Dark Skies and Shooting Stars on the Isles of Scilly 1

The Isles of Scilly: famous for white sandy beaches, turquoise seas, fields of flowers and delicious cream teas… but how about stargazing? 28 miles away from the bright lights of the mainland, this offshore archipelago has some of the darkest skies in England; yet the amazing stargazing is often a surprise to even the seasoned Scilly visitor.  

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In October, I was back on the Isles of Scilly for the Walk Scilly Autumn Weekend, the sister event to the annual Walk Scilly walking festival (4-14 April 2018). I’d been to the Isles of Scilly once before; but whilst I had soul-soaring memories of unbelievably blue seas, steaming hot pasties and the most seals I had ever seen in my life, I didn’t really remember the stars. This visit, I was going to spend more time looking up.  

On my first night, I was signed up for a guided Star Walk on the island of St Martin’s, just a short boat ride from the main island of St Mary’s where I was staying. Getting around the islands is easy – scheduled services are run by the St Mary’s Boatmen’s Association with times clearly listed online and on blackboards at the quays around the main islands.  

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Now, I was on island in October. Whilst the Isles of Scilly might be home to the most clement weather in England, they’re still England – so, I doubt you’ll be surprised to hear that it was cloudy. Not exactly ideal for a Star Walk, but with characteristic optimism, I boarded the boat to St Martin’s with fingers and toes crossed that the skies would clear.  

We soon arrived and were greeted at the quay on St Martin’s with a warm Scilly welcome. The Star Walk was being run by a local group called COSMOS (Community Observatory St Martin’s on Scilly), a cohort of very enthusiastic volunteers that are currently working towards building a Community Observatory on St Martin’s. 

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Alas, the cloud wasn’t going anywhere; so, with infectious enthusiasm and a big dose of imagination we embarked on our starless Star Walk. The COSMOS volunteers did a wonderful job of introducing us to the wonders of the universe armed with props to demonstrate the relative size of our solar system’s planetsa pinhead Mercury, a pea for each of Venus and Earth, a peppercorn Mars and an orange for Jupiter. We were scheduled to walk to various dark spots where telescopes would be set up to show us the skies in all their glory – but we had to take the bad weather alternative and retreat to St Martin’s Island Hall, where wine and star-themed talks awaited.  

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As we sat sipping wine and listening to the COSMOS volunteers speak, the night sky was beamed onto a screen in the main hall. This was my first introduction to Stellarium, a free programme that essentially turns your computer (or mobile phone) screen into a live planetarium! You type in the coordinates of where you are and it shows you in real-time what is in the skies above. Wow! So, this is what I’d be seeing if there was no cloud: constellations, clusters and even the odd planet or 2. Stellarium helpfully names what you are looking at and I spotted the North Star (Polaris) and the Plough, followed quickly by a realisation of just how much is out there.  

The hill behind the Island Hall is the proposed location of the Community Observatory on St Martin’s. The COSMOS group have been granted planning permission, but are now in the arduous process of fundraising and paperworking to bring this ambition to reality. From the beautiful photos that have been taken here by some of the COSMOS group, it is easy to see why St Martin’s is a prime location for an Observatory – the night skies on the Isles of Scilly really are something special.  

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credit: St Martin’s Stores, Isles of Scilly

My mind blown, in spite of the cloud, I wandered happily back to the boat chatting non-stop with my fellow walkers and some of the COSMOS volunteers. I found this on every guided walk I did during Walk Scilly – everyone was a fellow walking enthusiast and I never struggled to find someone to chat to. “Even a walk to the pub can be a star walk on the Isles of Scilly” advised one of the COSMOS clan as we said our thanks and goodbyes.  

Later that night, after a well-earned pint in one of St Mary’s cosy pubs, I put that advice into practice and spent the entire walk back to my hotel staring at the slowly clearing skies. By the time I was stood outside the Star Castle Hotel, a chunk of sky was clear and finally I saw what I had been hoping for: STARS. And not just stars like I see them at home; a line of them, etched across the sky… the Milky Way!  

So, I sat down on a 400 year old step in the Star Castle Hotel Grounds and watched. As my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, more and more stars filled the sky. I pinpointed the Plough, found the North Star and was trying to use some of my new-found knowledge to identify the others when a shooting star flew across the sky. I could have burst with happiness! Knowing it couldn’t get any better and with a jam-packed day of walking ahead, I walked the 100 yards back to my room and went to bed.  

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credit: St Martin’s Stores, Isles of Scilly

My remaining nights on the Isles of Scilly followed a similar pattern. All night-time walks became Star Walks, as I wandered slowly from A to B with neck craned upwards. There are 5 designated Dark Sky Discovery Sites on the Isles of Scilly, one on each of the inhabited islands; though, you don’t necessarily need to head to one of these sites to gaze at the stars. I saw the Milky Way with amazing clarity from Town Beach and even on the walk back from a delicious dinner at The Atlantic. Indeed, the skies are so dark and the stars so bright, that you can take in the majesty with the naked eye. But, to look closely I simply used the binoculars I’d brought with me for wildlife watching.  

Most nights I only gave up on my stargazing when the clouds closed in or I found myself drifting off (once lying on a rock, lulled to sleep by the gentle lapping of waves). The Isles of Scilly truly had revealed themselves as a perfect stargazing destination. It’s amazing what you see when you take the time to look up…  

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credit: St Martin’s Stores, Isles of Scilly

If you fancy learning more about stargazing on the Isles of Scilly, COSMOS are running 2 guided walks during Walk Scilly 2018 (4-14 April), for which tickets are now on sale at Walk Scilly 2018 and you can see the full programme here too.

Plan your own adventure
To discover more about the Isles of Scilly, go to the Visit Isles of Scilly site. Fly to St. Mary’s with Skybus year-round from Newquay and Land’s End airports, and between March and November from Exeter airport. Prices start from £140 return from Land’s End airport. From March to November, the Scillonian passenger ferry sails up to seven days a week between Penzance and St. Mary’s. Prices start from £90 return. To book your journey, visit here or phone 01736 334220.   

Emily’s visit was hosted by Visit Isles of Scilly, with travel provided by Isles of Scilly Travel and accommodation provided by the  Star Castle Hotel and Mincarlo B&B. Delicious food was provided by The Atlantic. All inter-island boating was through St. Mary’s Boatmen’s Association. 

Thanks to Bruce Frank of St Martin’s Stores, Isles of Scilly for use of his incredible photos, to Charlie Payne of COSMOS for help with this piece and to all of the COSMOS volunteers for a brilliant introduction to stargazing on the Isles of Scilly.

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