Where and when is best to go stargazing in Suffolk

PUBLISHED: 14:56 26 February 2020 | UPDATED: 14:56 26 February 2020

Stargazing in Suffolk

Stargazing in Suffolk

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Most of us hate long, dark, winter nights but for Suffolk’s stargazers they bring more opportunities to look up and wonder | Words: Richard Ginger - Photos: Richard Ginger and OASI

Suffolk's overarching skies have been ubiquitously celebrated for centuries, from the blushing and blooming cloudscapes so evident in Constable's bucolic oil paintings, to modern-day marketing campaigns aimed at enticing tourists to the county.

And, during the long, dark winter nights, the county's darkening firmament offers another panorama of beauty.

Head into the garden on a clear night, perhaps with a glass or mug in hand, and you can take a seat and stare in wonder as the International Space Station silently tracks across the heavens, or a full moon reveals its meteor-scarred and lifeless landscape.

However, if you want to peer ever deeper into the endless void, the home of the Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich) (OASI) on the banks of the River Orwell, just south-east of Ipswich, is one of the undisputed stars of the astronomical world.

Stargazing in SuffolkStargazing in Suffolk

Completed in 1874, the final jewel in a programme of works to extend the sprawling country house of Colonel George Tomline, the Orwell Park Observatory is a beautiful, purpose-built stargazing facility.

Tomline was a hugely successful industrialist, entrepreneur and member of Parliament, responsible for such large-scale local projects as the Ipswich to Felixstowe railway line and construction of Felixstowe docks.

Alongside his business interests, the colonel was typical of so many others within the Victorian elite, displaying a multi-faceted passion for the arts and sciences.

During his tenure from 1848 until his death in 1889, Orwell Park - today an independent, co-educational prep school - housed an enviable array of oil paintings, the finest china and porcelain, and an unrivalled private library.

Members of Orwell Astronomical Society IpswichMembers of Orwell Astronomical Society Ipswich

The house was also known as a lively social hub for entertaining the era's leading aristocrats and scientists. It's easy to imagine that Tomline would have taken great delight in showing off his newly completed observatory, inviting guests to step into the hydraulic lift that carried them up the circular tower to the equatorial room at the top.

Inside, mounted on a massive brick pier 18 metres above the foundations, stood a state-of-the-art Tomline Refractor.

The telescope was created by the leading makers of the day, Troughton & Simms, and included a lens by the German manufacturer Merz at a total cost of almost £1,700 (over £100,000 today).

"It's a classic telescope. People want to see a stereotypical telescope, something huge, very long and above their heads, and we don't disappoint," says OASI member Roy Gooding.

Orwell Park Observatory and the night skyOrwell Park Observatory and the night sky

Today, the historic observatory is owned by Orwell Park School who leases it to OASI and its members. While the tower's lift is no longer in operation, a climb up the tight, winding stairway has the effect of spiralling visitors back to Tomline's day as they finally reach the door at the top.

This feeling of time-travel is completed when the door opens into the equatorial room, which has remained largely unchanged in the intervening 145 years.

It's akin to stepping straight into a set design for a movie that mashes up gothic-tinged scenes from Harry Potter with Jules Verne's' 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Original and stunning architectural features include a tongue-and-groove ceiling constructed of steam-curved mahogany planks, gracefully tapering to meet in the centre like a chocolate orange.

The Tomline RefractorThe Tomline Refractor

Another OASI member, John Wainwright, says: "There's not anything like it anywhere else in the world as far as we know. We think shipwrights from the river here were possibly employed to build it because it has that ship construction to it.

"It must have cost an absolute arm and leg to do, but Tomline was the equivalent to a billionaire today."

Perhaps even more impressive is the 19th-century feat of engineering that allows the entire roof dome to rotate so that the telescope can follow planets and stars in the night sky.

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The weathered dome, with its copper verdigris exterior, is merely held in place by the forces of gravity. "We slide a mahogany shutter inside the roof to open it and then move the dome around to whatever position we want using a good, old-fashioned, cast iron wheel. As it's a Victorian observatory, everything is manual and still fully operational,'' explains Roy.

Members of Orwell Astronomical Society IpswichMembers of Orwell Astronomical Society Ipswich

In our current throwaway age of in-built obsolescence, the observatory and its fixtures stand as testimony to the Victorian philosophy of building things to last. Thus, the passage of time and historical events have failed to do much harm.

"It's quite amazing that the glass at the end hasn't broken in over a hundred years or more, especially with the Seventh Armoured Division or Desert Rats stationed here during the Second World War," says Roy.

"We think the telescope was left out all the time and they might have swung on it.

"The shutter in the dome was open to watch for German aircraft coming up the river. That would explain why the walls were pretty rotten when we first moved in, as so much damp and water got in."

Tomline RefractorTomline Refractor

As it's a clear night with the moon almost full, Roy springs into action and lines the telescope up with our tranquil lunar neighbour.

Climbing up a set of 150-year-old leather-covered steps to peer through the telescope's lens brings the moon's craggy surface, 240,00 miles from earth, into immediate and sharp focus. It's a moving sight, which instantly explains some of the appeal of astronomy.

"Astronomy is all about looking up. Most people look straight ahead or down at their feet and they forget that there's a third dimension above them. There's an awful lot happening in the sky if only you look up," Roy says, wistfully.

Like Roy, John's passion for the pastime began as a boy. "It was my love of sci-fi and space and I got hooked when I was a youngster watching the Moon landings and The Sky at Night on TV. It's been a hobby of mine for many years and I haven't lost interest at all."

Tomline RefractorTomline Refractor

Seeing stars

The best time to go stargazing is when there is no bright moon at night and the sun has set enough so that twilight does not affect observations. Nowhere has dark skies around a full moon period.

Suffolk's skies will be pretty dark around new year, and then get lighter towards the full moon on January 10-12. The skies will then be dark from around Jan 20 until the end of the month.

Walberswick and Westleton Common are both Dark Sky Discovery Sites where, if conditions are right, you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye.

Tomline RefractorTomline Refractor

In search of dark skies

A central tenet of OASI's constitution is about encouraging others to try stargazing for themselves. "We take astronomy out to the public and educate and enlighten them," explains member John Wainwright.

"Our outreach events are what I enjoy most, when we take telescopes out, point them at an object in the sky, and people look through the eye-piece and go 'Oh, wow'. It's that wow-factor that gives me satisfaction."

Being located in a school means the Grade II-listed observatory is only open to the public once a year, but organised visits and the society's calendar of events give ample opportunity to get up close to the stars.

There are also regular trips to the village of Newbourne nearby in search of dark skies.

John advises getting away from big towns which are light polluted, and going up towards Dunwich or Shingle Street on the coast where skies are darker.

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