A velvet-black sky alight with shooting stars, the magic of distant twinkling planets and the unforgettable sight of the Milky Way – night skies have captured the imaginations of people for millennia, and luckily, you don’t have to venture too far to catch a glimpse of it. From some of the UK’s most scenic natural parks and remote regions, to surprising havens close to its busy cities, find some of the best locations to watch the stars. Just pack a blanket, a hot flask and your telescope, and prepare to make a wish.
South Downs National Park, Hampshire & Sussex
Though the South Downs is one of the UK’s youngest national parks, its status as a top stargazing spot is internationally recognised, as one of only 16 International Dark Sky Reserves in the world. And with a huge amount of space, including rolling green hills, dense woodland, grasslands and the famous Seven Sisters cliffs facing out to the ocean, it’s a magical place to explore by both day and night. If you’re visiting here, the pretty New Place Hotel is the perfect country haven to call home, close to the South Downs’ many trails and paths, and filled with countryside comfort and charm.
You’re spoilt for choice to find the perfect spot for stars in the South Downs, but there are a few important things to keep in mind. It can get chilly out in the vast open, so make sure you pack plenty of layers. And while the stars shine bright against the inky darkness, it’s good to check out the moon’s phases before you plan a trip – a bright full moon will take centre stage on a clear night. It can also take your eyes a little time to adjust, but with patience, you’ll be dazzled by a sparkling blanket of innumerable stars above you.
Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Wales
Dotted with historic castles, iconic lighthouses and countless species of rare and beautiful flora and fauna, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is a breathtaking sight. Located on the southwest coast of Wales, its highlights include a collection of beaches and hidden coves, ranging from soft, sandy beaches that once harboured illicit smugglers, to wild, rocky outposts beaten by crashing waves. To take in the spectacular views by day, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path gives you the perfect vantage point, with nearly 300 kilometres of coastal scenery to enjoy along the way. Close to the seaside town of Tenby, a popular starting point to the route, you’ll find Lamphey Court Hotel & Spa, an idyllic spot to relax in after a long hike.
While Pembrokeshire’s Blue Flag beaches are perfect for enjoying the summer season by day, for night owls, the show really begins after dark. Incredible sunsets fill the sky with colour, while the sight of stars reflecting off still waters makes for an unforgettable experience. Look out for some of the epic meteor showers – or shooting stars, as they’re commonly known, as they pass over the UK’s skies. While there are many throughout the year, the Perseids, spotted through late July to mid-August, are one of the most captivating summer sights, and at their peak you can see hundreds of bright, fast meteors trailing through the sky.
North York Moors, North Yorkshire
With a moody, romantic quality all of their own, the wild rambling spaces of the North York Moors have enthralled countless visitors over the years – its remote beauty is rumoured to have inspired the tragic literary heartache of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. While you might want to hold off melodramatically running across the windy moors, you will find a diverse and picturesque place, filled to the brim with unspoilt nature, secret gardens, and sleepy country towns that will provide a warm welcome after a long hike.
Being further north, the dark skies of the North York Moors are ideal for glimpsing rare phenomena. Away from the light pollution of bigger cities and towns, here you can see the glimmering river of the Milky Way above you on a clear autumn night, and the elusive Northern Lights have even been spotted dancing along the Yorkshire Coast. Dalby Forest in the Moors holds official Dark Sky Discovery Site status for the clear visibility of the Milky Way – and if you’re lucky, you might even catch a fleeting view of the local bats swooping above you.
Galloway Forest Park, Scotland
Let the busy bustle of city life fall away and be replaced by rolling glens, verdant forest, peaceful lochs and winding trails across the rich landscape of the Galloway Forest. Just a couple hours’ drive out from Glasgow, it is a haven for wilderness and nature lovers, with majestic red deer stalking the landscape, as well as enormous birds of prey swooping above. You can explore its enchanting scenery in countless ways: take a peaceful walk across the hills, bump up your adrenaline on a mountain bike, or follow the Forest Drive route to enjoy its magical atmosphere by car.
One of its biggest attractions, though, appears after dark, when the vast open skies above the forest come to life. It’s one of the first Dark Sky Parks in the UK, where you can enjoy a piercingly clear view of over 7,000 stars and planets, as well as the impressive arch of the Milky Way galaxy stretching out above you. You can also visit the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory here for a closer look at the stars, as well as the chance to learn more about them.
Shetland Islands, Scotland
The beautiful Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, are the stuff of myth and legend – from the epic Bifröst, the rainbow bridge between Earth and Asgard in Norse mythology, to the Mirrie Dancers of the Shetlands. The latter are so-called because of their shimmering, shifting sight, and legend has it in these parts that the colourful streaks above are caused by celestial beings fighting in the sky. Despite such tales, though, the Mirrie Dancers are a once-in-a-lifetime treat to see, and the dark, unpolluted skies above the Shetlands are the perfect place to find them.
With Shetland closer to the North Pole than any other part of the UK, you’re most likely to find them on a clear winter night, when the long stretches of darkness are in your favour. As they’re caused by charged particles emanating from the sun, you can use aurora forecasts to help you plan your visit, although these notoriously elusive phenomena aren’t always easy to predict. Whether or not you catch them, the Shetland Islands remain rich in all kinds of other magical sights – from humpback whales breaching the surface of the ocean and wild eagles in the sky, to ethereal moon rises over the unspoilt landscape.