The best of UK stargazing: Your guide to Britain’s International Dark Sky Places

Category: News

The UK is home to some of the largest areas of dark sky in Europe and 6 out of 17 of the world’s Dark Sky Reserves.

Away from the light pollution of our cities and towns, astronomers and recreational stargazers can see over 1,000 stars with the naked eye, as well as the arc of our own Milky Way.

Many of the best sites to see the night sky are in National Parks, and dark sky festivals held at these locations make for the perfect time to visit.

Keep reading for your guide to the UK’s best Dark Sky Places.

1. Exmoor National Park

Six of the UK’s National Parks have been awarded international Dark Sky Reserve status, a designation granted by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), based in Arizona.

The IDA conducts rigorous tests on light pollution but also prizes community engagement and a willingness to educate on the beauty of the night sky and the perils of light pollution.

Exmoor, situated in the southwest of England and spanning West Somerset and North Devon, is one such Dark Sky Reserve.

An area of open hilly moorland, Exmoor covers nearly 700 square kilometres (over 260 square miles), and the area has been a place of human habitation stretching back to the Mesolithic period, between 15,000 and 5,000 years ago.

As well as being one of the darker sites in England, it also has good travel links. Just 20 miles west of Taunton, it sits a similar distance north of Exeter.

Travel to the area between 22 October and 7 November 2021 and you can enjoy the annual Exmoor Dark Skies Festival, a broad programme of events that includes:

  • Ranger Guided Night Walks
  • Stargazing Guides
  • Outdoor Adventures in the Dark
  • Dusk Safaris
  • Expert Astronomy Talks

2. North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales

After five years of campaigning, North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales were designated a Dark Sky Reserve in 2020, becoming the largest Dark Sky Area in the UK.

The two parks cover more than 3,600 square kilometres (1,396 square miles). Both sites will be hosting a joint Fringe Festival between 22 and 31 October, in addition to their usual festival, due to take place from 18 February to 6 March 2022.

Both National Parks offer beautiful scenery, historic sites (including the Unesco World Heritage Site of Fountain’s Abbey), and breathtaking views of the night sky.

3. Snowdonia National Park

Another Dark Sky Reserve (that includes the Sawtooth Mountain area of Central Idaho and Germany’s Westhavelland Nature Park), Snowdonia National Park in north Wales accounts for almost 10% of the total land area of Wales.

Its largely rugged and mountainous terrain has led to limited human habitation, especially away from its more densely populated coastal areas. This is great news for astronomers and recreational stargazers, as well as local nocturnal wildlife including invertebrates, birds, and migratory bats, of which there are 12 species known to pass through Snowdonia.

There are great sites to see the night sky all over the National Park’s 2,130 square kilometres (823 square miles), from Llyn Geirionydd in the north to Llynnau Cregennen on the park’s southwestern tip.

4. Northumberland and Kielder Water and Forest Park

Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water and Forest Park were the first independent areas of parkland to be recognised as a single dark sky entity. The IDA awarded the area Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status in 2013.

Encompassing the Cheviot Hills, Redesdale Forest, and a section of Hadrian’s Wall, the Dark Sky Park comprises the whole of Northumberland National Park and two-thirds of Kielder Water and Forest Park, totalling 1,483 square kilometres (572 square miles).

As with other Dark Sky Parks, the area encourages eco-friendly street lighting to minimise light pollution and protect nocturnal wildlife, as well as offering a regular programme of stargazing and educational events.

Northumberland National Park is home to England’s largest public observatory.

5. Galloway Forest Park

Situated in the Dumfries and Galloway area of southern Scotland, Galloway Forest Park was the first Dark Sky Park in the UK when it was designated Gold Tier-status by the IDA in 2009.

The park covers 774 square kilometres (299 square miles) and receives over 800,000 visitors each year. The area was also home to the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory, which was destroyed by fire in June 2021. 

Particularly good sites for stargazing within the park include the Galloway Red Deer range and Clatteringshaws Visitor Centre in the south and Loch Braden in the north.