Why things can only get better for stargazers

John Tanner
John Tanner
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A WARNING: do not compare John Tanner to Brian Cox.

“I get it a lot,” he says. “I think he’s great at what he does, but...let’s just say I was never a big fan of D:Ream.”

Star 1. The newly identified R136A1 Star , found by Professor Paul Crowther of the university Of Sheffield

Star 1. The newly identified R136A1 Star , found by Professor Paul Crowther of the university Of Sheffield

Still, for this softly-spoken stargazer, who is currently behind a campaign to bring darker skies to the Peak District, things can - and indeed are - only getting better.

Because two years after he helped launch an initiative to reduce light pollution and bring more stars into sight, real results are beginning to...well, shine through.

The area has seen a relative reduction in unnecessary man-made lighting and more people are attending organised astronomy events there than ever before.

But perhaps most impressively, the association set up to oversee the project, the Peak District Dark Skies Group, is now putting together a bid to have the area named an internationally recognised Dark Sky Park - a title which could be worth millions in tourism revenue.

Andromeda Galaxy taken from the Peak District

Andromeda Galaxy taken from the Peak District

“That’s the ultimate goal,” says John, the group’s project leader and himself a trained astrophysicist. “The wonders of the universe are destroyed by man-made light and we’re trying to bring those back into view. We want people coming here, spending the night and being amazed.”

It won’t be easy.

Because the peak is surrounded by urban settlements - a third of the UK’s population apparently live within 45 miles - it is essentially a rural island.

That means, unlike say Exmoor, some light pollution is practically inevitable.

“But this bid is about getting the best possible darkness which would allow the most possible people to access it,” says John. “It’s early days but we want to do within the next 18 months is put together a package of evidence to send to the International Dark Sky Association which would then hopefully send judges here who would hopefully approve the status.”

For now, that means working with local authorities to reduce unnecessary light and talking with developers to ensure new building projects are sympathetic.

And it also means educating local people - including Sheffielders - to the wonders available on their doorstep.

Over the last two years, the PDDSG - an alliance of officials from the Peak District National Park Authority, Nottingham Trent University and various local stargazing clubs including Sheffield Astronomy Society - has held about a dozen events.

They have included everything from setting up an inflatable planetarium in Stannington to torch-lit walks at Magpie Mine in Sheldon.

And, while to start with they were attracting about 30 people, the sessions are now pulling in up to 150 visitors a time. “It’s great,” says John, whose day job is a research officer for the Peak District National Park Authority. “And it only encourages getting this Dark Sky status would be a huge deal.

“Apart from the economic benefits of visitors coming here, I think just being able to see the stars is important for local people.

“For millennia, they inspired story-tellers and scientists, but if children look up and can only see the orange glow of the city, they’re not going to be inspired at all, are they?”

He thinks for a second.

“Does my enthusiasm make me sound like Brian Cox?” he asks. “Well, so be it.”

The group wants people to monitor light pollution this month by finding out how brightly they can see Orion constellation from their homes. For details of how you can help visit www.peakdistrict.gov.uk/darkskies