The Cambrian Mountains are home to some of the UK’s darkest night skies, with very little light pollution making for perfect stargazing conditions. We talk to Dafydd Wyn Morgan, project manager for Dyfodol Cambrian Futures, about the Cambrian Mountains Astro Trail that has recently put this remote, wild corner of Wales firmly on the celestial map.
Taking in nine locations that have been awarded Milky Way Class Dark Sky Discovery Site status, the 50-mile, self-guided trail sheds new cosmic light on this beautiful region. The Cambrian Mountains and Elan Valley Dark Sky Guide gives more insight.
What is so special about observing the night skies in the Cambrian Mountains, Dafydd?
Observing the night skies in the Cambrian Mountains means you’ve arrived in one of the world’s most amazing landscapes. By day the palette of colours is incredible, but by night it paints a very different picture entirely. Say goodbye to the greens, the browns, the yellows, and hello to black and a sprinkling of white. Locals call this part of Wales ‘bola buwch’, which literally means as dark as the belly of a cow. It is what happens in the night skies here that sends shivers down your spine. At this time of year, search the sky for the Plough (Ursa Major), the North Star, the Summer Triangle, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, and of course the Milky Way.
What do you personally love about stargazing here?
The sense of being able to survive a night in the dark with minimal light, then go to work the following morning. Experiencing the peacefulness of the Cambrian Mountains nightscape on a mountainside or summit is so soothing. The darkness can be so total that you jump out of your skin if you hear footsteps or voices. I love being able to photograph things that are millions of miles and light years away. There’s a community of like-minded people, including fellow astrophotographers, who I can learn so much from, too. Sharing images encourages other to start appreciating and preserving.
And what have been the most magic moments?
Seeing Eta Aquarid/Perseid meteor showers, the arch of the Milky Way, the lunar eclipse and the passing of the International Space Station. I was with a fellow astrophotographer who was setting up his camera at 1am when a meteor flew right across the night sky in front of us. “I hope you got that. You did, didn’t you? Tell me you got that,” he said. He could sense my smile in the darkness.
We’re keen to get started… What are your top tips for beginner stargazers?
Get binoculars if you want to zoom in on the moon. I use my eyes, mostly, letting them adapt to the darkness for about 20 minutes. I then use a red light head torch (useful for reading star maps) to prevent my eyes from having to readjust to the darkness.. Always tell someone where your going, check the weather and visit the place first during the day. Take food and drinks and warm clothing. Use a planisphere or an app to plan, such as Stellarium Mobile Plus. Don’t forget memory cards, batteries, two light sources and spare batteries.
What can we hope to see in the skies around summer solstice?
The Milky Way is at its best at this time of year, and meteor showers peak in summer. Look out for the Plough (Ursa Major), the North Star, Cassiopeia, the Summer Triangle (Vega/Deneb/Altair), and Mars, Saturn and Jupiter.
Tell us more about the Cambrian Mountains Astro Trail
Accessible to all, the Cambrian Mountains Astro Trail zigzags from south to north over the Cambrian Mountains. It is about 50 miles long as the crow flies, but best done in stages, staying in key communities such as Brechfa, Llandovery, Rhandirmwyn, Llanddewi Brefi, Ciliau Aeron, Pontrhydfendigaid, Devil’s Bridge, Elan Valley-Rhayader and Staylittle-Dylife.
Out of the nine stargazing locations, I particularly recommend The Arch near Devil’s Bridge (Ceredigion), Llyn Brianne Reservoir (Carmarthenshire) and, of course, the car park of the aptly named Y Star Inn (Powys). My absolute favourite spot, however, is a place just five miles from home, where the UK’s remotest telephone kiosk is.
READ ON: Find out more about one of the best stargazing spots on the Cambrian Mountains Astro Trail, Llyn Brianne reservoir.