10 of the UK’s best stargazing escapes

Wilderness, history and wildlife combine at some of the UK’s top star-studded escapes, as more and more travellers are looking to the heavens…

Megan Eaves
17 December 2023

The view of our cosmos has been enjoyed by humans for tens of thousands of years, inspiring great works of music, literature and art. But while the romance of a starry night is undeniable, light pollution is a growing problem that has already erased the stars from many city skies. The German Research Centre for Geosciences recently found that light pollution is increasing by 10% every year, putting ecosystems, wildlife, human health and the sight of the stars under threat. This trend is a worrying one, but there are still plenty of havens for stargazers.

Many people now travel to see and experience the natural wonders of the night. The British Isles is no different. It offers plenty of opportunities to indulge in some stargazing, with 20 of its dark-sky preserves now certified by DarkSky International, and even more recognised locally as Dark Sky Discovery Sites. While the weather doesn’t always play nice, when the clouds clear, these islands offer star-studded getaways with the chance to spot lesser-loved nocturnal wildlife or even connect with history under the cover of night.

1. Autumn haunts in Eryri (Snowdonia), Wales

Rugged Eryri National Park at night (Shutterstock)

Rugged Eryri National Park (Snowdonia) is home to some of Britain’s darkest skies. On clear evenings in this part of northern Wales, the stars shine brightly and Eryri’s landscapes are full of nocturnal wildlife, from badgers and bats to toads. One way to enjoy the night is by chugging through the mountains aboard a heritage locomotive, and both Bala Lake and Talyllyn railways offer Halloween-themed night services in October. Elsewhere, Mountain Walks has hikes up Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) at dusk, so you can watch the sunset and then descend by the light of the moon. For something special, book early for an escape on Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island), which opens to visitors between March and October and was crowned Europe’s first Dark Sky Sanctuary this year.

2. Starry festivals in the Yorkshire Dales & North York Moors, England

Sutton Bank Star Hub (Steve Bell)

The neighbouring Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors national parks became twin International Dark Sky Reserves when they were certified by DarkSky International at the same time in 2020, ensuring that much of North Yorkshire remains a cosmic wonderland. Dark Sky Discovery Sites in both parks offer the best viewpoints for seeing the sky on clear nights. In the North York Moors, book a shepherd’s hut or cottage with Gumboots & Wellingtons near Dalby Forest, then take an Astro Dog astronomy tour or join Yorkshire Coast Nature for an evening bird walk. In the Yorkshire Dales, adventures range from night-photography workshops to canoeing and pizza nights at How Stean Gorge. The North York Moors also hosts its own Dark Sky Fringe Festival in late October, while the parks run a combined festival in February.

3. Nocturnal wildlife in Northumberland International Dark Sky Park, England

Milkyway over Walltown Crags (Northumberland National Park)

The jewel in England’s stargazing crown is found in the North East, where Northumberland National Park and most of Kielder Water and Forest Park have been awarded international recognition for their dark skies. The region’s 1,483 sq km Dark Sky Park is home to the unique Kielder Observatory, the best place to begin a stargazing journey in the UK. Kielder’s team of astronomers and science communicators offer a calendar of almost-nightly astronomy events, allowing visitors to dip into an introductory stargazing session, try for a full moon or meteor shower, or dive headfirst into the mysteries of dark matter and the deep cosmos.

Further afield in Northumberland, Battlesteads is a hotel and astronomical observatory combined, offering a place to sleep and stargaze in one property, with an on-site team of astronomers to lead you through the sky, plus helpful stay-and-gaze packages. The Twice Brewed Inn also has a similar programme as well as its own brewery on site, all situated along the history-laden Hadrian’s Wall National Trail, serving up the ghosts of Roman soldiers for evening company. Indeed, if you turn your telescope to the star Gamma Cygni in the constellation Cygnus (the Swan), then your eye will be absorbing light that left this star some 1,900 years ago, around the same time that the Romans began building their famous wall. If you just fancy stepping outside and having a gander yourself, there are 18 UK-awarded Dark Sky Discovery Sites that offer the best views of the night sky in the park. Bring binoculars from home or simply take in the glittering spectacle with your own eyes.

To dive a little deeper, spend some time learning about Northumberland’s incredibly diverse nocturnal wildlife on a tour with Wild Intrigue, an ecotourism social enterprise that leads mini-expeditions and safaris across the county to spot animals, birds and insects. They always include a little something special, too; for example, their ‘Bats and Pizza’ nights are incredibly popular, or you could get to know the planet’s most misunderstood but beautiful pollinators – moths – over muffins and hot drinks.

4. Study the stars on Coll Dark Sky Island, Scotland

Coll Dark Sky Island (Shutterstock)

The Isle of Coll in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides became an International Dark Sky Community in 2013, reflecting its residents’ commitment to protecting their unpolluted nights. Calmac Ferries can drop you off at Arinagour, Coll’s main village, which is a collection of sea-facing, whitewashed cottages. The absence of street lights makes for unpolluted night skies, and almost any beach or field on the island is a good place to stop and look up. In mid-October, Coll Bunkhouse and the Cosmos Planetarium run ‘Coll and the Cosmos’, a two-day astronomy workshop with telescope stargazing and lessons on the solar system and cosmology. You can stay on-site at the bunkhouse or opt for a local B&B and book workshop tickets separately. Coll is also a very good place to glimpse the elusive northern lights.

