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Archive for the tag “Kielder Observatory”

Triumph of endeavour over adversity makes for a great weekend away in the Borders – whatever the weather

I am in awe of people who have the vision to make seemingly impossible things happen – and Northumberland abounds with such individuals. We might have missed meeting some of them had our weekend-away risk assessment flagged up that our jaunt into the Kielder Forest Park would coincide with the cloudiest, wettest, wildest weekend in January. It would have been our loss. Despite the weather, we spent a delightful time in an open-air hot tub and sauna, and three and a half marvellous hours on a star-gazing Aurora Night without actually seeing a star.

First stop: Singdean, a fine example of derring-do. Nestled behind a wind-breaking bank on the Newcastleton to Cleuch Head road, Singdean is over the Scottish Border near Bonchester Bridge. Christa and Del Dobson have translated their love of the Alps into the most delightful and quirky ‘informal luxury B&B’ and ‘boutique’. In the 1800s the low-slung stone croft was home to shepherd Walter Scott – who, legend has it, had a recipe for a plaster that cured ‘external cancers’. However, legend also has it that he took refuge in the hills when the ‘Singdean Plaster’ failed to deliver!

Christa is an interior designer and Del a builder. Even so, renovating Singdean to create a home and business proved lengthy and, at times, eye-wateringly difficult. Ever rolled an entire sauna up a muddy hill? They have.  The couple are warm and generous hosts with a fabulous eye for detail. When we arrived, steam was rising from behind the bushes – the hot tub was heating up! The suite (there’s just one), fragranced with lavender oil,  is a cornucopia of tasteful and daft mountain- and ski chalet-abilia – from ski pole wall lights to luxurious snowy inspired wall hangings, and from mounted antlers to dangling hearts. Leaping ahead, they also serve a breakfast akin to an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord buffet.

Now, back to the evening’s entertainment. We braved the icy drizzle in dressing gowns (provided) and flip flops to skitter along the fairy light-lit path to the hot tub – filled from the Singdean spring and heated by its own log burner. Everything at Singdean is perfect for two – just the place for a romantic treat à deux. Our tub-time was enlivened by the momentary frisson of a huge UFO appearing through the dark mist on the horizon – it turned out to be a much less thrilling Scottish Forestry Commission tree feller.

Back in the warmth of the suite it was tempting to relax on the piles of cushions and pillows with a mug of hot chocolate and a book. However, the faux UFO had foreshadowed our next activity. So, after polishing off the deli supper we’d brought with us, we layered up, grabbed our head torches and set off for another lesson in perseverance and vision: the Kielder Observatory.

The Observatory has been a magnet for stargazers since it opened in 2008. This year the surrounding area became Northumberland International Dark Sky Park – the largest such park in Europe, a coup for the region. Robson Green’s recent TV series on Northumberland has also provided a boost, and it’s tricky to find an Observatory event that isn’t fully booked.

Gary Fildes, director, lives and breathes the Observatory – he’s poured eight or so years of his life into creating it. His speech is littered with ‘this will blow your mind’ and ‘incredible, isn’t it?’ He suggests that people either take what they see at face value and get on with life, untouched, or that they are blown away by what a glimpse of a sunrise or the Andromeda Galaxy might suggest about, well, life the universe and everything.

We were sad not to see a single star but it’s testament to Gary and his trusty volunteers that we came away fired up about black holes and distant constellations. We brimmed with new knowledge (apparently gravity has nothing to do with pull, oh no, it’s more like: ‘mass tells space how to curve, space tells mass how to move…’ according to Gary’s Tweet to me) and a renewed desire to glimpse the Aurora.

The next day, we meandered home to Berwick-upon-Tweed along another inspiring man-made landmark – Hadrian’s Wall – aglow with the optimism provided by a good breakfast and the anticipation of future celestial sightings. We’ve already booked to go back to both Singdean and Kielder Observatory and hope that this time the weather will allow us to get out of the car to inspect Hadrian’s work close up!



Near Newcastleton


Scottish Borders TD9 0SP

Tel: 01450 860622


Kielder Observatory:

Putting the ‘fun’ into run and other unexpected associations with stars and suchlike

Have you noticed how people tend to associate themselves with others’ good deeds/intelligence/bravery/creativity and take pride by proxy? David Cameron calling Nelson Mandela ‘Madiba’ is an example. Through use of Mr Mandela’s pet name, Mr Cameron is subconsciously or consciously trying to grab a few rays of Mr Mandela’s glow. Maybe, just maybe, 2014 will be the year our current PM will bring peace, humour and a statesmanlike presence to world politics. And maybe as a nation we can bask in reflected glory. Maybe.

In that spirit, I would like you to know that I had lunch with Kate Humble (BBC TV Naturewatch series) the other day. The Husband and I were heading cross-country on a bit of a pre-Christmas mission. Have you ever broken your journey to partake of a light lunch (The Old Bakehouse, West Linton – very nice) and stumbled across a TV crew and presenters, some dressed as elves and Santas, tucking into a Christmas meal? Surreal as it is, that’s what happened to us. Honest. Someone once suggested that I look a little like Kate (it’s the hair). However, Kate’s petiteness, button nose, and media sparkle are unlikely to rub off on me, despite my name-dropping.

Kate Humble

We were en route to Ayrshire to sample the sumptuous delights of Michelin-starred Glenapp Castle. Even more thrilling, we were going to view the Geminids. Those of you who have been caught up by the brilliant news that Northumberland’s own Kielder Observatory and surrounding area have achieved Dark Sky Park status will probably have the gen on the Geminids – a seasonal cascade of meteors, clearly visible to the naked eye during a couple of nights in December. The Husband and I had a hot date with freelance science communicator, writer and astronomer, Steve Owens, and were hoping for a cloudless night – we lucked out. Steve briefed us in the warmth of Glenapp Castle (with the sounds of the meteor shower playing out through an app on his phone!) letting us know we’d probably see fewer meteors than on a clear night.

