A Glittering Night With The Stars

Yes folks, it’s Award-Season again…

….which is my cue to get out of the house by whatever means necessary and do practically anything rather than switch on the telly.

Ever since I heard about them, I’ve fancied the Observatory’s alternative Nights With the Stars, which are run after dark in a deserted Greenwich Park. Astronomers, complete with beards, anoraks and glasses (i.e. real astronomers) take small groups of curious gawpers like me up to the giant onion-dome, which is majestically opened to allow the giant refractor telescope a free rein at the endles skies.

As I walked through a silent, blackened Park, despite the fact that it was still only about 6.30pm, I confess I kept to the middle of the paths. As a Royal Park, Greenwich isn’t allowed to have any streetlights, a welcome patch of darkness in a busy London spatter of sodium, neon and halogen. It was eerie – and not eerie – at the same time. It doesn’t matter how well you know a place, by night when there’s no one else there, a place with that much history both above and below ground is bound to give a sensitive Phantom an edgy feel.

I tried not to look above my head, tried to convince myself that the dense cloud above me was going to magically disperse, but as the foghorn on the rangers’ van announced to the last few stragglers that the park was closing and the tiny train brought some more attendees for the event (apparently that’s how I was supposed to have arrived too – after dark everyone has to come in via regulated National Maritime Museum channels) it was quite clear the night was officially overcast.

They seem to be quite well set-up for such eventualities. Presumably this is a regular occurance. They started us off in the Planetarium with a live-commentary overview of the heavens, with particular reference to that night – where – if there had actually been a clear sky – we could find the various constellations, planets and man-made objects. Mars was pointed out so that we could look for it ourselves sometime – and given times and dates for other good things to see.

Then we all trekked across to the famous onion-shaped dome (it’s the only one in the world, you know – created that shape because when the original -smaller – telescope was replaced, the new one was too big to sit in the building. They didn’t have the cash to rebuild it all so just the dome was replaced) where two more astronomers told us the history of the place and the instruments – much of which was 20th Century stuff that I didn’t know much about, so I was a happy Phantom. They took us through a video taken from the telescope on a night when it was actually clear and discussed all the stuff we would have seen.

It was a consolation prize, and as consolation prizes go, it wasn’t bad at all. They made the best of what could have been a disappointing evening – and even if they didn’t actually open the roof of the dome, actually being in there at night, freezing cold, and listening to people who know what they’re talking about gave me a good feel of how it must have been in years past.

Now I have a problem. These evenings get heavily booked up – and I am sure that when you can actually see something it is a wonderful experience. I thoroughly enjoyed my one visit – but what I’d really like to do now is actually look through the big telescope. It’s about £15 a ticket, and much as I enjoyed last time, I don’t really want to do exactly the same thing again if it’s going to be cloudy. There’s a series of evenings looking at Saturn coming up, but would I be better off waiting for summer when it’s more likely to be clear?

Hmm. While I’m pondering, you might like to take a look yourself. It’s certainly worth it, whatever the weather, for the first time at least. Find information here

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