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Stargazing On Exmoor: Europe's First Dark Sky Reserve

Stargazing On Exmoor: Europe's First Dark Sky Reserve
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When was the last time you stared up into the night sky?

One awash with gleaming stars, and crossed by the vapourous billows of the milky way.

The stars and planets we look up at, and the beautiful constellations they form, are a human constant. With minimal differences, our night sky is the same one ancient Greeks, ancient Egyptians, and all human civilisations have existed under. It is something which transcends the passing of time, binds us together as a species, and has influenced every culture that has ever been. But…

The Taming of the Dark

Ancient civilisations enjoyed the sublime majesty of starry skies regularly, but we moderns do not. Why? Because as a species we have advanced above and beyond. This includes the creation of the incandescent lightbulb. Before this, fire was our source of light. Electric light has taken over the world.

We have vast metropolises lit to the heavens with kaleidoscopic arrays of electric colour and dark paths with luminarium sanctuaries under the bows of streetlights. The greatest fear of humankind is the fear of the unknown, of which the dark is a motif. We no longer need be afraid of the dark: we’ve tamed it.

However, this banishment of shadows has unintended consequences—in the form of widespread light pollution.

What is light pollution?

Ever wondered what that eerie tangerine glow is above a city? That’s light pollution. The amalgamation of every bulb, LED, neon sign, headlight, phone-light, and whatever light radiating up and out.

What does light pollution consist of—

  • Glare – excessive brightness that causes visual discomfort
  • Skyglow – brightening of the night sky over inhabited areas
  • Light trespass – light falling where it is not intended or needed
  • Clutter – bright, confusing, and excessive groupings of light sources
Light pollution effects—eclipsing stars

The most noticeable effect (for us) is the vanishing of the stars. More than half of our global population live in cities—almost 4 billion of us. The result is that 75% of those living in urban areas haven’t experienced the existential awe of an unspoiled night sky.

Contemplating the stars and universe is instinctive to us. We stare at the great canopy of night-time, fixated by trillions of molten suns, each burning down over eons. Their pre-historic light pierces through gulfs upon gulfs of blackness, reaching our eyes as silver pin pricks.

From these soft points of light, we have formed our narrative for existence—our creation tales, religions, myths, art, music. The night sky is an integral part of the stories we tell and our creativity.

Experiencing and appreciating a dark sky should be available to all of us. Sadly, there are only a few places left in the world where dark skies reign—and to find them we must leave the city.

International Dark Sky Reserves, what are they?

These are a relatively new type of area, and are as they sound—a piece of public or private land with “an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights”.

Very few areas achieve dark sky status, but when it’s been approved the IDA (International Dark Sky Association) puts a night sky conservation programme in place. This involves educating local communities and public officials on light pollution. The IDA is also a champion of glare minimal, environmentally responsible outdoor lighting, which helps preserve the clarity of darkness needed for stargazing.

The UK & Europe’s first Dark Sky Reserve

Exmoor National Park, which forms part of North Devon and West Somerset is one of the best places to stargaze in the world.

If you look at a night light pollution map of the UK Exmoor is one of only three significantly clear areas. Most of our island is covered in welts of light. Exmoor is 267 square miles of rolling hills, deep wooded valleys, windswept moorland plains, and rugged coast—with only a handful of quaint villages and hamlets. An Exmoor night is special.

The quality of cloudless nights over Exmoor is such that you can see all sorts of celestial wonders without the need of a telescope.

Where on Exmoor should I go to see stars?

Position yourself anywhere on Exmoor on a clear night and it’s likely you’ll be sat beneath some—however, the list below gives you some brilliant places to choose from: 

• Holdstone Hill
• County Gate
• Brendon Two Gates
• Webbers Post
• Anstey Gate
• Haddon Hill
• Wimbleball Lake

When stargazing in a remote upland environment like Exmoor it’s wise to be prepared. Remember to take a torch, a map and compass, sturdy footwear and warm clothes, and a telescope. It’s also nice to take a hot drink and snacks.

Create Your Own Stargazing Break on Exmoor

Why not take a mini weekend break on Exmoor at the award-winning Luttrell Arms in Dunster. Ours is a rustic, yet stylishly presented public house with comfortable rooms and AA Rosette dining. Here you’re miles away from the noise and bright lights of the city, beneath an endlessly unfurling universe. Enjoy a couple of days away, eating well, unwinding with a few drinks, and gazing upwards at the darkest of skies, a canvas of anti-white; of coal and obsidian, misted with pearlescent droplets.

Return home rested and with a sense of peace—visit Exmoor.

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