Today England's border county has become home to the largest area of protected night sky in Europe.
The International Dark Skies Association (IDA) has granted Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status to the combined areas of Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park, a huge slice of sparsely populated border country covering nearly 1500 square kilometres between Hadrian's Wall and the Scottish border.
The new Northumberland Dark Sky Park (NDSP) is the first of its kind in England, the biggest in Europe and one of the largest in the world. Its Gold Tier designation is the highest that the IDA bestow.
The people behind the bid for dark sky status say the move will counter the spread of light pollution, help develop sustainable astro tourism, boost nocturnal wildlife and encourage eco-friendly public lighting. Crucially, it will also protect the rural character of an area deemed the nation's darkest and most tranquil by the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal for England, said:
'I'd like to offer warm support to this development. It is a further boost for Kielder Observatory and stargazing throughout Northumberland National Park. But, more than that, it should have the support of a far wider community than astronomers. The dark night sky is the most universal feature of our environment. All humans, everywhere in the world and throughout history, have looked up at the sky and wondered at it. This experience is now denied to most people, because of the background light in towns and cities. It is important to ensure that there will be somewhere in England where young people can fully enjoy a cosmic panorama.'
During the area's two-year bid for the coveted status over 300 light meter readings were taken by National Park volunteers, amateur astronomers and Forestry Commission rangers. These confirmed Northumberland's low levels of light pollution. An audit of external lighting was also undertaken to identify lights which need replacing or adjusting to comply with and exceed IDA guidelines. Planning authorities will now ensure new developments take account of the pristine night sky. The park's darkest areas, which are mostly uninhabited, will remain light-free.
It is hoped that the Dark Sky accolade will help boost local tourism.
Councillor John Riddle, Chairman of Northumberland National Park Authority, said:
'Creation of the Northumberland Dark Sky Park is recognition that our National Parks and protected rural areas are defined by their skyscape as well as their landscape. Starry nights, tranquil villages, rolling hills and forests are all part of the Northumberland experience that visitors love. This move will reclaim the night and protect this rich legacy for future generations. It is sad that so much of the UK has lost its view of the heavens. Wasteful light pollution snubs out the stars and over 80% of people have never seen the Milky Way. But here at least the Universe can be admired, shared and cherished by everyone. We have already created a Dark Sky Discovery Site at Cawfields on Hadrian’s Wall and many Northumberland villages and tourism businesses are gearing up to welcome stargazers.'
More Dark Sky Discovery Sites will be created across the area, spots where people can admire the heavens with the help of on-site interpretation. A total of 13 potential sites have been identified, but of course that won't stop anyone from just looking up and quietly enjoying the stars for themselves, wherever they are in the park.
A series of business workshops are also planned to encourage enterprises to tap into the public appetite for stargazing. Hotels and guest houses in the county are already offering dark sky breaks.