Winter Solstice: 7 International Dark Sky Reserves in Britain

Of the 18 International Dark Sky Reserves in the world, Britain is home to seven. Expert Tiffany Francis-Baker reveals how to make the most of your visit for stargazing spectacles...

6 mins

1. Exmoor National Park

Milky Way over Wimbleball Lake, Exmoor National Park (Shutterstock)

Milky Way over Wimbleball Lake, Exmoor National Park (Shutterstock)

Exmoor’s skies are some of the darkest in the UK, and minimal light pollution means that on a cloudless night visitors can see the Milky Way and thousands of stars with the naked eye.

Poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth both took night walks here. They dropped small white stones like breadcrumbs to help them find their return journey home.

Today the Exmoor National Park team, hire out everything you need to observe the night sky, including telescopes. They also host a Dark Skies Festival in October/November each year with a huge range of events, including guided stargazing sessions, night walks, stargazing retreats, talks and workshops by expert astronomers, nocturnal wildlife events, astro-themed craft sessions and night time boat adventures under the stars.

Tiffany’s tip: Wimbleball Lake, 15 minutes northeast of Dulverton, is a fantastic place to spot red deer, brown long-eared bats and starling murmurations at dusk as the stars begin to appear.

2. Brecon Beacons National Park

Star trails over the Brecon Beacons (Shutterstock)

Star trails over the Brecon Beacons (Shutterstock)

The Brecon Beacons is a cluster of mountains sprinkled with Bronze Age burial mounds, Norman castles, sheep tracks, mines and quarries. The mountains are popular for a variety of outdoor pursuits, such as mountain biking, kayaking, horseriding, gliding and rock climbing. And, increasingly, stargazing.

The Brecon Beacons National Park became an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2012 and, since then, has made a name for itself among amateur and professional astronomers. On a clear night, you can see the Milky Way, major constellations, bright nebulas and even meteor showers. Local accommodation providers also offer plenty of ‘stay-and-gaze’ options, and the scenic landscapes have inspired stunning examples of astrophotography.

Tiffany’s tip: The stunning ruins of Llanthony Priory are one of the park’s most iconic sites where visitors can enjoy pristine dark skies. The priory itself is closed from 16.00 onwards but stargazers are welcome to use the car park for views over to Hatterrall Hill.

3. Cranborne Chase

Sunrise after a night of stargazing on Hambledon Hill (Shutterstock)

Sunrise after a night of stargazing on Hambledon Hill (Shutterstock)

Overlapping the boundaries of Wiltshire, Dorset, Hampshire and Somerset, Cranborne Chase is a unique and diverse landscape, rich in rare flora and fauna. Fans of the Wessex writer Thomas Hardy might recognise it from early scenes in his 1891 novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

Cranborne Chase was the 14th International Dark Sky Reserve to be recognised in the world, first designated in October 2019.  More than 50% of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has the lowest levels of light pollution found in England,

The undulating landscape of Cranborne Chase offers dramatic scenery and stunning panoramic views of the night sky, including the prominent summits of Breeze Hill (262m), Win Green (277m) and Melbury Hill (263m).

Stargazing events are hosted throughout the year, culminating in their annual Dark Skies Festival in February.

Tiffany’s tip: Hambledon is widely considered to be one of the finest Iron Age hill forts in Dorset, and at dusk is also a great spot for watching hares and finding glow-worms in the long grass.

4. Snowdonia National Park

Star trails over Mount Snowden (Shutterstock)

Star trails over Mount Snowden (Shutterstock)

The stars feature regularly in the Welsh Mabinogion stories, a compilation of tales written in Middle Welsh and originating from ancient oral storytelling. So it’s fitting that in December 2015, Snowdonia National Park was the second area in Wales to be designated as an International Dark Sky Reserve.

The designation covers 18% of Wales’s land area. Snowdonia is one of the darkest places in Britain, particularly within its rugged, mountainous interior, and covers a thinly populated land mass of over 2,070km2 (800 square miles).

Whether you’re in the mountains, at the side of a lake or gazing out across the sea, a clear night in Snowdonia will offer you views of the Milky Way, all the major constellations, nebulas and shooting stars.

Tiffany’s tip: Llyn Geirionydd, 15 minutes west of Llanrwst, is a popular lakeside picnic and a great place to take in the fantastic night sky views over the water.

5. Yorkshire Dales National Park

The Northern Lights over the Yorkshire Dales (Shutterstock)

The Northern Lights over the Yorkshire Dales (Shutterstock)

They say in Yorkshire that each dale has its own character. It is a land of contrasts, of different moods and distinct landscapes, even at night. It is no surprise then that the Yorkshire Dales National Park has also become one of the newest International Dark Sky Reserves in the world.

On a clear night in the dales, visitors might see as many as 2,000 stars and, in most places, it is possible to clearly see the Milky Way. You’ll also spot planets, meteors, the moon and even the International Space Station, which orbits the earth every 90 minutes. You might even catch the northern lights.

At any time the dark night sky here offers plenty of enchantment for the everyday astronomer and, with each hill and valley offering something different, the Yorkshire Dales are the perfect place to get lost in the dark.

Tiffany’s tip: The national park car park in Buckden is a great stargazing spot, set in the hills of northern Wharfedale beneath the impressive bulk of Buckden Pike.

6. Moore’s Reserve, South Downs National Park

Night sky over a South Down’s groyne (Shutterstock)

Night sky over a South Down’s groyne (Shutterstock)

Officially established in 2010, the South Downs is the UK’s newest national park. It stretches from the valley of the River Itchen near Winchester in Hampshire, down to Beachy Head on the Sussex coast. Just an hour’s drive from London, it’s also the last place you’d expect to find an international dark sky reserve.

The night sky is dark enough in the South Downs that, from the most popular spots, stargazers are able to see the Milky Way with the naked eye. Thanks to hard work alongside local authorities, light pollution the park has been minimised so that the average darkness in the South Downs has been classified as ‘Bronze Level’.  

That was enough for the park to be granted Dark Sky status in 2016. To celebrate, a reserve was named after Sir Patrick Moore, the English amateur astronomer and writer who presented the BBC’s The Sky at Night.

Tiffany’s tip: In the Hampshire end of the national park, both Old Winchester Hill and Butser Hill offer beautiful evening views as the sky darkens, as well as having interesting Bronze and Iron Age earthworks.

7. North York Moors National Park

The Milky Way over the North York Moors (Shutterstock)

The Milky Way over the North York Moors (Shutterstock)

The North York Moors is the area that inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula and is one of the darkest places in the country. Its wide open skies have always made them popular with astronomers. But it wasn’t until December 2020 they were officially designated an International Dark Sky Reserve and became one of the newest International Dark Sky Reserves in the world.

Owing to the low levels of light pollution and clear horizons, visitors can see up to 2,000 stars at any one time with the naked eye in the darkest areas of the reserve. Stargazers will find friendly locals, evocative backdrops and peaceful wild spaces making the North York Moors the perfect location for getting closer to the night sky.

Tiffany’s tip: Rosedale Chimney Bank is a steep mountain pass that eases out on to the vast expanse of Spaunton Moor, where rare sightings of the northern lights have been reported.

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Dark Skies of Britain & Ireland: A Star Gazers Guide by Tiffany Francis-Baker is published by Bradt.

It is available in all good bookstores and on Amazon now.

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