Yorkshire astronomy enthusiasts have stars in their eyes after an amazing project to dismantle a half-tonne telescope, transport it 200 miles and rebuild it on a nature reserve. Chris Burn reports.
It has been a four year labour of love. But now the stars are shining on a corner of North Yorkshire where a unique scheme to rebuild a half-tonne telescope transported in pieces from its original home in Kent has been completed.
A small band of astronomy enthusiasts have managed to get the telescope up and running on a former dairy farm turned nature reserve - with a new observatory being built from scratch to house the unique piece of machinery.
The telescope is one of the main attractions of the second Dark Sky Festival, which involves stargazing events taking place in the Dales, North York Moors national parks and in Nidderdale.
It has been uncapped in Grewelthorpe, near Ripon, on the land of retired farmers Peter and Irene Foster, who have turned their former dairy farm into a nature reserve that includes stone circles, an Iron Age style round house and now this new spot for stargazing in the new purpose built Lime Tree Farm observatory.
The story behind this extraordinary venture began in 2012 when the telescope was threatened with being scrapped in its home observatory on the edge of London.
Built by an eccentric genius called John Wall, who together with Patrick Moore is one of the legends of British amateur astronomy, he was so distraught at the prospect that he contacted friends in York to see if they could help rescue his pride and joy.
Martin Whipp, chairman of York Astronomical Society, picked up responsibility for finding it a new home and decided to approach the Fosters.
Peter Foster, whose family bought Lime Tree Farm 45 years ago, says his long-standing interest in astronomy meant he was delighted to take on the telescope - if slightly surprised to be asked.
“I was a member of the Harrogate Astronomical Society years ago and we used to have friends at York Astronomical Society.
“They used to come to visit us and vica versa. They would come here for barbecues and things.
“One day somebody knocked on the door who I hadn’t seen for about 20 years. That was Martin Whipp and he said he had this telescope which was needing a good home.
“I thought this is a fantastic opportunity to build an observatory for it, They assured me it would be here forever if we could build the observatory.
“The observatory has taken around 18 months or more because the builder has done it in his spare time.
“It has taken quite a while to put the telescope back together again. They had to take it to bits and hire a wagon and bring it back to Yorkshire, It has been stored here for four years. Now it is installed, it looks wonderful. There is still some fine-tuning to do.”
Members of the astronomical society with specialist knowledge of telescopes helped piece it back together again with the help of advice from an expert engineer.
Peter, who is in his 60s, says it has been a thrill to have such a powerful telescope available to use.
“I have only seen the Moon so far. But Martin said he did see some of the dust lanes in the Andromeda galaxy which you couldn’t see with a smaller telescope. Since I was very small, I have always been interested in just looking at the sky for as long as I can remember.
“About 20 years ago, I bought a good telescope but when you magnified the Moon and you are looking, every half a minute you have to move the telescope a little bit because it appears to be moving across the sky because of the Earth turning. This one actually has a motor drive so can follow the Moon.”
Light pollution maps published last year by the Campaign to Protect Rural England revealed that Yorkshire’s national parks and AONBs like Nidderdale are amongst the nation’s darkest areas.
Glance skywards from the middle of York or Harrogate and you will be fortunate to glimpse more than 20 stars on a clear night, but from rural locations like Lime Tree Farm you can multiple that 100 fold and also see the Milky Way – something nine out of ten British have never seen.
Peter says that the location of the farm makes it an ideal spot for the telescope to be based.
“The farm is not really viable anymore so we’ve used the land to create a place where people can come wildlife spotting, pond dipping or meditating.
“When folk come here from Leeds and Harrogate and look up they all say ‘wow’. They’ve never seen so many stars.
“It really is spectacular and we can even see the Northern Lights on rare occasions.
“When Martin from the astronomy club knocked on our door and asked if we’d be interested in having a big telescope on the farm we were over the moon.
“We were happy to fund the construction of the observatory and now it’s completed we want people to come and enjoy the facility and admire the starry skies we love so much here in Nidderdale.”
Martin Whipp says it has taken plenty of work to get the telescope up and running in its new home.
“It would have been a terrible waste to see the telescope broken up for scrap. It’s a really powerful instrument which really needs a dark sky location.
“That’s where Peter and Irene stepped in to provide a home on their farm. Dismantling and transporting the telescope 200 miles north was a huge task.
“Then we had to get planning permission for an observatory, create the building from scratch and restore the telescope, not to mention lay down two tonnes of concrete just to provide a solid base. At times I thought we’d bitten off more than we could chew But now that people have looked through the scope it has given us all a massive kick.”
Martin says: “We had our first proper public viewing session back in December and feedback was brilliant. It’s been an herculean job to get this project together, drawing on the donations, expertise, time and goodwill of countless people.
“But when you can see dust lanes in a galaxy whose light has taken 2.5 million years to reach the Earth you know you are in a special place. And that’s the thrill we want to share with other people at the observatory.”
Peter says there are increasing number of people participating in activities like stargazing to feel a closer connection with the universe and the world they live in.
He says the telescope fits in well with the nature reserve’s other attractions.
“Nature is the centre of all things for me. There are a lot of people getting further and further away from it. But quite a lot of people are recognising they want to reconnect with it and they end up here.”