Your guide to the August night sky, Stonehenge Landscape, Wiltshire

1 08 2012

Stonehenge Landscape, Wiltshire.  Big, open skies are a defining feature of the countryside and on a clear night you can see some 4,000 stars sparkling in our universe.

Situated on the edge of Salisbury Plain, the prehistoric ceremonial landscape of Stonehenge occupies a large, sparsely populated area of ancient downland ideal for star gazing. The monuments here are directly connected to the skies above, with stones aligned to moonrises and moonsets, in addition to the Midsummer and Midwinter solstices. Keep an ear out for the Stone Curlew’s haunting ‘coo-ree’ bird call, particularly in autumn.  Terrain and safety: The route to the star-gazing spot follows regular tracks through the fields. Grassy areas are fairly smooth; off the worn route grass can be tall and tussocky. Be aware that the Cursus Barrows field is grazed by cattle. Byway 12 has some large potholes, becoming deep puddles after rain.
 Location: 2 miles west of Amesbury, near the junction of the A303 and A344. Stonehenge car park closes in the evening, but it is possible to park nearby. Grid ref: SU120420

Your guide to the summer night sky, Stonehenge Landscape, Wiltshire
In prehistoric times the night sky would have looked very different. The stars were much clearer and stories about them were likely to have been included in a rich oral history, now lost. Today, light pollution makes it difficult to see all but the brightest stars (© Tony Evershed).  Enter a prehistoric ceremonial landscape: hundreds of monuments with physical and visual connections to each other, to the land and to the skies above. All this lies on the edge of Salisbury Plain, a large, sparsely populated area of downland good for star gazing.

The August skies are filled with all manner of interesting objects that can be viewed in dark sky conditions. Arrive before sunset to see the ancient earthworks at their best in slanting evening light. The banks of the 4,000-year-old Stonehenge Avenue can be seen leading north-east, away from the stone circle.
The Perseid meteor shower is set to peak around 12/13 August, but it’s well worth keeping an eye out for meteors any time from July 23 to August 22. The thin, crescent moon will be out of the way early, setting the stage for a potentially spectacular show.
For best viewing, pick a cloudless night and look to the northeast after midnight.
Overhead there is the summer triangle starting with Vega (a bright white star which is almost overhead, part of the constellation Lyra), Deneb to the left in Cygnus (the swan constellation) and Altair, south east in Sagitta/Aquila. These stars can be used as pointers to other stars. Go to Vega and look westward to find the bright reddish star Arcturus, part of Bootes the Kite. The pretty group of curved stars to the east of Arcturus is Corona Borealis, a cornet of stars. The Plough/Big Dipper is in the north west sky and becomes the tail and rear end of the Great Bear/ Ursa Major.
If the sky is dark and clear of any clouds you should be able to make out the Milky Way, a ribbon of millions of stars threading its way across the heavens. If you are using binoculars this really is a stunning sight.

Download the National Trust Stonehenge Guide (PDF) here: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/servlet/file/store5/item479325/version1/w-walk-stonehenge_dark_skies2010.pdf
More Night walks: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/activities/walking/view-page/item479320/

Sponsored by ‘The Stonehenge Tour Company’ www.StonehengeTours.com

Merlin says “Neolithic Britons might have held objects of the sky as gods, and predicting the will of the gods was something essential to their existence, thus mixing the concepts we distinguish from each other today – religion and astronomy.”

Merlin @ Stonehenge

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