Astronomy and me

In June 2010 I found some old Webb Society Observing Section Reports and BAA Deep Sky Section newsletters which immediately brought back the magic time when I got into astronomy. So, in an effort to recapture some of that – the magic of astronomy is not diminished, in any way, but those were exciting times which I like the feel of, looking back – and also to try and remember the history of my being involved in this best of hobbies/way of life I cobbled together the following account:

I was pretty interested in astronomy when I was a child and I clearly remember borrowing a pair of 10×50 binoculars (the old leathery sort with that lovely smell about them – anyone who has ever owned or used a pair of old-style porro-prism binoculars will know what I mean) when I was about nine years old and looking at the craters of the Moon and also, one evening, the Pleiades, with them – although I didn’t know they were the Pleiades then, they were just a pretty group of stars to me. I never pursued this interest as it never occurred to me to do so, thinking that firstly, there probably wasn’t much out there beyond the Moon, some bright stars and the planets and, secondly, no kid could get their hands on an astronomical scope. I knew precisely nothing and it just didn’t occur to me to find out.
Anyway, apart from science fiction films and an attempt to look for Halley’s Comet in 1986 – which was doomed to failure as I didn’t know what to look for, where to look or who to ask in those pre-internet days – my embryonic interest in astronomy waned and lay dormant until the early 1990s. I had joined the Royal Navy in the late 80s and I had noticed that, at sea, the skies were very, very dark and incredibly starry so I took to borrowing the ship’s 7×50 binoculars from the bridge when they weren’t required by the Officer of the Watch or Navigator, and looking at the stars with them and one day in 1991 I went into WH Smith in Commercial Road, Portsmouth, and bought myself a copy of the Cambridge Star Atlas and also the Collins Guide to Stars and Planets. I also became a huge fan of the original Star Trek in this time, which also helped my interest in astronomy, especially as the fictional planets in the series were usually orbiting real stars in real constellations. Despite all this I did not get a chance to do much else about the interest for another year or so, when I left the navy and came back to the Isle of Wight.

I left the RN in 1992 and after I came home to the Isle of Wight I found, in the local paper, an ad for a garden party and open observatory in aid of the local astronomy society, Vectis Astronomical Society. I didn’t know there were such things as local astronomy societies, much less that one existed on the island, so I decided to go along. As I didn’t own a car then I caught the bus from home in Wootton to Winford, a bit of a trek as I had to change buses in Newport, and spent the afternoon at the garden party. After a look round the observatory, which belonged to VAS member John W Smith, a look at the exhibits (posters, stalls featuring members’ observing projects and telescopes) and a chat with members, I joined on the spot. Since then, I have served on the committee several times and did a stint as Chairman during 2011/12.

I also enrolled on an ‘astronomy for beginners’ course at the local adult education college which was run by Paul England, who owns and runs the Fort Victoria Planetarium at Yarmouth. We did the theory side at the college and practical observing sessions out at Fort Vic, which is where I had my first proper views of the rings of Saturn, among other things.

The birding scope I used in 1992

For a while I was observing with a highly unsuitable birding spotting scope (I am also a birder and already had a 60mm spotting scope, it is still here at home) and a pair of Chinon 10×50 binoculars sellotaped to a tripod which was very Heath Robinson but there was no other way of mounting them and it worked well enough. I was also going to VAS observing nights, which were then at Kite Hill Farm, just down the road from me in Wootton. We used the society’s 18 inch scope – where I had my first views of things such as the Virgo galaxies and various bright deep sky objects, as well as the planets, as well as other members’ scopes which ranged in size from 3 inches to 8 inches.

However, I was itching to get my hands on a proper astronomical telescope and, later in 1992, I got one, after a few months borrowing the society’s 6 inch Dob. This was based on a 6-inch DIY scope kit from VAS, consisting of a gas pipe for the optical tube assembly and marine plywood for the box and base. I bought a mirror set from David Hinds, installed it in the scope and, needing some eyepieces, I went up to Telescope House, then based in Farringdon, London, with my mum in tow as she fancied a day out in the Smoke, for three Orthoscopic eyepieces, a Barlow lens, a red torch and a couple of books, including Roger N Clark’s Visual Astronomy of the Deep Sky whose custard yellow cover caught my eye.

