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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
History & CommunityReach for the Stars

Reach for the Stars

A starstruck Margery Hookings enjoys a surprise visit to the Norman Lockyer Observatory near Sidmouth. The evening was not quite as she expected but a return visit is on the cards.


It’s my birthday and my husband has organised a mystery trip for the evening.

‘You’ll like it,’ he says. ‘I know you will.’

It’s dark when we set off. We head west and hit the A35, just past the turning at Hunter’s Lodge to Lyme Regis and then down the lane towards River Cottage HQ.

I get a little bit excited, having bought my two children and their partners vouchers for meals at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s place last Christmas. I even bought Mr Hookings a Build and Bake course the year before. At last, the imbalance is going to be redressed. It looks like I’m going to experience the River Cottage treatment for myself.

But we drive on past the signs and I feel a little downhearted. It reminds me of when we took the children on holiday and didn’t tell them we were going to be spending a week on a canal barge. They saw the signs to Alton Towers and were made up, only to be crestfallen when we carried on and ended up at the water’s edge. Mystery trips are all very well but it pays not to dwell too much on the possible destination. You could end up disappointed.

We’re heading towards Sidmouth now and it suddenly dawns on me where we might be going. This time last year I picked up a leaflet for the Norman Lockyer Observatory and remarked how interesting it sounded. I love the night sky—not that I know much about the stars or astrophysics but I’m enchanted by the literal other-worldliness of the constellations and the romantic stories behind their mythical names.

I don’t tell my husband that’s where I think I’m going until we get there, and then wish I’d worn something slightly warmer on this cold night.

We pull up in the car park, along with a number of others and, as we assemble in the warm foyer, it’s clear that none of us really knows what to expect.

The foyer is full of bits of memorabilia connected to the observatory, including a 19 century orrery, which was donated by Howard Anderson, a member of the British Sundial Society, and restored by observatory members. It’s a mechanical model of the solar system, showing the Sun, Earth, Moon, planets and major asteroids.

We’re ushered into a lecture hall where a woman gives us a talk and slideshow about pulsating stars. Excuse the pun, but it all goes slightly over my head. I understand it while the talk is underway but forget everything seconds later.

Then we are split up into three groups for a tour of this strange and wonderful place and are told we’ll meet up later. A cluster of domes sits in the field, connected to the main building by radiating paths.

We’re taken to see the oldest telescope first but, unfortunately, the night sky is clouded over so we can’t see anything through it. The Lockyer telescope was built in 1871 for Norman Lockyer, and he used it to make his discoveries about the composition of the Sun in 1868.

The next oldest telescope, the Kensington, is housed in another dome. It was built in 1881 for the Solar Physics Observatory in London, where Norman Lockyer was a director, and was installed at the observatory near Sidmouth when it was first established in 1912. The third telescope is the McClean Telescope, which was donated by Francis McClean in 1912.

It’s a bit chilly in the domes and walking by torchlight from telescope to telescope so we’re pleased by the warmth in the Lockyer Technology Centre which, along with the Connaught Dome, was opened by rock star and astrophysicist Brian May in 2012.

Inside this dome, it feels like being on the set of a disaster movie—this would be the location for the scene where a small outpost raises the alarm after seeing on screen a large meteor hurtling towards Earth.

The technology centre is the hub for a network of Meteor Detection Stations, both within the UK and Europe, utilising back-scattered radio signals emitted by the GRAVES Satellite Radar Station in Dijon, France. The observatory’s Radio Astronomy Group is located in the Lockyer Technology Centre where data is collected 24/7. Activities include meteor detection and, although it’s cloudy outside, we can see on screen the odd shooting star firing off as we’re given a run-down of what’s happening here on the ground.

At the end of our tour, the three groups reassemble and sit down in the 60-seater Planetarium, the centrepiece of the observatory’s public work. The elaborate instrument used to display the stars and planets was given to the observatory in 2005 by the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. Here we are treated to a brilliant presentation about the night sky, which becomes slightly surreal when the heavens are wound back to recap on something we missed earlier.

We all leave the Norman Lockyer Observatory open-mouthed, not quite believing what we’ve just experienced.

And Mr Hookings is right.

I liked it. I liked it very much. River Cottage can wait for another day.



About the Norman Lockyer Observatory

The Norman Lockyer Observatory was founded in 1912. It is both a historical observatory and home to an active amateur astronomical society. It is a centre for amateur astronomy, meteorology, radio astronomy, and the promotion of science education. It is regularly open to the public and staffed entirely by volunteers.

Lockyer was a Victorian amateur astronomer, who discovered the element Helium in the Sun’s corona in 1868. He was one of the founders of the science journal ‘Nature’ in 1869. He became the director of the Solar Physics Observatory at South Kensington and the first professor of astronomical physics in the Normal School of Science (now the Royal College of Science) in 1887. He was knighted in 1897.

After his retirement to Sidmouth, Lockyer obtained support in 1912 for the building of the Hill Observatory, renamed the Norman Lockyer Observatory following his death in 1920. His son James, a trained astrophysicist and just back from the war, became director. Dr W J S Lockyer died suddenly in 1936. Funds were hard to find and, in 1948, Exeter University took over running the observatory.

The last professional astronomer left in 1962. Following acquisition in 1984 by East Devon District Council, the observatory is now a centre for public science education as well as being the home of the Norman Lockyer Observatory Society.


Admission: Adults £8, children £4, Family (2 adults and 2 children) £20. The programme is approximately 2 hours duration and will usually include a short talk, a planetarium presentation and visits to the historic telescopes and Lockyer Technology Centre.

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