How dark skies and a community observatory have added to the Scillies’ star attractions


The inaugural Scilly Dark Skies Week was held on St Martin’s (pictured), the archipelago’s northernmost populated island

It’s famous for its glorious beaches, subtropical gardens and as one of the Royal Family’s favourite holiday spots. Now there’s another reason to visit the Isles of Scilly: to explore the night skies.

The inaugural Scilly Dark Skies Week has just been held on St Martin’s, the archipelago’s northernmost populated island. And it’s all about COSMOS – the Community Observatory St Martin’s – which opened in 2019.

It’s not just a tribute to the islands’ dark skies but to St Martin’s locals, including the jeweller who fundraised by designing a telescope pendant, staff at the island’s only hotel – the setting for fundraisers – and the Isles of Scilly Steamship Group, which provided a grant.

The archipelago’s northernmost populated island has almost no light pollution and 120 residents, who refer to the narrow concrete path that stretches from the harbour to the northern tip as the motorway (although I only spot one car, owned by the hotel).  

I develop a sentimental attachment to this concrete ribbon, which wiggles past places like Middletown Barn, an artwork-filled honesty shop where wireless card readers left on shelves provided an unexpected nod to modernity. On cloudless nights, the moon’s glare reflects off the concrete, turning it into a glowing, lunar-yellow brick road.

In 2016 a gaggle of locals and passionate stargazers who’d been lugging their telescopes here for years decided to make their skies more accessible by constructing a community observatory. One was Mark Holmes, who’d received the British Astronomical Association’s Sir Patrick Moore prize after setting up Cheshire’s High Legh Community Observatory.

Mark was holidaying in a cottage rented from Val Thomas – now COSMOS’s chairwoman – when Val mentioned she wanted to attract more visitors. Mark suggested focusing on the dark skies that had lured him here, and the plan for an observatory was born.

The island of St Martin's (above) has just 120 residents and almost no light pollution. 'Gaggles of locals and passionate star-gazers have been lugging their telescopes here for years,' says Tamara

 The island of St Martin’s (above) has just 120 residents and almost no light pollution. ‘Gaggles of locals and passionate star-gazers have been lugging their telescopes here for years,’ says Tamara

After three years of grant applications, logistical minefields and planning meetings – held in the only pub, where a constellation-like tangle of fairy lights dangles from wonky wooden beams – the observatory opened in 2019.

I saw the Milky Way [from St Martin’s] clearer than I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve viewed it from places famous for having the world’s darkest skies’ 

Professor Ian Morison, Jodrell Bank Observatory

Stars, it seems, were always on the radar of COSMOS chair Val Thomas. ‘I went to school here and stars were always part of my life. I remember seeing the Northern Lights as a child, and knew about the Milky Way and when Venus was brightest. And my brother and uncle both went to sea, and learned to navigate using the stars.’

COSMOS, tucked behind the island’s community centre, comprises two domes with two high-power telescopes, next to a tech-filled warm room lined with photos documenting the construction process. One shows the domes, fresh from the mainland, dumped unceremoniously on St Martin’s tiny dockside.

I visit during COSMOS’s inaugural Scilly Dark Skies Week. Events include talks about dark sky photography and guided walks around the island. And, of course, stargazing sessions.

During the walk to the observatory, I’d marvelled at the Milky Way’s brightness, and while waiting for my turn on the telescope, watch shooting stars streak across the sky.

There’s something lovely about huddling around the domes, passing around binoculars like hip flasks and calling out observations, whether it’s the International Space Station or shooting stars.

Meteor showers and even the Northern Lights have been observed from St Martin's (above)

Meteor showers and even the Northern Lights have been observed from St Martin’s (above) 

Inside, I peer through the telescope and see Saturn’s rings with jaw-dropping clarity, and use my phone to take a picture of its rings through the lens – the closest I’ll ever come to a Saturn selfie.

Professor Ian Morison, a guest speaker at COSMOS’s Scilly Dark Skies Week and an astronomer at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, has been visiting for stargazing sessions for years. ‘The surrounding water helps smooths out the atmosphere, which is why you’ll find one of the best dark skies here,’ says Ian. ‘Two nights ago, I saw the Milky Way clearer than I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve viewed it from places famous for having the world’s darkest skies.’

So what should amateurs look for when they visit the Isles of Scilly? ‘Start with the Milky Way, simply because it’s hard to see in light-polluted areas,’ says Ian. ‘And Jupiter – it can be seen anywhere, but looks much better here.’

There’s no doubt the observatory has brought islanders together.

In a nearby gallery and workshop tucked inside a stone cottage, I meet Fay Page, founder of the jewellers of the same name, which Fay runs with husband Rob. She shows me the silver telescope necklace, created to raise funds for COSMOS.

‘The inspiration was an antique telescope we found in a back room when we moved here,’ says Fay, from behind a desk made from century-old ship timbers. Both her and Rob are partial to some star-spotting themselves. ‘

‘We’ve seen meteor showers and the Northern Lights from the island, and we use a small telescope to see smaller objects, such as Saturn’s rings,’ says Rob.

I raise a final toast to COSMOS at St Martin’s Vineyard and Winery, owned by Holly and James, who swapped the Midlands for St Martin’s after purchasing the vineyard.

Over a bottle of their white wine, I learn that the vineyard’s former owner is COSMOS’s chairwoman, Val, and realise this is the wine Mark Holmes was drinking when she approached him and discussed the possibility of an observatory. I’ve never believed in fate or the whole stars-aligning spiel, but now I’m reconsidering that stance. Perhaps some things really are written in the stars, after all.

TRAVEL FACTS 

Doubles at Karma St Martin’s (karmagroup.com), which opens between in April and closes in late October, start from £200. Single fares from Land’s End to St Mary’s with Skybus (islesofscilly-travel.co.uk/skybus) start from £93.25. Boat services between St Mary’s and St Martin’s are operated by the St Mary’s Boatmen’s Association (scillyboating.co.uk). The COMOS community observatory is open to the public – visit cosmosscilly.co.uk for more information. 

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