In the two years since the sky above the Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park was awarded Gold tier status by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), local businesses and communities have been seeing the benefits.
Duncan Wise, visitor development and marketing manager at the Northumberland National Park; explains: “The popularity of stargazing in Northumberland has soared during the last two years. To describe an event as transformational can be risky but we believe it can be justifiably associated with the International Dark Sky Park designation for Northumberland.
“Since 2013 Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park has seen a surge in visitors as public interest in dark skies continues to grow. This is having a tangible and positive impact on the local economy and residents’ quality of life.
“The increase in visitors has led to an increase in customers, generating lots of new business opportunities for local people. We’ve been working closely with many of them to ensure they get the most from Northumberland’s dark sky status.
“A great example is our partnership with two leading astronomers to deliver a programme of workshops called ‘Star Tips for Profit’, designed to introduce and train one hundred local tourism businesses about dark skies and to help them provide a world-class visitor experience to their guests.
“One hundred percent of attendees said they would recommend the sessions to other businesses, ninety percent said the workshop would help them attract custom and forty four percent reported they had already seen a boost from dark skies tourism.”
Businesses large and small have benefitted from the dark sky designation over the last two years. A good example is Blacksmith Cottage, a self-catering holiday company near Alnwick, which won Gold at the recent North East Tourism Awards 2015.
Sue Hugenholtz, owner of Blacksmith’s Cottage, has seen a fifty percent increase in winter bookings since 2013.
“After we achieved International Dark Sky Park status my holiday-let business in the Cheviots has become an all-year-round destination.
“The advice and business support we received has led us to extend our offer by introducing tailor-made stargazing packages for guests. We are now welcoming visitors from all over the country to enjoy long-weekends and out-of-season breaks in our beautiful county,” says Sue.
Nestled within the boundary of the Northumberland Dark Sky Park, the award-winning Kielder Observatory, often regarded as the jewel-in-the-crown of the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park, is attracting visitors from across the world to marvel at the vistas that lie overhead.
Gary Fildes, director at the Kielder Observatory, explains: “Kielder Observatory typifies why designated areas of protected dark skies are essential. International dark status has really helped to put us on the map. Many of our events sell-out in advance and this year we have welcomed over 18,000 visitors and continue to attract more.
“The Observatory is also delivering a very important message; that dark skies are essential and need to be conserved. By offering a comprehensive and wide-ranging series of events for all ages and abilities, we aim to enthuse, educate and inspire our guests.”
Northumberland Tourism has also launched a ‘Dark Sky’ accreditation scheme for tourism businesses to help them reduce light pollution around their properties and market their businesses. To date more than 40 businesses have signed up.
To celebrate the second anniversary of the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park there is a dazzling array of astronomy events planned throughout the National Park and guided events at the Kielder Observatory.
The Northumberland National Park and Martin Kitching from Northern Experience Wildlife Tours is hosting a stargazing event on Friday 11 December at Kirknewton, tickets are available via the National Park website.
The owners of the multi-award winning Battlesteads Hotel in Wark, located on the edge of the Northumberland Dark Sky Park, recently built a new dark sky observatory in the back garden. Owner Richard Slade and local astronomer, Roy Alexander are collaborating to deliver a regular programme of dark sky events for hotel guests, local residents and visitors alike.
The Redesdale Arms has recently been awarded ‘Dark Sky Stay and Gaze’ status, by Northumberland Tourism. This award acknowledges the facilities they offer to enable guests to observe the night skies in Redesdale.
There are also hundreds of Dark Sky Discovery (DSD) sites to visit in Northumberland which are accessible to everyone. These are nominated by communities and organisations as their favourite places locally to see the stars.
Lynn Turner, director of Kielder Water & Forest Park Development Trust, said: “At nearly 580sq miles, we have the largest International Dark Sky Park in Europe.
“Kielder Water & Forest Park is a fantastic place for stargazing. Since the observatory opened in 2008 it has attracted more than 70,000 guests but you don’t just have to go to the observatory to see our star attractions.
“Kielder campsite is filled twice a year by the ‘Kielder Forest Star Camp’ which draws hundreds of observers from across the UK for five nights of stargazing. There are also lots of other venues offering exciting astronomical events throughout the year.”
The best time for stargazing is during the autumn and winter months, when the nights draw in. You don’t need an expensive telescope. Just wrap up warm, pack up a pair of binoculars, a deckchair, and a bite to eat then head for rural Northumberland for a star-studded show. To find out more go to http://www.visitnorthumberland.com/darkskies and http://www.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk/events/
The Dark Sky Steering Group which oversaw the application process to secure the Dark Sky Park designation in 2013 continues to monitor and steer development and new opportunities in the area. Led by Kielder Water & Forest Park Development Trust, it is attended by representatives from the Northumberland National Park Authority, the Forestry Commission, Kielder Observatory Astronomical Society, Northumberland County Council and Northumberland Tourism Ltd.