Cranborne Chase wins official Dark Skies Reserve status – the largest area in the UK

Cranborne Chase Dark Skies

Photo: King Alfred’s Tower by Paul Howell of Pictori Images

IT’S OFFICIAL! Shaftesbury has one of the best stargazing spots in the world on its doorstep.

The Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AoNB) has been recognised as an International Dark Sky Reserve, an area that restricts light pollution and promotes astronomy.

The AoNB has the largest central area of darkness of any International Dark Sky Reserve in the UK. It’s also the first AoNB in the country to receive the recognition, and only the 14th reserve across the globe to join an exclusive club of International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Protected Areas to gain international recognition for our dark skies.

“Some people are lucky enough to recognise ‘the Plough’, but for others, seeing stars and their constellations is often impossible because of light pollution. Here in Cranborne Chase we can see the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy, if the clouds allow!” said Linda Nunn, Director of Cranborne Chase AONB.

“We think of our beautiful landscapes as being on the ground, but 50% of our landscape is above our heads, in the sky. The quality of our night sky is so important and this isn’t just for the benefit of astronomers. There are huge benefits for nocturnal wildlife, our own human health and wellbeing, for education, tourism and for energy saving. We’re thrilled to be playing our part.”

Bob Mizon, who leads the Commission for Dark Skies in the UK and has played a major supporting role in the application, added: “You can’t fail to be amazed by the show the night sky puts on when you’re in Cranborne Chase AONB on a clear night. This dark sky status helps to keep it that way for future generations.”

Cranborne pressed hard to obtain International Dark Sky Reserve status. Northumberland, Elan Valley and Galloway have Dark-Sky parks, while four national parks in the UK have the mantle (Exmoor, Brecon Beacons, South Downs, Snowdonia). But Cranborne is the first AONB in the country to earn the accolade.

The bid was submitted in early spring 2019 to create Dorset’s first International Dark Sky Reserve. There are several recommended places to stargaze within the the AoNB but the nearest to Shaftesbury – and one of the most spectacular – is Fontmell Down Nature Reserve on Spread Eagle Hill, two miles away. By day, there are stunning views out to the Blackmore Vale: the landscape was bought to preserve the essence of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex.

At 263m, the summit of the hill is one of the highest points in Dorset. An Armada beacon sited here in 1588 formed part of the chain of signal beacons stretching between London and Plymouth. What better place to witness the other navigational tools used by sea farers worldwide – the mystical constellations. This site offers superb panoramic views which, apart from Win Green, are unparalleled in the AONB.

Adam Dalton, International Dark Sky Places Program Manager at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), based in Tuscon, USA, said: “Cranborne Chase has the largest central area of darkness of any International Dark Sky Reserve in the UK. It is a huge area of land at almost 1000 sq km, and less than 2 hours from London and Bristol. For those living and visiting this beautiful area, this is something to be celebrated and enjoyed.”

The Reserve designation can only be given by the IDA to those areas that enjoy exceptional starry skies and have pledged to protect and improve them for future generations.

This is the culmination of over ten years’ work by the Dark Sky project team at the AONB led by Amanda Scott for the last 18 months.

To achieve International Dark Sky Reserve status, Cranborne Chase AONB was put through a series of stringent checks by the IDA.

Linda Nunn, continued: “We have taken meter readings of the darkness of the night sky for several years and we are hugely grateful to the Wessex Astronomical Society for their support. We must also thank Bob Mizon as we could not have achieved this without his help, or the support of the local authorities and parish councils and we look forward to working with them as we continue to improve our dark skies.

“Although huge amounts of work have already been done to achieve this status, we must continually improve our dark skies. Dark sky friendly schemes with schools, business, parishes and landowners are being developed and Wiltshire Council, which administers two-thirds of the area, has already agreed to upgrade its street lighting. This will make a significant contribution and will help us continually improve our dark sky quality. This is a requirement of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) to ensure we maintain our exclusive status.”

Cranborne Chase AONB joins a prestigious group of areas around the world that are certified IDA International Dark-Sky Reserves:

Future events:

Dec 17: Stargazing evening with Chasing Stars, Ashmore Village Hall, Shaftesbury SP5 5AL, 7pm.

Feb 19, 2020: Stargazing evening with Chasing Stars, Church Farm Caravanning and Camping Park, High Street, Sixpenny Handley, SP5 5ND, 7pm