Star-struck on Bodmin Moor

“The walker in this strange, forgotten country . . . will find that he has escaped into a new dimension, into a solitude and peace that defy the close proximity of the contemporary world . . . it is a wilderness in miniature, full of contrasts.” E. C. Axford, Bodmin Moor

The vast granite upland of Bodmin Moor is one of Cornwall’s most isolated areas of wilderness. Vastly different from the coastal Cornwall that most visitors would recognise it was formed some 300 million years ago and has become a haven for a hugely diverse range of flora and fauna. A treasure trove of habitats that includes wild heathland, bogs, lakes, rivers, forest and towering granite outcrops.

dark skies bodmin moor

And hiding amongst this natural beauty are some of Cornwall’s most staggering and intriguing prehistoric remains. Bodmin Moor’s isolation and wildness has led to a scattered and sparse human population and this in turn has created to some of the darkest skies in the country.

A World’s First

Amazingly Bodmin Moor is not only a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and an IBA (an Important Bird Area) but in 2017 it also became an International Dark Sky Park. One of only five in the world! And the only one that has such a multi-faceted portfolio of usage.

As the night’s draw in and the tourists head back over the Tamar are we missing a trick? Are our dark skies another untapped resource that we should be promoting?

Is it time to make Cornwall’s darkest skies famous?

Mysterious Beauty

Bodmin Moor is a beguiling and haunting place that has inspired writers and artists for generations. Who can forget Daphne Du Maurier’s atmospheric descriptions of Kilmar Tor in Jamaica Inn and more recently Philip Marsden’s thought-provoking prose that attempted to capture the spirit of the moors in Rising Ground.

Bodmin Moor has also given life to some of Cornwall’s strangest myths and legends from Tregeagle to the Beast of Bodmin Moor. But for me it has always been a place to loose yourself – to breath, to escape and be inspired. It really is somewhere to be free from the pressures of modern life – even if that just means being out of mobile reception! Now add to that wonderful and wild landscape a dazzling canopy of stars!

Inspiration from above

The spectacular cosmos has always been visible in the darkness of the night sky above us. And we have, I am sure, always been trying to make sense of it. The construction of the prehistoric monuments you will find across Bodmin Moor often relied on our ancestors close observations of the movements of these stars over their heads. The night sky has therefore been a source of inspiration and a stimulus for scientific discovery, as well as artist endeavour, since time began.

dark skies cornwall

The exclusive designation from the International Dark Sky Association acknowledges Bodmin Moor as one of the best places in the whole of the UK for star-gazing. A fact that I really feel needs to be shouted about! We should all be star-struck!

In order to qualify the moor had to pass stringent light and air clarity standards set by the IDA based in Tucson, Arizona. Caradon Observatory was founded by Ken Bennett, a local farmer, and along with astronomer Mike Willmott one of the observatory’s directors, he was vital to Bodmin Moor’s successful application to the IDA. The observatory are understandably very proud of their achievement.

“We have got something special down here that is to our advantage.” Mike told me when I spoke to him back in 2018, “Yes, the London economy has more money per person but you can’t buy your way into dark crystal-clear skies, with a clarity over a large area that can’t be surpassed anywhere else in England”.

The observatory is keen to encourage more engagment with astronomy and already runs lots of workshops with the general public and schools throughout the year, so that as many people as possible can experience the wonders of the night skies over Cornwall.

astronomers silhouette

Cornwall as a whole has some really amazing pockets of dark skies, not just on Bodmin Moor. On the Lizard, the north coast and at Lands End, the stunning spectacle of our clear starry skies are inspiring photographers and astronomers alike. In fact, in recent months another bid has been made to make the skies over west Cornwall a dark sky reserve too. The plan is to provide further protection for the wildlife there and to boost tourism out of season.

But at the moment the IDA accreditation for Bodmin Moor remains a bit of a one off. Although there are other dark sky areas in the UK, most notably in Scotland, Bodmin Moor is the only area also a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and still under active cultivation. As I mentioned before the amazing multi-faceted land use on the moor was a first for the IDA who are used to their dark sky reserves being national parks, not areas that are still being used and lived on.

“Bodmin Moor’s IDA accreditation is especially noteworthy because its land use pattern challenges the conventional type of ‘park’ that we have designated to date,” explains John Barentine, Director of Conservation for the IDA, “Our program guidelines envision something like a national or regional park, with a high degree of protection. Bodmin Moor doesn’t fit that model at all. It is a maze of private and public properties. It challenged our program, in that we had to search the penumbra of the rules for a way to make Bodmin Moor fit.”

A wonderful resource

Bodmin Moor’s dark sky status not only recognises the beauty and importance of its night skies but also means another layer of protection for the area’s natural, cultural and scientific heritage. And it will hopefully have some positive implications for the economy of the area too.

“The quality of the night sky over Bodmin Moor is amongst the best in the world” Sue James, Cornwall Council’s Cabinet Member for Environment and Public Protection told me last year when she explained the council support of the bid. “The designation is expected to boost tourism and the local economy. Visitor numbers should increase, particularly in the darker months when star gazing opportunities are at their best.”

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Those dark winter months are upon us but the lucky few of us living in or visiting rural Cornwall have the chance to enjoy our own spectacular view of the heavens without interference from the glow of urban living. As astronomer Mike Willmott at Caradon Observatory points out.

“We have got something special down here that is to our advantage, yes the London economy has more money per person but you can’t buy your way in to dark skies . . . we are in a pretty exclusive club”.

This wonderful cosmic asset has some protection now and hopefully the growing trend for Dark Sky or Astro Holidays means that more of us are able share in it and benefit from it in the future.

The future may be too bright

In an age when it has become impossible for most people to escape the glow of artificial lighting and to experience the awe-inspiring expanse of the Milky Way as our ancestors once knew it, how blessed we are in Cornwall to have sites such as Bodmin Moor on our doorstep. It is time to delight in this natural resource and protect it at all costs!

Tips to reduce light pollution

  • Turn off all unnecessary lights.
  • Install shielded light fixtures outside with motion sensors
  • Reduce decorative lighting, use anti-glare bulbs
  • Spread the word in your community & school
  • Ask your local council to put streetlights on a timer that turns them off in the early hours
  • Use dipped headlights when driving whenever it is safe to do so

Further Reading:

Our Defenceless Monuments: The Threat to Cornwall’s Heritage

Logan Rock – Louden Hill, Bodmin Moor

Remembering the Murder of Charlotte Dymond

 

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