Exmoor National Park’s first Dark Skies Festival is truly underway, with most events sold out and participants not being put off by the remnants of Storm Brian! Launched on 19th October (Exmoor National Park’s 63rd birthday as we came into being on 19th October 1954) and running until 29th October, the festival celebrates Exmoor’s status as an International Dark Sky Reserve.
An International Dark Sky Reserve is awarded by the International Dark Sky Association who set up the Dark Sky Places Program 2001 to encourage communities around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting polices and public education. Exmoor National Park was the first site in Europe (and 2nd in the world) to achieve International Dark Sky Reserve status in 2011 in recognition of our efforts to maintain a “nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural, heritage and/or public enjoyment.” And whilst we’ve hosted many events and activities relating to our dark skies, we decided to create a 10 day Festival to celebrate the variety of elements our nocturnal world provides.
Coinciding with half-term, the Festival has been designed to appeal to families and children, as well as those more experienced in watching the stars. And it’s not solely focused on stargazing. Visitors also get the chance to learn more the wildlife active at night, explore local myths and legends, go wild-water swimming, watch space-based classic films, as well as sample the best of local food and drink.
The Festival was launched with a presentation by astronomy journalist, author and presenter Will Gater (you might have seen him on The Gadget Show or BBC’s The Sky at Night). Will shared his passion for Auroras – explaining what they were (the really sciencey bit with tonic water and balloons!) and how to watch them from Exmoor. His presentation comprised some stunning images of auroras (including some taken from the International Space Station, one of which is included in the collage below).
The launch event also included the first viewing of our specially commissioned short film (made by Firethought) “Exmoor: Gateway to the Cosmos – An introduction to Europe’s first Dark Sky Reserve”. You can view the video by clicking the image to the left.
We also welcomed back an Exmoor favourite, astronomer Seb Jay who provided several presentations and demonstrations of what can be seen through a telescope (and with the naked eye) from Exmoor’s dark skies. At his presentation in Lynton, between the clouds scudding across the night sky, the audience did get to see Deneb briefly (the brightest star in the constellation of Cygnus, 7000 light years away from Exmoor).
At the time of writing this post (in the middle of the festival), one of the most popular events has been the mobile planetarium hosted by Simon Ould of Space Odyssey. Simon is an experienced science teacher (and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society) who presents using high-resolution images, films and computer simulations projected inside an inflatable dome (above, behind and all around the audience!).
There are also events and activities running throughout the Festival: for example, the Arthur C Clarke exhibition at Minehead Museum (celebrating his birth 100 years ago) and an Astro-influenced Arts and Crafts Exhibition in the Porlock Visitor Centre. Our National Park Centres in Dunster and Lynmouth are hosting a photography exhibition by the Royal Photographic Society.
Most of the events and activities in the festival were sold-out (or were nearly full) in advance. We’ve had visitors who made a special trip down to Exmoor for the festival (from as far afield as Switzerland!) and the positive feedback received has confirmed the festival as a success. But we couldn’t have done it without the support of our sponsors (airband), local businesses and partners who hosted events, plus our ever willing volunteers who supported colleagues as hosts and behind-the-scenes co-ordinators. Thank you all as we start the planning process for next year’s Exmoor Dark Skies Festival!