The United Kingdom boasts a plethora of dark-sky areas perfect stargazing, even though that may not be immediately apparent to those of us who live in towns and cities. Both the UK’s own Dark Sky Discovery body and the International Dark-Sky Association have worked with organisations up and down the country to help fight light pollution and ensure our skies remain dark for generations to come.
We’ve selected some of the darkest places in Great Britain and Northern Ireland that welcome stargazers and astronomers to enjoy the quality of their night skies.
If you want to take your telescope with you, it will pay to have something compact and portable. Read our guide to the best travel telescopes for astronomy.
Brecon Beacons Dark Sky Reserve
Have a glance at a light pollution map of the UK and it becomes obvious why Wales is a top destination for UK stargazers.
The Brecon Beacons is home to the first International Dark-Sky Reserve in Wales and boasts dark skies that offer views of the Milky Way and the constellations.
Brecon Beacons National Park regularly hosts stargazing and meteor-spotting sessions, while Cardiff Astronomical Society can often be found in the area hosting outreach events that include observing the night sky with telescopes or – during summer months – safely viewing the Sun with solar scopes.
The region is also home to a number of Dark Sky Discovery Sites.
North York Moors National Park
Boasting three Dark Sky Discovery sites (The Moors National Park Centre, Sutton Bank National Park Centre and Dalby Observatories), this National Park is one of many in the UK offering fantastic views of the Milky Way, planets and meteor showers.
The local National Park authority is clearly aware of just how important their dark skies are, and do a lot to help visitors to the area.
The annual Dark Skies Festival in February boasts astronomy workshops and demonstrations, while numerous star parties and camping events are held throughout the year.
Plus, if you’re visiting and want to make the best of the dark skies, there’s even a map showing local events and the best stargazing-friendly places to stay.
Cairngorms National Park
‘The most northerly Dark Sky Park in the world’ is a title that should be enough to get even the most casual aurora chaser excited.
The area around Cairngorms also includes the International Dark Sky Park of Tomintoul and Glenlivet, making it one of the darkest sites in the UK.
The region boasts three Dark Sky Discovery Sites in Glenlivet Estate and a network of mapped-out paths for exploring during the day.
A Dark Skies project, led in tandem with Cairngorms Astronomy Group, is working to improve lighting in residential areas, distilleries and farms: evidence of how seriously the people of the region take their dark skies.
Regular events are held aimed at beginners looking to get serious about astronomy and it is a great place to go if you are interested in seeing the aurora from the UK.
Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve
The Exmoor Dark Skies Festival is quickly becoming one of the UK’s top astronomy events, which is not surprising considering Exmoor National Park was Europe’s first International Dark Sky Reserve.
The festival includes nighttime wildlife walks and mountain biking, as well as guided meteor walks and stargazing sessions.
The Exmoor National Park Authority works to keep the skies dark in this region of southwest England, while the National Park Centres offer 6-inch Dobsonians for hire on a nightly basis, should you wish to travel light but still get a closer look at the night sky.
There are also private ‘Stargazing Experience’ nights that team up visitors with a local astronomer, who will guide them on a journey around the starry night skies of the region.
The Antrim Coast
Mention the Antrim coast to anyone who’s ever visited Northern Ireland and they’ll likely think of the Giant’s Causeway and the famous Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.
What they might not know is that the area is one of the best places in Northern Ireland for stargazing, with Carrick-a-Rede itself having been classified as Dark Sky Discovery Site in 2014.
The north coast has some of the darkest night skies in County Antrim – on the island of Ireland, even – and stargazing sessions are often held locally by the local Northern Ireland Amateur Astronomy Society in tandem with the National Trust.
Northumberland National Park
When you think of stargazing in Northumberland, undoubtedly the fantastic Kielder Observatory springs to mind.
Kielder hosts stargazing sessions and astronomy talks and workshops throughout the year, including introductory tutorials for adults and young astronomers alike.
Perhaps the reason the observatory is so popular is the incredible starry skies that can be seen from its remote location, as anyone who’s spent an evening at Kielder will testify.
Northumberland National Park was awarded gold tier status as a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association, and also boasts numerous Dark Sky Discovery sites, cementing the region’s reputation as one of the best for astronomy in Europe.
Galloway Forest Park
In 2009, Galloway Forest Park became the first Dark Sky Park in the UK, as designated by the International Dark Sky Association.
The 300 square miles of forest and hills are virtually uninhabited, making for incredibly dark skies that boast over 7,000 stars visible with the naked eye.
The park has three visitor centres at Glentrool, Kirroughtree and Clatteringshaws, each with Dark Sky information points to help stargazers get the best from the area.
On the edge of Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park is the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory, a hilltop facility that is open to the public for stargazing events.
Look out for one of their meteor-spotting events during annual meteor showers.
Elan Valley, Powys
45,000 acres of Elan Valley are protected against light pollution as a result of the region’s Dark Sky Park silver-tier status, making this one of the best places for astronomy in Wales.
And that’s saying something, considering Wales’s status as a stargazing mecca.
There are regular events held at Elan Valley throughout the year, as well as amazing scenery to enjoy during the day time.
If star parties are your thing, you might enjoy Solarsphere, an astronomy and music festival held near Builth Wells every August.
Find out more:
Isle of Coll
You may have heard of Dark Sky Parks and Dark Sky Reserves; well what about a Dark Sky Island?
A lack of streetlights on this island off the west coast of Scotland is evidence of the dedication of many of its residents to ensuring the quality of the night sky above Coll remains among the best in the world.
There are three dedicated spots on the Isle of Coll for stargazing, although in reality most of the island is incredibly dark.
Every spring and autumn, Coll & The Cosmos stargazing weekend is held on the island, offering newcomers the chance to learn how to stargaze with telescopes and binoculars under truly dark skies.
Oxford Island National Nature Reserve, Armagh
Astronomy enthusiasts in Armagh may already have the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium right on their doorstep, but the county also boasts Oxford Island Nature Reserve on the shores of Lough Neagh.
Oxford Island has played host to BBC Stargazing Live events in the past and is one of the only two Dark Sky Discovery sites currently in Northern Ireland (the other being Carrick-a-Rede on the Antrim coast).
Snowdonia Dark Sky Reserve
In 2015 Snowdonia was announced as the 10th International Dark Sky Reserve.
While the pristine dark skies above Snowdonia National Park are certainly helped by a local dedication to preserving darkness in the area, they are ensured by the fact that north Wales is naturally one of the darkest places in Britain.
The park recommends five particular places of interest to stargazers looking for places to observe in the region: Llyn y Dywarchen; Llyn Geirionydd; Llynnau Cregennen; Bwlch y Groes and Tŷ Cipar.
Although in reality any astronomers in north Wales will be spoilt for choice.
South Downs National Park
When you think of dark-sky sites in the UK, you might immediately turn to the Scottish Highlands or north Wales, but the south of England has its fair share of protected places, too.
South Downs National Park may look too close to London to be truly dark, but its Dark Sky Reserve status says otherwise.
The park spans 140 kilometres just beyond the south coast, and regular stargazing events are held throughout the area.
The area was also home to the late Patrick Moore, which is why it’s known as Moore’s Reserve, while the Herstmonceux Observatory Science Centre – once the location of the Royal Observatory – is also nearby.
Iain Todd is BBC Sky at Night Magazine’s Staff Writer.