I used this scope for a year and, with it, I got into sketching. I began by sketching the Moon and planets but soon became hooked on deep sky observing, especially after going to the 1993 BAA Deep Sky Section’s Annual Meeting in Northampton. I travelled up by car with three other VAS members, we left the Island at stupid o’clock in the morning and arrived in time for the start of the meeting at 1030. At the meeting there were talks about active galactic nuclei and, as I recall, star atlases and also visually observing planetary nebulae. I was also able to add to my growing book collection with some of the Webb Society’s Deep Sky Observer’s Handbooks – if I remember correctly I bought Volume Two: Planetary and Gaseous Nebulae, Volume Three: Open and Globular Clusters and the baked-bean colour Volume Four: Galaxies.

The cover of the Webb Society Deep Sky Observer’s Handbook Volume 4 Galaxies

I now have the full set and, while they look very dated now, they are a reminder of those exciting times when I was beginning to find out all about visually observing the deep sky. I also joined the Webb Society (now the Webb Deep Sky Society), as they had a stand at the meeting. I’d previously encountered the Webb Society at the 1993 London Astrofest a couple of months earlier but had, wrongly as it turned out, assumed that they were way over my head.

On joining the Webb Society, far from being completely over my head, I found it to be inspiring, and full of knowledgeable people. The then publications, the Quarterly Journal and, especially, the Observing Section Reports, were full of other people’s observations and inspiring articles.


The cover of one of the Observing Section Reports

When they brought out the Deep Sky Observer, in 1992, this was meant to be a less dry publication than the WSQJ but, in the end, all three publications were merged into the DSO. I always thought the end of the OSRs, in particular, was a shame but the observing and astro-travel (not astral travel!) articles in the DSO more than made up for it.

Why were the OSRs, in particular, so inspirational? Well, as their name suggests, they were full of observing reports and object descriptions by excellent observers such as Michael Sweetman, Gerd Bahr-Vollrath, Steve Gottlieb, Alan Dowdell, Leonie (Le) Forbes and others. These descriptions, for the most part, were good examples of astronomical note-taking and looking back at these takes me back to those exciting early days. It’s also interesting to note the names – some of the people, such as Steve Gottlieb and Alan Dowdell, are still active in observing and/or the Webb Society, while others, such as Gerd Bahr-Vollrath and Le Forbes, seem to have disappeared completely, you never even see or hear their names in passing any more, which is a shame, especially when they were brilliant observers and among my influences. I even started sending in stuff myself, from 1995, when I plucked up the confidence to do so!

Some sketches from the OSR.


I can’t remember the exact moment I became interested in sketching what I saw but I think it was down to a combination of the OSRs, David Eicher’s articles in Astronomy Magazine, the soon-to-be-defunct Deep Sky Magazine and a talk about deep sky sketching by David Eicher himself at the 1993 Webb AGM in Cambridge. Anyway, it did not take long before I was deeply interested in sketching and, again, this was helped by what I saw in the OSRs. This actually coincided with the rise of the CCD which revolutionised astro-photography, although I wasn’t then and still not interested in astrophotography, whether on film or chip. I love looking at astrophotos though!

It was in 1993 that I went to the BAA Winchester Weekend for the first time and I have since been to every one from 1993 to 1999 (except 1996 as I was away), plus 2001 to 2006. I’d heard about it from friends and seen it advertised in astronomy magazines, including the BAA Journal and, as Winchester is fairly close to home (ferry to Southampton and a quick drive or train ride) it was easy to get to. In those days it was held at King Alfred’s College, now University College, Winchester, very close to the city centre and very accessible by both road and rail. The format of the Weekend, which is held on the Easter vacation every year, although not on the Easter weekend itself, consists of talks in the late morning, afternoon and then one main speaker in the evening, Saturday afternoons are devoted to ‘workshops’, such as deep sky observing, Jupiter, Mars, CCD imaging and so on. There are trade stands: Webb Society, Venturescope (I think they started up in the late 90s but are now part of the Widescreen Centre), Earth and Sky books (they are now, as far as I know, no more, victims of the much cheaper Amazon), Ian Poyser telescopes and so on. In the evening there was late ‘coffee’ in the bar – this ‘coffee’ actually came in pint glasses and looked, and tasted, remarkably like beer but the temperature was not a lot different from that of tepid coffee! – and observing on the bar roof. In those days, a lot of us brought our scopes along and actually did manage to do some fun short observing sessions, clouds permitting, before the building was locked up at 1am.

