Star quality

Skies are as much an inspiring part of Britain's national parks as their landscapes but this is especially true in the Broads where gentle valleys, fens and water give way to endless skies and languid sunsets.

And at night the darkening mantle takes on an additional fascination, one that holds us as captivated as our ancestors were when gazing into the same other-worldly expanse.

Astronomer Mark Thompson, who has co-presented Stargazing Live with Prof Brian Cox and comedian Dara Ó Briain, said the vast, unpolluted skies of the Broads in particular are great for stargazing. Something confirmed in surveys carried out by the Broads Authority.

And seeing the firmament reflected in water or iconic windmills and ancient ruins silhouetted against spectacles like the Milky Way makes the experience even more special. You can get involved as little or as much as you want, whether simply lying back to admire the infinite web of constellations from a boat or heading out to Seething Observatory on the edge of the park.

Mark, who is also chairman of Norwich Astronomical Society (NAS) which runs the observatory, said that stargazing is a fantastic activity which keeps people grounded by demonstrating what a vast place the universe is and how insignificant a lot of our worries really are. It’s a social activity too, having come a long way from the image of the solitary astronomer, and is great for families.

He also praised the special countryside in the Broads of which the skies are effectively an extension.

Mark advised that beyond the naked eye only a good pair of binoculars and one of the many free mapping apps is enough to take your stargazing a step further.

And the observatory is perfect if you’re keen for more with open evenings where members of the public can use the high tech telescopes to view things like the Orion nebula or listen to some great talks. Last year the observatory even hosted a talk by Dr Matt Taylor, one of the key figures behind the Mars Rosetta mission.

Chasing the stars

We've listed some of the best places in the Broads to star gaze. Do make sure to take a torch with you and be careful with your footing, especially near water.

  • Herringfleet Smock Mill: A free car park on the Herringfleet road is half a mile’s walk from the mill along a waymarked footpath or moor up slightly down stream at one of the Broads Authority’s free spots near the staithe. Somerleyton train station is a mile away. Treat yourself to a post stargazing pint at the Duke’s Head in Somerleyton village.
  • Three Rivers Junction at Geldeston: Park in the village and walk about a kilometre along the footpath to the river where Geldeston boat dyke meets the Waveney.
  • Beccles Marsh Trail: From the quay walk quarter of an hour along the safe river Waveney path by to near Stanley and Alder Carrs woodland near the disused railway line.
  • North Cove: You can drive all the way down to the river bank here along Worlingham Marsh Lane or tie up at the Broads Authority 24 hour mooring.
  • St Benet’s Abbey moorings: Not one of the darkest spots according to surveys but certainly dark enough and a favourite of photographers because of the breathtaking silhouette of the ruins. The abbey can’t be reached after dark but sits right by the river so moor up at the 24-hour free spot next to the level surfaced path.
  • Horsey: Indulge in some casual stargazing from a boat on the mere or park or moor at Horsey Mill. There is a National Trust pay and display carpark within 200m.
  • Somerton, Dungeon’s Corner: Park in West Somerton village or tie up at the Broads Authority 24 hour mooring. From both these points Dungeon’s Corner, south of Martham broad on the river Thurne, is a 20 minute walk along the footpath.
  • Catfield, Johnny Crowe’s Staithe: Park on Sharp Street and from Cobb’s Farm take a grass track to the staithe on the river Ant for one of the darkest spots in the Broads.
Stargazing in the Broads National Park - Thurne Mill
Thurne Mill as shot by Dibs McCallum
  • Thurne Mill: Another great mill to add something to your great stargazing experience. Park near the Thurne Lion pub or take a short break from your evening there for some stargazing. It is an easy walk down along the boat dyke to this well-known mill.

Shooting stars

Dibs McCallum took the stunning picture used here of the night sky over Thurne Mill. And the good news is that he can also teach you to capture spectacular starry skies. Through The Lens Workshops are run throughout the year in Norfolk covering all kinds of photography including landscapes, wildlife and boating as well as astrophotography.