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When the e-newsletter advertising the Friends of the Lake District organised stargazing event popped into my inbox, I had no idea how influential it might be to the mind of my 5 year old daughter, who was desperately keen to go “moon hunting” with me.

If you mention stargazing, most people immediately think of Brian Cox, astronauts, and expensive telescopes. Not so at this fantastic free event hosted by Friends of the Lake District on their land at the beautiful Little Asby Common (near Mazonwath). Jan and Ruth of the Friends met us with plentiful tea and cakes, hosted in a barn provided by a local landowner, which also housed his lovely display of wood sculptures.

During the lively and informative talk by amateur astronomer and author, Stuart Atkinson, he promoted the idea of the ease of basic stargazing which is accessible to all. No need for fancy equipment or years of studying, just a keen eye, a dark sky and (ideally) a pair of binoculars will allow you to see the wonders of the night sky, including famous constellations and the Milky Way. Stuart became inspired by the stars at five years old, writes the weekly 'Skywatch' column for the Westmorland Gazette, and has now co-written a book with astronaut Tim Peake.

After the presentation it was time to wrap up warm and walk into the darkness to see the stars for ourselves. Little Asby Common is perfect for stargazing as there is a lack of the light pollution you find in nearby built up areas. The Cumbrian weather was kind, the sky clear, and with Stuart's expert pointing with a strong torchlight, we were soon stargazing for ourselves. It's hard not to use cliches, and talk about 'curtains of stars' or 'exploring the heavens' but the reality is you start to see and recognise the patterns slowly, as your eyes adjust from the usual lights, and the longer you look the more you see.

We could see many stars commonly recognisable such as the pole star, the Big Dipper (also known as the Plough), but also features that are usually obliterated by light pollution such as the Milky Way, Seven Sisters and the Andromeda Galaxy. Most of us were even lucky enough to see a shooting star! My daughter lay on her back in the heather, gazing up at the night sky, silent and completely transfixed.

Back at the barn there was refreshing tea and cake, then Stuart treated us to his collection of 'space rocks'. There were specimen pieces of the moon and Mars - surprisingly brown rather than red as expected! But the biggest reactions were to the fossilised dinosaur poo (!), and the piece of meteor from a shooting star, which was surprisingly heavy due to being solid metal. As I watched my 5 year old holding ‘shooting stars’, ‘moon dust’ and ‘martian rock’ in her hands, I saw her face beam with wonder.

She slept all the way home in the car, and I carried her into her bed, still fast asleep. As William Shakespeare said “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”. I was awakened the next morning by shouts from her room; “I dreamed of the moon, and I can see the stars are still awake”. Perhaps I have a ‘new’ generation Tim Peake on my hands, and she may be the first woman to walk on Mars.

It is absolutely such grass roots, local events, that are crucial for the community. The quote by Aeschylus that “From a small seed a mighty trunk may grow’, springs to mind. I’m keen to protect Cumbria’s Dark Skies, and my 5 year old is drawing yet another space rocket picture to stick on her bedroom wall. Overall this was a superb alternative to the normal Saturday night, made better by being so informal and inclusive. Thank you for the helpful and friendly hosting by Friends of the Lake District, and to Stuart, who's knowledge and passion for the stars was an inspiration for us all. I hope to join another event soon!

by Sarah Hodgson

Stargazer and Friends of the Lake District Trustee

Sarah has also created a short video with footage taken on the night...
It's available to view on our Facebook page