The accommodation was a bit sparse, these were halls of residence, but adequate as we were only there two nights, Friday and Saturday. The walls and floors were paper thin and one feature of the weekend was sometimes rowdy parties that went on to 2 or even 3 am. I remember once, well-known British comet expert and director of the BAA Comet Section, Jonathan Shanklin, coming down at 2am to remonstrate with us, I can’t say I blame him though, as the music and conversation had got progressively louder as the night wore on.

I can’t remember too many of the talks now, but one was about Arp galaxies and I remember that me and my friend Chris Lintott, now Dr. Chris Lintott, a well-respected astrophysicist and co-presenter of the Sky At Night, nearly got chucked out for being unable to stop laughing at a particularly ‘interestingly-shaped’ interacting system Arp 138 (NGC 4015); there was another about bolide impacts which was an interesting – and scary – talk about what will happen if (when?!) we get hit by a large space rock. I even did a talk at the 2006 Weekend, this was about deep sky observing and sketching and it was well-received.

I haven’t been to the Winchester Weekend since then as I have usually been away during that time and it has also become very expensive, at the time of writing it is £160 for members and £180 for non-members and I have to confess that I am no longer a member of the BAA, as the yearly ordinary membership has become rather expensive at £44. The Winchester Weekend has since moved away from KAC and is now held at Sparsholt College, which is an agricultural college on the outskirts of the city.

Another interesting and fun event is the Webb Society AGM. Unfortunately for those of us on the south coast, this is often held in Cambridge. It has been held in the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford and the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, both relatively easy to get to from the south coast (each is a reasonably short drive from Portsmouth or Southampton) but it seems as if the preferred venue is Cambridge, which means leaving home at 4am and not getting back until gone midnight! I did stay overnight in 1998, but that was at the expense of the society as I was doing a talk at the meeting, so as a speaker I got expenses paid. However, as a normal attendee, staying in a B&B is not cheap.

8.75″ AstroSystems scope on alt-az mount, the twin of the one I sold

As the early 90’s went on, I learned the sky and deep sky observing. In 1994, at the VAS garden party, I was told about an 8.75” AstroSystems Newtonian, on a Vixen Super Polaris mount, which was for sale for £500. This was too good to miss, so I arranged with the seller, then VAS Chairman Jim Cahill, to look at it. It was a superb instrument and in good condition, with accessories, so I bought it there and then. It meant selling the 6” but, as I didn’t have room for both and the 8.75” was a far superior telescope, this was not too much of a problem. The little gas pipe 6” went to a new home, to a guy who’d recently taken up astronomy and joined the VAS.

I was still very much a beginner and it was shortly after I bought the 8.75” that I found some of the treasures of the summer Milky Way. I knew what most of the stuff was but, one night, I came across an odd little ‘spindle’ in Sagittarius. I still have the notes and the sketch I made of it – ‘what is this?’, I wrote. Well, of course, it was none other than M17, the Swan or Omega Nebula, so it always pays to take notes, then you can identify things!

The 8.75” ended up at my friend Richard Flux’s observatory at Kite Hill, Wootton. This was a semi-rural/suburban (large village with a couple of too-big housing estates attached) moderately light polluted site, although not too bad, and I could see stars down to naked eye limiting magnitude of 5.5 or 5.8. I used this site from 1994 to 2002.

