Starry Starry Night

10th June 2019

The South Downs National Park is one of only two International Dark Sky Reserves in England, making it a magnet for stargazers.

Words by Alan Franks

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While the South Downs became Britain’s newest National Park in the spring of 2011, newer still is the protected status given to the infinite and incalculably ancient starscape that wheels above it. It was less than three years ago that the park was awarded the status of International Dark Sky Reserve, making it the second such in England (Exmoor is the other) and one of only 13 in the world. Each February its mysteries are celebrated at the park’s annual Dark Skies Festival, a fortnight of family activities, talks and tours.

Man’s hand has of course been a factor in the gradual obscuring of the firmament. Stand high on the Downs on a clear night and your views of the middle distance are bounded by the dulling brightness (light pollution, in effect) of an urbanised England. Recent years, however, have seen a rearguard action. There are roughly 2,700 streetlights in the South Downs National Park, and the region’s local lighting authorities have been diligently replacing these to comply with Dark Sky standards, installing lamps that are angled groundwards, unlike their predecessors, which allowed a significant upward bleeding of light.

Our universe will get more and more complex. It will eventually run out of fuel and fizzle away.

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Did you know that the South Downs Planetarium is less than 15 minutes from The Goodwood Hotel?

At the same time, some 25,000 measurements have been taken to map the quality of the night skies across the Downs. As a result of all this work, around 66 per cent of the 600-square-mile park can now claim Bronze-Level Skies, as assessed by the International Dark Sky Association. Its stargazing “hotspots’’ include Winchester Science Centre & Planetarium, Old Winchester Hill, Butser Hill, Iping Common, Devil’s Dyke, Ditchling Beacon and Birling Gap (this photograph, right, was taken in Privett, Hampshire).

Much of the credit for this celestial re-opening goes to Midhurst ranger Dan Oakley. A physicist by training – and self-confessed Trekkie (Star Trek fan) – he has held this post since the park’s creation eight years ago. Oakley waxes existential when he contemplates the outward view from this planet, traversing hundreds of thousands of light years. Stargazing, he says, has been the closest thing he has experienced to mind expansion. If he had a God, it would be entropy, meaning a gradual decline into disorder. “Our universe will get more and more complex,” he declares. “It will eventually run out of fuel and fizzle away.’’

The end of the world? Not exactly. “For me,” he says, “one of the most exhilarating things is the sense that there has to be life out there somewhere. There are two trillion galaxies and innumerable stars, all with planets around them. As to the exact nature of that life, who can say?”

 

This article was taken from the Spring 2019 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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