South Downs and Shooting Stars

It was almost midnight, one night midway through the 2nd week of August. Most sensible folk were heading for restful slumber, but me?

Armed with flask and red-light torch, and sporting umpteen layers of clothing, I was about to join a car-full of people I didn’t know very well on a foray into the West Sussex countryside.

Allow me to reassure you that this was a perfectly safe, sane and respectable move on my part. I was joining a group of amateur astronomers on an observing trip to The Trundle –  an Iron Age hill fort 3 miles north of Chichester which acts as a key observing site for local group South Downs Astronomical Society.

Perseids Meteors

Perseids by Sebastian

This was the night when activity levels of the annual Perseid meteor shower would be at their highest, and I was playing a minor part in gathering data while anticipating an impressive display of ‘shooting stars’ – away from the worst of urban light pollution.

It’s Oh So Quiet..Shh…Shh

It was slightly eerie when we first arrived – it always is with amateur observing because the background chatter of everyday life is absent. But we soon settled down into pairs, each reposed in a different direction to cover maximum sky. And there we stayed for a good 3 hours – just us, the hidden creatures of the countryside, and a sky full of sparkles.

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Sky-chart-at-night
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When it’s 3am and you’re in England, over 200 metres above sea level and not moving very much, you’ll need to wrap up as we did, whatever the time of year. But we were a hardy troupe and stayed the distance, scanning the sky and recording details of colourful blazing trails. In between meteors we joked around, or just chatted, or had another cup of tea, until dawn beckoned and the birds chirped us away.

Nerd’s Eye View

Amateur astronomy is sometimes perceived as an unsociable pastime, and the leisure territory of the excessively nerdy. That’s really annoying, mainly because it’s not true. Sure, there’s not much getting away from the fact that visual sky observing is a nocturnal activity, but it offers so much in return for the unusual hours.

When these meteor showers put on a show, it’s a theatrical spectacle, like an ensemble cast of luminous leading performers and supporting players in multi-coloured heavenly costumery.

Perseid Meteor, courtesy of Kathryn Alberts

Perseid Meteor, courtesy of Paul Williams

Occasionally, a rogue meteor will appear from an unexpected corner of the cosmic stage, drawing attention to itself like a true universal ham. But enough of the acting analogies.

If you like camping, you’ll appreciate the sense of connection with nature you get from being outdoors in a rural setting after dark. Imagine (go on, you can if you try) the added dimension you get when the sky comes alive with darting flashes of light and colour. That’s why we do it.

Stargazing photo by Thanasis Papathanaslou

Stargazing photo by Thanasis Papathanasiou

Get Involved: Joining a local society is the best way to get involved and gives a great sense of camaraderie, and a great environment to learn more, without any pressure to be a hard-core observer. To find a nearby astronomical society either search online for your area or look via an organisation such as the British Astronomical Association or the Society for Popular Astronomy.

 

What Else to See and Do: The Trundle sits right next to extensive Goodwood Estate on the southern edge of the South Downs National Park. Check in advance to see if your visit coincides with one of their flagship events such as the Festival of Speed.  For nature lovers and ramblers, try a stroll through adjacent Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve, home to one of Europe’s most impressive yew forests, or a short climb up to the iconic landmark of Halnaker Windmill with its impressive panoramic views.

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The nearby cathedral city of Chichester is a vibrant hub offering a wide range of cultural activities.  Take in a show at the Festival Theatre or the South Downs Planetarium – both featuring ‘stellar’ performances! Step back in time at nearby Fishbourne Roman Palace and Gardens or explore the wildlife and idyllic villages of Chichester Harbour. Or if you just want to relax and take it all in, do what I often did and pass an hour away people-watching from the town’s centrepoint at Chichester Cross.

A little further afield, the stunning town of Arundel with its medieval cathedral and riverside walks, is a great choice for a day trip – do also take in a visit to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre, easily accessible from the town centre.

Nearby Arundel, West Sussex

Nearby Arundel, West Sussex

Meteor Showers:  Most meteor showers are caused by trails of comet debris. As a comet orbits the Sun it sheds an icy, dusty stream of particles along its path. If the Earth travels through this stream, we will see a meteor shower. If you trace their paths back, the meteors in each shower appear to come into the sky from the same region i.e. where the debris trail is concentrated.

‘Rogue’ meteors are more properly known as sporadic meteors.  They can appear in any part of the sky, from any direction, at any time, and are the result of random bits of space debris, rather than a specific comet’s trail of cosmic crumbs.

Disclosure:  Thanks to the South Downs Astronomical Society for organising these observing sessions over the years, and to all amateur astronomical groups who continue to inspire the next generation of stargazers. 

 

 

Sara Dobak

Hi, I’m Sara, founder and writer at Travel Continuum, where I write about my global travel experiences, with a special passion for the stars and sustainability. I believe in the power of education through travel, and here I share the tales and tips that I find interesting and inspiring. I hope that you do too. continuum /kənˈtɪnjʊəm/: a sequence of elements where the extremes are very different, but each individual stage is barely distinguishable from the next. Something that keeps going, changing gradually over time…like the seasons.

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10 Responses

  1. This looks like a really interesting and alternative ‘night out’! I’ve tried star gazing in a few places and didn’t know about this spot, and it’s not far from my house, I’ll have to have a closer look!

    • Sara Dobak says:

      I do tend to be drawn towards the ‘alternative’! What’s extra good news about the South Downs National Park is that in May of this year, it became the world’s latest official International Dark Sky Reserve, meaning a continued commitment to minimising light pollution.

  2. I’d love to do this to – the skies are so fascinating. Need to work on my night photography first though! Some lovely photos of the area in this post – I used to live in West Sussex so recognise most of them. Need to get to Halnaker Windmill just for the tunnel of trees!

  3. Lucy says:

    What a fantastic experience, it’s so rare that we really ever sit still and watch the skies. I so should’ve tried some night photography when I was out in the wilds of Canada, it’s so hard to find places in the UK without any light.

    • Sara Dobak says:

      You’re so right, Lucy, we never seem to just look UP! There are a few designated ‘dark sky places’ in the UK – but the International Dark Sky Association website (darksky.org) lists all official such sites worldwide, so it’s worth a quick check before ANY trip.

  4. Anna Parker says:

    This is incredible, the depth you can get, I wish there were more truly dark places around, although then i’d get neck ache! Take me with you on the taster session please, I’m only down the road!

    • Sara Dobak says:

      You’d be welcome, Anna! Light pollution is indeed a nuisance (and negatively impacts wildlife biorhythms) but people are beginning to wise up, I hope!

  5. I’d love to do this one day. I need to learn how to photograph the night sky, although I’m not sure I’d enjoy 3 hours sitting on top of the trundle at night. Been up there a great many times in the day though and the views are spectacular. I walked up to Halnaker Windmill just last weekend. The tunnel of trees you have to walk through to get there must be very spooky by night!

    • Sara Dobak says:

      Ditto! We should try a taster astrophotography session this winter – we could be back by midnight at this time of year 🙂 I’ve seen your amazing ‘tunnel of trees’ photo, it’s like the gateway to a fairy realm!

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