Jackie Kaines: Stargazing in Kielder

Kielder Observatory volunteers have an array of  knowledge and passion for their subject, leaving visitors eager to find out more. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire.
Kielder Observatory volunteers have an array of knowledge and passion for their subject, leaving visitors eager to find out more. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire.

I am in awe of people who have the vision to make seemingly impossible things happen. Northumberland abounds with such individuals.

We might have missed meeting some of them had our weekend-away risk assessment flagged up that our jaunt into the Kielder Forest Park would coincide with the cloudiest, wettest, wildest weekend. It would have been our loss.

Despite the weather, we spent a delightful time in an open-air hot tub and sauna, and three-and-a-half marvellous hours on a star-gazing Aurora Night without actually seeing a star.

First stop: Singdean, a fine example of derring-do. Nestled behind a wind-breaking bank by on the Newcastleton to Cleuch Head road, Singdean is over the border near Bonchester Bridge.

Christa and Del Dobson have translated their love of the Alps into the most delightful and quirky ‘informal luxury B&B’ and ‘boutique’.

In the 1800s the low-slung stone croft was home to shepherd Walter Scott – who, legend has it, had a recipe for a plaster that cured ‘external cancers’. However, legend also has it that he took refuge in the hills when the ‘Singdean Plaster’ failed to deliver!

Christa is an interior designer and Del a builder. Even so, renovating Singdean to create a home and business proved lengthy and, at times, eye-wateringly difficult. Ever rolled an entire sauna up a muddy hill? They have.

The couple are warm and generous hosts with a fabulous eye for detail. When we arrived, steam was rising from behind the bushes – the hot tub was heating up! The suite (there’s just one), fragranced with lavender oil, is a cornucopia of tasteful and daft mountain and ski chalet-abilia – from ski pole wall lights to luxurious snowy inspired wall hangings. They also serve a breakfast akin to an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord buffet.

Now, back to the evening’s entertainment. We braved the icy drizzle in dressing gowns (provided) and flip flops to skitter along the fairy light-lit path to the hot tub – filled from the Singdean spring and heated by its own log burner. Everything at Singdean is perfect for two – just the place for a romantic treat à deux. Our tub-time was enlivened by the momentary frisson of a huge UFO appearing through the dark mist on the horizon – it turned out to be a much less thrilling Scottish Forestry Commission tree feller. Back in the warmth of the suite it was tempting to relax on the piles of cushions and pillows with a mug of hot chocolate and a book.

However, the faux UFO had foreshadowed our next activity. So, after polishing off the deli supper we’d brought with us, we layered up, grabbed our head torches and set off for another lesson in perseverance and vision: the Kielder Observatory.

The observatory has been a magnet for stargazers since it opened in 2008. This year the surrounding area became Northumberland International Dark Sky Park – the largest such park in Europe, a coup for the region.

Robson Green’s recent TV series on Northumberland has also provided a boost, and it’s tricky to find an observatory event that isn’t fully booked.

Gary Fildes, director, lives and breathes the observatory – he’s poured eight or so years of his life into creating it. His speech is littered with ‘this will blow your mind’ and ‘incredible, isn’t it?’.

He suggests people take what they see at face value and get on with life, untouched, or that they are blown away by what a glimpse of a sunrise or the Andromeda Galaxy might suggest about, well, life, the universe and everything.

We were sad not to see a single star but it’s testament to Gary and his volunteers that we came away fired up about black holes and distant constellations. We brimmed with new knowledge and a renewed desire to glimpse the Aurora.

The next day, we meandered home to Berwick along another inspiring man-made landmark – Hadrian’s Wall – aglow with the optimism provided by a good breakfast and the anticipation of future celestial sightings.