Covering 1500 square kms is the largest Dark Sky Park in Europe and one of the largest in the World. The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) awarded the designation to the area with Gold Tier status for the high quality and lack of light pollution of the starscape.
It is a phenomenon that is becoming an important part of the Borders tourism package.
Alex McLennan, Recreation & Public Affairs Manager for the Forestry Commission (North East), who will shortly be launching a permanent dark skies exhibition at Kielder Castle, said: “England’s forests are natural dark sky wildernesses. At Kielder and Hamsterley in Durham we’ve established dark sky viewing venues for visitors and local people alike.”
The award winning Kielder Observatory hosts stargazing seven nights a week.
Visitors to the observatory, whose numbers have broken all records in the last 12 months (over 24,000), can engage with the sky in a way unlike anywhere else in the UK. The all new Kielder Observatory website also has some spectacular videos which showcase the International Dark Sky Park at its very best.
During the year Northumberland’s night skies have captured the hearts and imagination of visitors and residents who have produced some extraordinary photographs. A selection of the best can be seen in an album of A Year of Stargazing at www.visitnorthumberland.com/darkskies.
The Dark Sky Park partners are offering a prize for the best photograph of the night skies taken between now and December 9 2015. They are looking, not only for breathtaking shots of the heavens, and amazing close-ups of the constellations, but for lively captures of the wonder and pleasure on people’s faces as they gaze deep into the soup of stars that are true dark skies.
Even though Northumberland International Dark Sky Park is lightly populated, communities and rural businesses have gone to great lengths to ensure that the night sky heritage is not spoiled by careless light shining into space, but directed to when and where it is needed. It is the responsibility of every Dark Sky Park to maintain its low light levels in order to renew its status each year.
Duncan Wise, Visitor Development Manager for Northumberland National Park Authority and board member of the International Dark Skies Association said: “Being able to see your place in the Universe is every child’s heritage. We want Northumberland’s dark sky park to be a model for responsible lighting and winter tourism that benefits the local economy.”
Stargazing breaks are seen as an important way of extending the visitor season in the area, so it was important to provide training to build a cohort of Starmaker astro guides and dark sky friendly accommodation able to help people navigate and enjoy the stars.
Around 100 holiday businesses and 110 individuals from Wooler to Hamsterley in Durham have taken part in the training schemes over the year. Some have tried out stargazing package breaks including a guided tour of the heavens. All involved have found it greatly valuable to learn how to offer a world class visitor experience.
Richard Darn and Robert Ince, astronomers and business trainers of North East Starmakers have been helping businesses individuals to develop a top quality customer stargazing experience.
Richard said: “There’s a huge enthusiasm in the tourism sector for protecting and sharing our dark skies. Feedback from the tourism industry shows that at least 50% have already seen an increase in business thanks in part to the designation of Northumberland International Dark Sky Park.”