Back to the mid-1990’s. I had moved to the south Midlands and then London, but the scope remained at Richard’s as I had no opportunities to observe, especially from London which is insanely light polluted – you’re lucky to see mag 3 stars from the centre, which is where I was.  However, I did return to the Island quite often and if the weather co-operated then I went to Richard’s to observe. It was about this time that I got really itchy feet and I had wanted to go to Australia for a long time, but especially so since I became interested in astronomy. The reason? Well, the Southern Hemisphere skies are much different from our northern ones with a larger number of bright stars, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (satellite galaxies of our own Milky Way), NGC 5139 (Omega Centauri), NGC 4755 (the Jewel Box), NGC 5128 (Centaurus A), the centre of the Milky Way high overhead instead of lost in the murk near the southern horizon, and so on…needless to say I was absolutely itching to see this stuff for myself, so I went to the bank, cap in hand and, to my surprise it has to be said, they agreed to give me a £1000 loan. With the loan in the bag I got a visa from Australia House, booked my flight (£660 return to Darwin with Royal Brunei Airways), arranged, via my first ever forays into email!, to meet amateur astronomers Jenni Kay and Jim Barclay and bought myself a tiny 3.5″ Celestron Maksutov-Cassegrain second hand from BC & F (Telescope House) in Farringdon Rd, all ready to set off for a six-week observing and travelling adventure in the Big Land Down Under.

That spring of 1997 was an exciting time, it was a time of work, university studies (I was then doing a degree in Geology at UCL), heavy metal nights and gigs at the London Astoria on Charing Cross Road (since sadly pulled down to make way for the London Crossrail Project), popping back to the Island to observe and looking forward to the big trip to Australia. I was also popping across to Burlington House and the BAA Library, when I could, to look for information about observing in the Southern Hemisphere. May, then June, came and then exams. It was then that I decided that I didn’t want any part of studying any more – I could do the stuff, but I knew that I just wasn’t interested enough in Geology; want to know the best way to kill off an interest? Formally study it! However, I decided to leave any decisions until I got back from my Australia trip.

I came back to the Isle of Wight for a few weeks between finishing off the academic year and setting off for Australia and stayed at my mum’s. I worked in a shop for a while to earn some extra money, it was crap but it did give me a bit more cash for the trip. I set off on July 15th 1997, armed with 10×50 binoculars, the little 3.5″ Mak-Cass, the Cambridge Star Atlas 2000.0, the Webb Society Deep Sky Handbook Volume 7: The Southern Sky and a planisphere for 35° South, on what proved to be an excellent and exciting observing adventure. I have always had a desire for travel but had not, before then, travelled outside of Europe.

Me with 20″ scope, Camp Duckadang, Qld, Oz, in August 1997

I spent six weeks observing the southern skies with 10×50 binoculars, a little 3.5 inch Celestron Maksutov-Cassegrain plus scopes I could mooch looks through – and I was very lucky in that way. I stayed with Jenni Kay, at her home in rural Lobethal, South Australia, and with Jim and Lynne Barclay in rural Queensland and also in Brisbane. I also got to go to the Queensland Astrofest, a week-long star party, just before flying home. Because of these contacts, I got to use scopes from 8 inches to 20 inches. It was a great trip and, since then, I have always wanted to return – I have since made three more trips to the Southern Hemisphere, including a return visit to Australia in 2009, although these were not observing trips. I want to return to the Southern Hemisphere one day on a pure observing trip and being able to speak some Spanish means that Chile is an option. You can read about the 1997 Australia trip here.

After returning to the UK during the late summer of 1997 (it sticks particularly in my mind as I got back the day before Diana, Princess of Wales, died) I wrote an account of my observing adventures Down Under for the Webb Society’s Deep Sky Observer. I also included most, if not all, of my observations and the whole thing took up nearly all of DSO 112, published in April 1998! I then won the Webb Society Graphics Award for that article and the sketches that went with it and I received the award at the Webb AGM, in April 1999.

The early to mid 1990s were an exciting time; astronomy was a new hobby with all the excitement a new interest brings. None of that excitement has truly gone, although it is inevitably now a little less intense than it was. However, all I need to do is pick up an old Webb Society Observing Section Report or a copy of Deep Sky Magazine and it all comes flooding back.

However, it was during early 1999 and into 2000 that things went a little pear-shaped. During spring 1999 I had begin to feel pretty crap and things got progressively worse as time went on. I had got a nice seasonal job at the Isle of Wight Planetarium, after quitting the shop job, but as time went on I just couldn’t do the job as facing people was not an option. To cut a long story short, I vaguely remember the solar eclipse that year – I was supposed to have joined Chris Lintott in Devon for this but couldn’t travel – but not a lot else for the second half of the year. Needless to say, astronomy was abandoned and things did not return to anything resembling normal until late in 2000. Even then, I didn’t return to doing a lot of hardcore observing for a long while, not until early 2001. However, I ended up with a bit of money bother, having lost my job and not being able to find another, so I sold this scope in 2003 in order to pay the rent, something I have regretted ever since although these things do, sometimes, have to be done. I then observed with VAS’ scopes at the observatory and also with binoculars. I also did a fair bit of ‘armchair astronomy’ in that time, which was not ideal as I’d rather be doing the real thing.