5. Domes, dark walks and distilleries in Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland

Caerlaverock Castle under the stars (Visit South West Scotland/Ben Bush)

Since being certified as the first International Dark Sky Park in the UK back in 2009, Galloway Forest Park remains one of Britain’s darkest areas, tucked away in the south-west corner of Scotland. Alongside it, the town of Moffat is a certified Dark Sky Community with its own observatory and a sustainable whisky and gin distillery that has the only wood-fired stills in Scotland. Guided dark-sky and moonlit walks are held in Moffat from autumn to spring, including during the Moffat Walking Festival in early October. Elizabeth Tindal, aka the ‘freelance ranger’, regularly leads night-time tours all over Galloway. And for a starry night’s sleep, book the Dark Sky Dome, a glamping stay in Scotland’s largest geodesic dome in the heart of Carrick Forest.

6. Night hiking in Exmoor National Park, England

Dunkery Beacon in Exmoor (Laurence Liddy)

As the UK’s oldest Dark Sky Reserve (certified in 2011), Exmoor National Park not only has starry skies above wide expanses of moorland, but one of England’s few surviving examples of temperate rainforest. Activities at the Dark Skies Discovery Hub in Exford include regular evening programmes introducing the night sky. Meanwhile, a nearby night-time walking trail, which opened in 2021, crosses star-blanketed moorland waymarked by glow-in-the-dark finger posts.

Telescopes can be hired year-round from the National Park Centres in Dunster, Dulverton and Lynmouth. The Exmoor Dark Skies Festival also runs from mid-October, hosting dusk wildlife safaris, night cycling, stargazing pizza nights, ranger-led walks and even starry yoga. Finally, Jennie Wild of Wild About Exmoor is a certified guide who hosts evening tours, hikes and farmhouse dinners complete with roaring campfires; she also has cottage accommodation.

7. Ancient landscapes in OM Dark Sky Park, Northern Ireland

Beaghmore Stone Circles at night (Mid Ulster District Council)

The first International Dark Sky Place certified in Northern Ireland is this ancient landscape at Davagh Forest, near the foothills of the Sperrin Mountains in County Tyrone. The earthbound attractions of OM Dark Sky Park include the Beaghmore Stone Circles, a group of seven early Bronze Age megalithic stone circles, along with ten stone rows and 12 cairns, but even these have links to the skies. The alignments of the circles and stone rows suggest that they were used as an astronomical calendar to record midsummer sunrise, the rising and setting of the sun and moon, and other heavenly events. Tools found here have been carbon-dated to 2900–2600 BC, meaning this was a place where an ancient people lived their lives by the stars overhead.

OM Dark Sky Park and Observatory opened in 2020 and celebrates astronomy both ancient and modern. There is an indoor astronomical museum that offers an introduction to the basics of the solar system and cosmic science. But the real draw here are the guided tours around the stone circles and rows, which give a deeper insight into how the landscape is connected to the sky and offer the chance to see these alignments for yourself.

The main attraction every year is the Stars and Stones Experience, which is available in the evening from October to March. Visitors are guided by a local storyteller and guide, who will weave together the site’s archaeology and astronomy, explaining how scientists believe the circles may have been an ancient observatory. There is also the 3.4km Solar Walk, which links up the alignments in the sky with the stones and ancient rituals via an accessible boardwalk. In addition, OM runs regular stargazing nights, meteor-shower viewing parties and astronomy socials and events in the all-weather visitor centre.

8. Starry alignments in West Penwith & Bodmin Moor, England

Crowds gather as the sun goes down in Cornwall (Carolyn Kennett)

Cornwall’s two International Dark Sky Parks – West Penwith and Bodmin Moor – not only have protected night skies, but they lie within Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty that are filled with history. These are remote places of unpredictable weather and wild landscapes on which ancient Britons built stone circles, barrows and other sacred sites that align with the stars and movements of the sun.
Stay at Eddington Lodge, near Bodmin Moor, in one of its Scandinavian-style log cabins. The lodge offers a raft of astronomy courses and also has observation pods that have 50cm telescopes, plus a domed observatory with a refracting telescope to view and photograph Saturn’s rings as well as galaxies, nebulae and moons. You can also get a glimpse of the sun sinking perfectly over a standing stone on an archaeoastronomy tour with local expert Carolyn Kennett.

9. Wide skies and wallabies on the Isle of Man

You won’t just see stars in the Isle of Man; nocturnal wallabies can be spotted too! (Megan Eaves)

The ‘Dark Sky Discovery Site’ is a uniquely British certification for stargazing locations, and the Isle of Man (with 26) has more than anywhere else. Its sites were created by local astronomer Howard Parkin, who also offers bespoke stargazing tours. One of the island’s best starry spots is the Sound Café (thesound.im), which sits at the southern tip and overlooks the Calf of Man, a tiny islet offshore; it holds astronomy events in autumn and winter. Look out too for evening walks in search of nocturnal wallabies in the Curragh wetland with local legend John ‘Dog’ Callister, who tells the story of how these marsupials came to live wild on the island. Make your base at Thie Spooyt, a beautiful self-catering house that is bookable through Island Escapes and comes with Irish Sea views and a telescope for stargazing.

10. Dark and quiet skies in Mid Wales

Elan Valley Dark Sky Park (Alamy)

Home to the starry-skied Cambrian Mountains and neighbouring Elan Valley Dark Sky Park, which is set on 18,200 hectares of the Elan Valley Estate, Mid Wales is one of Britain’s most underrated stargazing regions. Both these areas offer great night-sky views when it’s clear, and generally receive fewer visitors than other dark-sky areas in Wales, guaranteeing a quieter experience. The Elan Valley has many traditional cottages that are perfect for both star-watchers and cosying up next to a crackling fire. The Cambrian Mountains also have an ‘Astro Trail’ that joins up viewing sites, including a looming stone arch at Cwmystwyth, plus woodland and reservoirs offering expansive night-sky views. Time your trip to coincide with Welsh Dark Skies Week in February, when there are astronomy events, photography workshops, stargazing and more.

You may also like:

Explore More

More Articles