Stargazing in Kent: Observatories, dark skies and stargazing groups
PUBLISHED: 11:02 21 July 2020 | UPDATED: 11:05 21 July 2020
As the world slows down, we turn our eyes to the skies in search of the best places to watch some celestial wonders this summer
In this strange new world, many have found themselves taking a greater interest in nature. With little chance of summer holidays abroad this year, it’s comforting to find beauty all around us here in our own county.
But while some are hiking in the countryside, others are taking time to look up and experience the summer’s clear skies.
Whether you’re hoping to witness a stunning sunrise, gaze at the stars or bask in a warm sunset, there’s a perfect spot for it somewhere in Kent.
It’s easy to take the night sky for granted, or to think of stargazing as overcomplicated and inaccessible, but there are a number of helpful websites, local groups, social media accounts and apps for novices. With their help, it’s quite possible to look up on a clear night without any equipment and understand at least some of what you’re seeing.
It’s something many of us can do from just outside our own homes, but if you’re able to get out and about, some of Kent’s best stargazing spots might surprise you.
Technically speaking, one of the best places should be Betsom’s Hill, on the North Downs between Biggin Hill and Westerham. The highest point in the county – at 251 metres – it’s closer to the stars than anywhere else in Kent. Sadly though, it’s far from the darkest.
Its proximity to London means views can be hampered by the city’s light pollution. In fact, the darkest skies in Kent have been recorded in Dungeness, Woodchurch and High Halden.
Jutting out into the Channel and largely flat, the Romney Marsh offers wide horizons, clear skies and such dark nights it was once a favourite haunt of smugglers hoping to go about their work unseen. Due to the low population density there is little light pollution and the Milky Way can often be seen with the naked eye, along with distant galaxies and star clusters.
Another of our wildest spots, the Isle of Sheppey is also known for its wide, open skies. The island’s Elmley Nature Reserve is a perfect, peaceful place for stargazing and is the only nature reserve in the UK where you can spend the night.
Privately owned, it has several overnight accommodation options, including some secluded shepherd’s huts where you can sit out under the stars before turning in for the night (do check first).
There are some good places on the White Cliffs coastline too, although again you need to find somewhere with as little artificial light as possible.
St Margaret’s Bay, the seafront between Hythe and Seabrook, Walmer and some of the beaches around Folkestone offer fantastic views. One recommended by the National Trust is Toy’s Hill, near Sevenoaks. Lying on top of the Greensand Ridge, it’s the second highest point in Kent and benefits from darker than average skies. It also happens to be the place that inspired Octavia Hill to found the National Trust in the first place. Wrotham Hill is so well-known for its panoramic views that it has a designated viewing point.
If it’s an epic sunrise or sunset that you’re hoping to catch, Kent has many great places to sit and enjoy these daily spectacles.
If it’s safe to venture away from home, try Dungeness or Botany Bay for a magical sunrise by the sea. Or head to your nearest hill.
Bluebell Hill, between Chatham and Maidstone, is an old favourite, and Bidborough Ridge near Tonbridge is a popular spot in the summer.
Timing is all important when it comes to sun up. Arrive too soon and you’ll be waiting in the cold but arrive even moments too late and you’ll have missed the show.
Sunset is easier to achieve, at least under normal circumstances, as we’re often still out and about at that time in the summer months anyway. For a stunning, colourful sunset, pick a clear day, head to one of our county’s beautiful beaches and cross your fingers.
A particular recommendation is Minnis Bay, near Margate. It’s a quiet place with a sandy beach, clear water and golden sunsets across the sea – all with a view of Reculver Towers in the background.
Another couple of obvious choices are Whitstable and Margate beaches. The sandy expanse of Margate Main Sands is magnificent at that time of day and Whitstable is famous for its colourful evening skies.
A little more unexpected is the reputation Faversham has a great spot to watch the setting of the sun. Walk along the creek or take a stroll at Oare Marshes Nature Reserve.
And Knole Park in Sevenoaks is also said to be a charming place to sit on a blanket and enjoy the evening display.
Just watch out for the resident deer pinching your picnic.
Kent observatories and local groups
• Mid Kent Astronomical Society
The society has an active membership of more than 100 from across Kent and is based in Bredhurst, with an observatory in Canterbury. It aims to promote astronomy in Kent, and to provide facilities for the study of astronomy for its members. It offers a wide variety of talks, events, projects and outreach activities. Visit midkentastro.org.uk
• Ashford Astronomical Society
A friendly society, aiming to engage any age, AAS promotes astronomy as a hobby and offers to help out beginners keen to know more but put off by jargon. Visit ashfordastro.org.uk
• Monkton Stargazers
Monkton Nature Reserve is home to two of Thanet’s observatories. The Monkton Stargazers hold a number of public viewing events every year and members get in for free. The Thanet Observatory is involved in a project to view young protostars with the Centre of Astrophysics and Planetary Sciences at the University of Kent at Canterbury. Visit monkton-reserve.org
• Cranbrook and District Science and Astronomy Society
Based in a purpose-built observatory at Cranbrook School, this society uses a 22.5 inch reflecting telescope that was originally built during the 1970s. After several years of restoration and installation work by CADSAS members, the Alan Young telescope is now operational. Visit cadsas.com
• There are several other groups across Kent, including: Crayford Manor House Astronomical Society in Dartford, Edenbridge And District Astronomers, Folkestone Astronomy Club, Herne Bay Amateur Astronomical Society and the South East Kent Astronomical Society.
For amateur stargazers
• London and South East
In Kent, Toy’s Hill and Knole are both accredited Dark Sky sites - stargazing in London and the South East
• Stargazing in the UK
Stargazing and amateur astronomy advice for beginners in the UK, stargazing.me.uk
• Go Stargazing
An easily accessible website with stargazing tips, locations and a dark sky calendar, gostargazing.co.uk
• British Astronomical Association
Support and advice for amateur astronomers, britastro.org
• Meteor Watch
• For sunrise and sunset