We might know our Mercury retrogrades from our Saturn returns, but streetlamps, floodlights and illuminated office blocks mean real astral gazing is a no-go in London. It never gets truly dark at all – even in the dead of night, the skies above us are more maroon than deepest, darkest black. But, unlikely as it sounds, there’s a stargazing haven a mere hour or so from Zone 1 where you can cop a clear, unobstructed view of the stars, planets and universe above us.
The South Downs, running from Hampshire to East Sussex, is an internationally recognised Dark Sky Reserve, which basically means it has some stellar starry nights. The South Downs National Park authority is constantly working to protect the darkness from the encroaching glow of cities on the south coast – and London, which is one of the planet’s most light-polluted metropolises.
The rural stretch is a pretty place to wander in daylight, too, but there’s nothing else like it near London after the sun sets. Old Winchester Hill and Butser Hill, on the South Downs Way between Winchester and Petersfield, are two excellent spots to see star-studded skies. High elevations mean (as well as aching calves on the ascent) that once darkness has fallen you can even spy the Milky Way on a clear night.
Never stared skywards before? Wrap up warm, bring something to sit on and give your urban eyes 20 minutes to adjust once you’ve switched off torches and phones – there’s zero point trying to Insta these views. Celestial scenes are best near a new moon and the next one is on December 7.
If you don’t want your dabble in astronomy to end, spend the night at the (unrelated but aptly named) Black Hole B&B in Winchester and head to the city’s Science Centre, which is home to the largest standalone planetarium cinema in the UK, for more starry spectacles.
Find out more at www.southdowns.gov.uk
Want to get out of Zone 1 more? Check out our guide to the best wintery day trips from London.
And the best day trips from London all year round.
Need more of a break? How about the best weekend getaways from London. You’re welcome.