Chalky nature reserve recognised as Britain's best stargazing spot after residents keep lights off at night

Greg Wilford
The Milky Way - AFP
The Milky Way - AFP

A chalky nature reserve that straddles Wiltshire, Dorset, Hampshire and Somerset has been recognised as Britain's best stargazing spot after residents were urged to keep their lights off at night. 

Boasting spectacular views of the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy, the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) has become an official dark sky reserve. 

It is the first beauty spot in Britain to be granted the special status in its entirety and has the largest central area of darkness of any sky reserve in the country. 

The title is awarded by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), based in Arizona, USA, to areas which have "exceptionally starry skies".

It took the managers of Cranborne Chase - the UK's sixth largest AONB, covering 380 sq miles of countryside - more than 10 years to meet the strict criteria required.

They drew up plans with residents, local authorities, highway departments, businesses and schools in the area to ensure outdoor light was only used at night "when it is strictly needed". 

Timers and motion sensors have been installed on many lights to limit the amount of time they stay on. 

The measures were necessary because the IDA will not recognise areas as dark sky reserves unless the Milky Way is "readily visible to the unaided eye" at night.

Linda Nunn, Director of Cranborne Chase AONB, said: "Seeing stars and their constellations is often impossible because of light pollution. Here in Cranborne Chase we can see the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy, if the clouds allow!

“We think of our beautiful landscapes as being on the ground, but 50% of our landscape is above our heads, in the sky. 

"The quality of our night sky is so important and this isn’t just for the benefit of astronomers. 

"There are huge benefits for nocturnal wildlife, our own human health and wellbeing, for education, tourism and for energy saving. We’re thrilled to be playing our part.”

Cranborne Chase has pledged to protect and improve its dark sky for future generations with a strict lighting management plan. 

Featuring rolling chalk grassland, ancient woodlands and chalk river valleys, its best stargazing spots include King Alfred's Tower, built in 1772 in Bruton, Somerset, and Win Green, its highest point in Wiltshire. 

Adam Dalton, from the IDA, said Cranborne Chase "has the largest central area of darkness of any international dark sky reserve in the UK".

"For those living and visiting this beautiful area, this is something to be celebrated and enjoyed," he added.

Ms Nunn added: “Although huge amounts of work have already been done to achieve this status, we must continually improve our dark skies. 

"Dark sky friendly schemes with schools, business, parishes and landowners are being developed and Wiltshire Council, which administers two-thirds of the area, has already agreed to upgrade its street lighting. 

"This will make a significant contribution and will help us continually improve our dark sky quality. 

"This is a requirement of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) to ensure we maintain our exclusive status.”

The other 13 certified International Dark-Sky Reserves are: 

Aoraki Mackenzie (New Zealand) Brecon Beacons National Park (Wales) Central Idaho (U.S.) Cévennes National Park (France) National Park Exmoor (England) Kerry (Ireland) Mont-Megantic (Canada) Moore's Reserve (South Downs, England) Nature Reserve NamibRand (Namibia) Pic du Midi (France) Rhon (Germany) Snowdonia National Park (Wales) Westhavelland (Germany)