The Lime Tree Observatory opens in Nidderdale
PUBLISHED: 00:00 29 August 2017
The sky's the limit for a new observatory near Ripon, as Richard Darn discovers
Photographs by Martin Whipp
We were promised starry skies; we got rain. But that didn’t deter our merry band of amateur astronomers from following the red lantern-marked way to the new Lime Tree Observatory on a remote farm at Grewelthorpe, near Ripon, where, perhaps not surprisingly, things started to look up.
As we huddled together in the cosy ‘warm room’, ace astronomer Martin Whipp showed us wonderful pictures and time-lapse videos of the night sky above Nidderdale in lieu of the real thing, eliciting plenty of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ (a sure sign that people were hooked).
Martin is a natural communicator, mixing seemingly impossible facts with a light-hearted, easy-going style that makes novices feel undaunted by the immensity of life, the universe and everything.
On the night of our visit, he was playing to a packed house – a regular occurrence since the observatory opened its doors to the public in an exciting joint enterprise between York Astronomical Society and philanthropic farmers Peter and Irene Foster, with the support of Nidderdale AONB.
‘Most of us live in light polluted areas, so when people come here they are gobsmacked,’ said Martin. ‘Instead of a handful of stars, you see thousands, plus the fabulous Milky Way. All you need to enjoy the view is your eyes but, to get really close up on faint objects, a good telescope is necessary.’
The observatory’s telescope is a whopper. It’s made of steel and glass, weighs half a tonne and arrived on the back of a lorry. It was designed by John Wall, one of the legends of British amateur astronomy.
‘Five years ago, the scope was housed in an observatory on the edge of London and was in danger of being scrapped,’ explained Martin, chairman of York Astronomical Society. ‘That’s when John contacted us to see if we could rescue his pride and joy. It would have been a terrible waste to see it broken up, but it needed restoring and putting under a proper dark sky. That’s where Peter and Irene stepped in to provide a home on their farm.’
Dismantling and transporting the scope 200 miles north was a huge task. Then they had to get planning permission for an observatory, create the building from scratch and repair the telescope, not to mention lay down two tonnes of concrete to provide a solid base.
‘At times, I thought we’d bitten off more than we could chew,’ said Martin. ‘But now that people have looked through the scope it has given us all a massive kick.’
After Martin’s talk, we ventured into the dome to see the impressive instrument. It dominates the space, looking both powerful and purposeful, ready to spy distant worlds and galaxies far away.
For York-born Peter Foster, whose family bought Lime Tree Farm 45 years ago, it’s a dream come true to have the scope in his backyard.
‘I’ve always had an interest in the stars, so when Martin knocked on my door and asked if I’d be interested in the telescope on the farm, I was over the moon,’ he said. ‘It’s not viable for us to farm anymore so we’ve used the land to create a place where people can come wildlife spotting, pond dipping and meditating.
‘On clear nights, it’s spectacular and we can see the Northern Lights on occasions.
‘We were happy to fund the observatory’s construction and, now it’s completed, we want people to come and admire the starry skies we love here in Nidderdale.’
Any stargazer will tell you that light pollution is a major problem. Not only does it block our view of the heavens, but it wastes money and is harmful to wildlife. It also detracts from the character of Yorkshire’s rural areas.
But all is not lost. Satellite maps published last year by the Campaign to Protect Rural England revealed that the county’s national parks and AONBs are still amongst the nation’s darkest areas.
Preserving the starry view is now being taken seriously and the parks have staged dark sky festivals over the past two years and are running other initiatives. By showing people the heavenly wonders they miss under urban skies, Lime Tree Observatory is playing its part in this push.
‘It’s been a big job to get this project up and running, drawing on the donations, expertise, time and goodwill of countless people,’ said Martin. ‘But when you can see dust lanes in a galaxy whose light has taken 2.5 million years to reach the Earth, you know you are in a special place.’
To find out more about the monthly Star Parties at Lime Tree Observatory, call 01423 712950 or visit limetreeobservatory.com