Gazing at some of the billions of stars above us on a clear night can be awe-inspiring – but you don't always get a clear view. If it's not cloud obscuring your heavenly vision, it may be street lights, buildings or trees.
But the UK boasts some of the largest areas of dark sky in Europe, with more than 100 spectacular sites officially designated as great for star gazing, plus a handful of internationally-recognised large areas of superb dark sky, including the South Downs National Park, which has just been named the world’s newest 'international dark sky reserve' for the quality of its starry nights.
Large Dark Skies
The International Dark Sky Association has recognised several large dark areas in the British Isles as International Dark Sky reserves, parks or islands. The areas meet standards for night sky quality and natural darkness in a core area. They are:
South Downs National Park, which stretches through parts of Hampshire, West and East Sussex, and is accessible to nearly 17 million people in Greater London and southeast England, offering dark skies which display thousands of twinkling stars.
Galloway Forest in Scotland, where more than 7,000 stars and planets are visible to the naked eye, including the Milky Way.
Sark Island in the Channel Islands, where the lack of cars and street lighting means the only light pollution is the distant glow from Guernsey, Jersey and France. As a result the very dark sky gives a great view of the Milky Way stretching across the horizon, and thousands of stars.
Exmoor National Park was designated Europe’s first International Dark Sky Reserve in 2011 because its vast undeveloped tracts of land mean there's little light pollution, so it's much easier to see around 3,000 stars including the constellation Orion, and the Plough, which is part of the Ursa Major (Great Bear) constellation.
The Brecon Beacons in Wales offers great views of thousands of stars including The Plough and Polaris (the North Star).
Snowdonia Dark Sky Reserve, also in Wales, has very dark skies and viewing the stars above it has been described as “a magical experience”.
Dark Sky Discovery Sites
These sites are a nationwide network of places nominated by local groups and organisations as their top local spot to see the stars. They are accessible to everyone and are away from the worst local light pollution. They include:
Cairngorms National Park: As well as stargazing, the UK's most northerly National Park in Scotland's Cairngorms offers the best chance for a view of the Aurora Borealis (northern lights), at the Glenlivet Estate.
Lake District National Park: Low Gillerthwaite Field Centre, which is in Ennerdale, England's most remote valley, is two miles from the nearest public road and runs special star gazing events throughout the year.
North Yorkshire Moors National Park: Situated at Danby, organised star gazing events are held here every year, with the Whitby and District Astronomical Society providing telescopes and advice.
Closer to home
If you can't get to any of the designated dark sky sites, you can find dark skies near where you live by getting away from bright lights such as street lighting, possibly in your back garden, a local park, or out of town, with a sight line unblocked by buildings and trees.
The UK Dark Sky Discovery partnership - a network of national and local astronomy and environmental organisations - says around 100 stars are usually visible with the naked eye from a city centre location. The further away from street lights, the better the view, and under a really dark sky more than 1,000 stars will be visible, including our own galaxy, the Milky Way.
Where do you think Britain's best place for stargazing is? Tell us in the Comments section below