, even near the main towns, are amongst the darkest places you’ll find in the UK. You’re pretty much guaranteed a sighting of the Milky Way here, but if you’re venturing all this way north, be sure to plan your trip around an even more exciting display: the Northern Lights. Between October and March marks the ideal time to head out Borealis-spotting; you can even wild-camp, so it’s possible to get completely off the beaten track and enjoy nature’s greatest spectacle in complete tranquillity.