Establish in 1910 and hidden away in a quiet corner of NW3, the Hampstead Observatory gives curious Londoners a fascinating, and free, view of the night sky. Time Out visits the highest point in the capital to discover a world of stars - and pipes
Star gazer: Hampstead Scientific Society secretary Doug Daniel
There’s looking up and there’s looking up, beyond the chimneys and tops of trees, through the clouds and into the sky above the London smog and light pollution. And for the latter, you have to come here, to Whitestone Pond in Hampstead, the highest point in London, where hidden down a cul-de-sac and plonked atop a reservoir you’ll find a strange sight: a homemade observatory that looks as if it is built from cardboard and held together by luck and willpower.
The Hampstead Observatory has been around for almost a century, but you could have lived in the village for decades and not known it was here. It is owned and operated by the Hampstead Scientific Society (HSS), founded in 1899 by elevated members of society wishing to bring science to the public, a very Victorian notion of patriarchal benevolence.
Doug Daniels, who joined in 1965 and is now its pipe-smoking astronomy secretary, explains: ‘In those days the only way ordinary people could find out about science was by going to a public lecture; there weren’t that many scientific magazines. Newspapers then, as now, invariably got it wrong and there was no TV or radio. We’re continuing that tradition.’
The shed-like observatory
As well as running the observatory, which is open on clear Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings from mid-October to mid-April, the HSS organises monthly lectures at St John’s church hall. The HSS has had a few famous members – Marie Stopes, Heinz ‘Great Egg Race’ Wolff – and there are now about 100 members, including the dozen volunteers who look after the observatory.
‘We’ve been on this site since 1910,’ says Daniels. ‘One of our members knew somebody at the MetropolitanWater Board and heard they were building this reservoir to supply water to Hampstead and thought it would be an ideal spot because it’s the highest point in London.’
At the turn of the last century, the view from here rivalled that from Parliament Hill but now there has been so much building there is less of real interest to see. And, unfortunately, it can be a similar story looking up. ‘In those days, London was mainly lit by gas and there weren’t any motorised vehicles, so this would have been a very dark spot to see the glory of the Milky Way, but now the light pollution has got too bad,’ says Daniels, angered by the ‘vanity’ of major buildings lighting up at night. ‘We concentrate on the moon, planets and brighter stars nearby; the ability to show people distant galaxies is pretty much gone. They’re just smudges.’
The telescope used by the society is a six-inch refractor made in 1898 by Thomas Cook of York and presented to the society in 1923. It is viewed on a modern equatorial mounting that was made by the society in the 1970s, like all renovations, carried out by volunteers and paid for through donations and subscriptions. ‘It’s equatorial because, as the Earth rotates beneath your feet, the stars move east-west and very quickly drift out of your view,’ says Daniels. ‘This telescope is placed on an axis and is driven by a motor so it tracks the stars as they move across the sky. And the whole roof opens, giving you complete access to the sky.’
Alongside the observatory is a weather station, which has been checked daily since 1910, providing the longest continuous record of meteorological readings in the country. For 55 years it was read manually and the results phoned in to the Met Office by one man, Eric Hawke, but now it is operated by computer.
The telescope inside the observatory
While the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and the University of London Observatory have the odd open evenings, the Hampstead Observatory is the only place in London that offers free regular viewings of the night sky. ‘During the lunar eclipse we got more than 100 visitors, and when we had the transept of Venus we had more than 500,’ says Daniels. ‘Normally we get anything from ten to 50 and it’s always worth opening up if conditions are favourable. People take it in turns, and we also have another telescope that we bring outside. The raison d’être of the HSS is that we are an educational charity trying to spread the word of science. It’s very rewarding, especially when people see things for the very first time.’
Hampstead Observatory, Lower Terrace, Whitestone Pond, NW3 (www.hampstead science.ac.uk) Hampstead tube or 210, 268 bus. Open on clear evenings mid-Oct to mid-April, 8-10pm Fri and Sat, 11am-1pm Sun. Free.
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