Glenapp Castle Hotel

And so it was that we lay trussed up in blankets, atop sun loungers, on the manicured lawns of Glenapp, under the moody Ayrshire sky. We looked like stranded Farne Island seals. It’s hard not to give a football-crowd-type cheer each time you see a trailblazing flash in the sky. We saw 30 or so in a couple of hours. Apologies people of Ayrshire.

Geminids – a photo from National Geographic

So, stargazing looks set to become a new hobby for 2014 – and forms part of The Husband’s birthday surprise (you’ll have to wait and so will he!). Last year we celebrated his rapidly augmenting years with a trip to Edinburgh and I fell into the trap of saying ‘yes’ to a challenge I should have, well, run a mile from. I agreed to do the BUPA Edinburgh Great Winter 5k Fun Run. A friend recently commented that, ‘Fun and run aren’t two words that I’d put together.’ Be that as it may, I have spent the best part of 2013 preparing for this wretched run – three times a week, rain or shine, along river and round coast.

And now the joy is nearly here. Berwick Bloke (a lifeboatman with Berwick RNLI and my challenger) and I will be speeding (or shuffling in my case) our way round Arthur’s Seat on January 11th. We’ll be raising a bit of cash for the fabulous RNLI who risk their lives to look out for those in peril on the sea. After that date I will never have to trot my aged bones up Bankhill again. Yes, 2014 will be the year that I truly give up any attempt to be athletic.And, by association, that means you can too.


POSTSCRIPT: We did it! And actually it was fab. So far we’ve raised around £900 for the excellent RNLI – there’s still time to sponsor so please do consider popping over to my giving page. All contributions – big and small – gratefully received.

A version of this article was first published in The Berwick Advertiser in January 2014

Berwick’s seasonal razzle dazzle

Although it’s ‘party season’, this time of year’s probably the toughest for most residents and businesses – the tourists have, like migrating swifts, scarpered (Robson Green inspired trippers probably won’t arrive ‘til next spring); the chill in the air’s inescapable, as is the need to dust off the heating switch (cursing corporate greed as you do so); it’s time to wear fingerless mittens for everything (hygiene advice: remove for the loo), and to don your thermals night and day.

On the upside, the autumn light is zingy as lemon zest. Low-slung sunrises cast phosphorescent crystals on the river and sea, and the sunsets are as vibrant as the colours beneath the black wax of those children’s scratch art projects.

It’s also time for the town to deck itself in seasonal sparkles. There’s something about the Christmas lights in Berwick that warm your heart – yes, they’re to encourage and attract shoppers, but they’re also akin to a little hot toddy to cheer us town dwellers in the bleakest months. I love to glimpse the starry light across the street as I close the shutters, or to walk up Meg’s Mount and enjoy the twinkly panorama of the town. Of course, as Berwick lights up, it’s lights down a bit further south in the county with the Kielder Observatory becoming Northumberland’s first ‘Dark Sky Park’  – more of that in my next post.

Now, it’s not like me to be out at the crack of a nose-nipping Sunday dawn. However, the 12-year-old (where does time go?), along with other young Berwick sporty types, has been taking part in the county hockey junior development coaching scheme. The grand finale of the scheme? Tournaments on two consecutive Sundays in North Shields. On Sunday number one we witnessed the lights going up on the Royal Tweed Bridge. And on the second, the Golden Square tree being coaxed and cajoled into position. After dropping off my child, I faced a choice: a warming cup of coffee and browse of the paper in front of the fire; or back out into the chill. And so it was that I joined 12 good men and true – and their hydraulic platform, forklift trucks, trailers, chainsaws, and mega ropes of Christmas lights laid out on the pavement like giant strands of candy.

Much heavy plant is required for erecting and decking out a municipal tree.

Much heavy plant is required for erecting and decking out a municipal tree.

Town lights are provided by, cared for and put up by a cocktail of support and endeavour from the Town Council, Rotary Club, Freemen, and Bridge Street Traders’ Association. But the Golden Square tree is the brainchild (bearing in mind the palaver to source, erect and light it up, perhaps lovechild would be more apt) of current town Sheriff, Michael Richardson, supported and funded by the Rotary. The tree has been a fixture in the Square for the last seven or eight years (no one seems quite sure). This year’s model came from just outside Belford – it’s a precision business finding a tree the right size, shape and branch distribution. And even more of one to fell and extract it without inflicting too much damage to it.

I arrive as The Lads – familiar faces from various Berwick businesses – receive mugs of coffee and bacon butties from one of their number. The tree is edged and wedged into position – one year its girth was such that balancing wedges were simply sawn off its trunk. I comment that it’s a smooth operation. They laugh saying it’s less bumpy without a high wind. Sandbags are piled, brooms wielded, Michael Richardson leaps around the hydraulic platform like Jack Sparrow atop the Black Pearl, the white teddy strapped to the pinnacle (another tradition) waggles in his wake. And then it’s done.

The tree – still upright despite high winds. (Photo from Berwick Advertiser)

When you read this, the Mayor will have held her mince pie and tea party in the Guild Hall and formally turned on the town lights. So, merry Christmas & New Year to all – oh, and Lads, thanks for letting me gatecrash the tree party. Next year the bacon butties are on me.

A version of this article was first published in The Berwick Advertiser, December 2013

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