In January 2004, I moved to Southampton and I did almost nothing in that 16 months I was there, apart from some binocular observing from wherever I was living in the city at the time. This near abandonment of the hobby was entirely due to the lack of a scope and my living conditions – I moved three times in that 16 months and it was a truly hideous experience that I never intend to repeat, I had no money for a flat and I ended up in lodgings with people who, I suspect, barely tolerated me and (especially) my small dog and who I didn’t much care for either. It was an incredibly depressing time which absolutely sucked and was a horrible mistake, so in May 2005 I brought myself and my little dog back to the dark skies of the Isle of Wight and my aunt’s house in a rural village near Sandown where we have been ever since.

Of course I had no scope so, to get back into astronomy, I decided to see how many of the Messier Objects I could observe using just my Leica 8×42 binoculars. This was a great little project and it got me observing until I could get a scope again. I rejoined VAS that summer (I had let it lapse as I was away from the Island) and borrowed an 8.75” Newtonian on an alt-azimuth (but not a Dobsonian) mount which, coincidentally, was the twin of mine that I had been forced to sell. I was back!

Something else I had wanted to do, certainly ever since late 1995 when I read DSO articles by Riku Henriksson and Martin Lewis about their separate trips in 1995, was to go to the Texas Star Party. However, I never had the opportunity to do so until 2006. My first attempt at getting to the Texas Star Party (TSP) was in 2005. I registered but, as it happened, life got in the way and I withdrew my registration. This was actually just as well as it was apparently wet, foggy and downright unpleasant for the whole week with only a few hours of observing time on one night, which would have been annoying if I had trekked all the way across the Atlantic!

But I registered for the 2006 TSP and I made it and had one of the best vacations I had ever been on. I have since been to three more Texas Star Parties, in 2008, 2010 and 2012 and I hope to do more as there is nothing better than observing under dark skies with fellow amateurs.

The Prude Ranch gate

The Present Day: I now own an 18 inch Dobsonian and, at the time of writing this is my main scope.  My main observing interests are galaxies, galaxy clusters, globular clusters and faint nebulae.

In 2010 I put up a shed at the top of the garden so I now have a sort of observatory purely to store my scopes and other bits and pieces (but not binoculars or eyepieces) in, as I got a bit fed up with lugging the 12 inch in and out of the house. Over the very cold and stormy winter of 2010/11, it did a good job of keeping my scope safe but I since moved the scope to a larger and better wooden summer house type shed down the garden, closer to the house.

Twenty-one years on from my dormant childhood interest blossoming into a full-on astronomy obsession, I am still purely a visual observer. Yes, I did dip my toe into CCD imaging and I do occasionally take sky pictures with my Canon DSLR, but astrophotography and imaging really do nothing for me. I have no patience for the fiddly stuff, I prefer to look through a telescope with my eyes not a screen and, besides, there are a lot of people who can do astrophotography and imaging a lot better than I can. I still like using my scope with nothing more complicated than an alt-azimuth mount, my favourite eyepieces, red-torch, pencil and paper to draw and describe deep sky objects.

So far, on going back through these old notebooks and sketchbooks (unfortunately I have two or three missing) I find I have visually observed best part of a thousand NGC/IC objects and non-NGC/IC objects such as anonymous galaxies and galaxy clusters. On top of that, there’s all the planets (including ex-planet Pluto), double and multiple stars, the Moon(!), asteroids, a comet crashing into Jupiter, comets, lunar eclipses, partial solar eclipses with one cloud obstructed total in 1999, a transit of Venus, the Sun, occultations, meteor showers, noctilucent clouds, Mir, the ISS, the Space Shuttle and other satellites…but, sadly, no UFOs! All these with equipment ranging from my unaided eyes to a 48″ dobsonian.

[Amended 31st May 2013]