Exploring the magic of astronomy in Lancashire's darkest spot in the Forest of Bowland: "The stars can be like diamonds on velvet"

When Robert Ince sets off from his Bamber Bridge home in his converted campervan, he's looking for one thing. Darkness. Think of the darkest night sky you can imagine and go darker. That's what Robert is searching for. And he's searching for it because the darkness makes it that much easier to see the light.

By Jack Marshall, Reporter
Monday, 17th January 2022, 4:55 am
Updated Tuesday, 18th January 2022, 5:26 pm
Startrails across the sky (credit Matthew Savage)
Startrails across the sky (credit Matthew Savage)

"You don't realise what's out there," says Robert, who travels the length and breadth of the North in his campervan. "We all live under light-polluted skies and we generally light things up for too long and do so with badly-designed lighting. But, when you get away, the night sky comes back. We're very lucky to have the Forest of Bowland in that sense. It's so unspoilt.

"The stars can be like diamonds on velvet," Robert adds. "It's beautiful."

A professional scientist and amateur astronomer from Nottinghamshire, Robert grew up constantly looking up. "Astronomy gripped me from an early age," he says. "I remember being about knee-high and being fascinated with the sky and spending hours in the back garden looking up at the stars. They just stuck with me.

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Robert Ince with his telescope

"It's hard to say what about the sky drew me in, but I think it was that, with my naked eye, I could see suns and different worlds and wonder about all these things so far away," he adds. "It was the fact that you're seeing science in action; planets and nuclear fusion. That triggered a real interest in science for me, too."

Going on to study physics and astronomy with electronics at the University of Sheffield before working in applied physics with Royal Ordnance(now part of BAE Systems) and the Ministry of Defence, Robert's academic studies also neatly fed into his extracurricular fascination with astronomy.

"When you realise that comets flying across the night sky and asteroids orbiting around the sun are just objects in orbit and meteors are things hitting the upper atmosphere, heating up and glowing due to kinetic energy, you start to understand," he explains. "That fascination and passion for trying to understand what's out there has stayed with me to this day.

"Realising there are things you don't know but that, with investigation, you may be able to find out, was a real driver," continues Robert, now 58. "And astronomy is one of the few sciences where, even as an amateur, you can make new discoveries yourself."

A picture taken in the Forest of Bowland by Robert Ince

Having cultivated his passion in the background for decades, the additional time afforded to Robert after his children grew up and moved out enabled him to explore a literally endless field more extensively. All of a sudden, he had more time to focus on something which had always been a keen hobby, but which he suspected had the potential to be more.

"I ended up taking redundancy from work to do something which I'd enjoyed as a hobby more as a job," says Robert, who made his first moves into astro-tourism in 2010. "I did a few stargazing events and it's surprising how many people have an interest in the night sky. People have this innate interest in looking up and wondering and everything's grown from there.

"It's become almost a full-time job," he adds with a faint chuckle. "But I love sharing the night sky with guests - when I started running events, I didn't expect them to be nearly as popular as they are, but now I get to share the sky with a couple of thousand people a year, which isn't bad at all.

"All through my life, I've been interested in astronomy - to be able to see things billions of miles away and take pictures of them with my equipment is amazing - but I've come to realise that plenty of other people have a strong interest in astronomy, too. And, through things like festivals, we get the chance to show more people interesting things under a real dark sky."

A lake in the Forest of Bowland under starry skies

The lead astronomer with 'Starmakers', a group of amateur astronomers, as well as a co-author on the stargazing site Go Stargazing, Robert is also involved in numerous stargazing events and festivals across the North. Beyond that, he also strives to raise awareness of the impacts of light pollution and is himself an experienced astro-photographer.

The former resident astronomer and manager of the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory (SDSO) in the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park (GFDSP), Robert has - through his work in astro-tourism - run events in the Lake District National Park, Northumberland International Dark Sky Park, local wildlife trusts, and the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The Forest of Bowland, which became an Area of Outstanding Natural beauty in 1964, has some of the darkest skies in the country, making it perfect for stargazing. Itself an ideal pastime to take people away from the stresses of the pandemic, stargazing is also very much at the forefront of matters in the North West ahead of the week-long Dark Skies Festival next month.

Starting on February 12th, the festival will incorporate a live moon watch, bat talk, stargazing, forest moon bathing, smartphone astrophotography, crafts, and an aurora watch via live video link to the Arctic Circle. The festival also promises to inspire the big questions, such as 'are we alone in the universe?'

Robert Ince

"I love seeing people's reactions when you show them the real night sky and give their eyes a chance to adapt to the real dark," Robert says. "It's special because, all of a sudden, you're looking at something where the light has been travelling for two-and-a-half million years doing nearly 200,000 miles-a-second to reach us. It's really amazing really.

"[The Forest of Bowland] is a beautiful location with the advantage of being elevated; you can actually see the aurora from there in the right conditions," he adds. "It’s the natural human condition to try and make sense of chaos - seeing the points of light in the sky [and] joining them dot-to-dot to see shapes of creatures. We talk about the mythology and cultures behind that.

"The view of the Milky Way spanning from horizon to horizon in a dark sky where you can see the dark bands of dust that make the spiral arms of our own galaxy still makes my heart flutter," Robert continues. "It’s always worth the investment to get outside and experience it."

With several Dark Sky Discovery Sites accredited by the Royal Observatory Edinburgh located in the Forest of Bowland, light pollution is a constantly-encroaching threat, however.

Recent studies have show how light pollution is leading to the apocalyptic decline of the global insect population as well as impacting migratory birds and nocturnal animals such as frogs, while light pollution also impacts on our own circadian rhythms, which can result in sleep deprivation, fatigue, anxiety, and other health issues.

"Light pollution means that truly dark skies are becoming increasingly rare," says Hetty Byrne, the Sustainable Tourism Officer for the Forest of Bowland AONB. "With our Dark Skies Festival, we want people to discover the magical sight of the planets and constellations. [And] all of us can do things to reduce light pollution [to] help our planet, as well as our own health and well-being.”

The real night sky free from light pollution

Drawing on his inexhaustible passion for opening his mind up to the universe around us, Robert says that he can barely call what he does a 'job' given the joy he gets from the work.

"Being out in nature is a good thing for the soul because it helps put things in perspective," he says. "We need things which ground us, and there's nothing more grounding than being under a star-filled sky away from the hustle-and-bustle of daily life. "In many ways, it's the perfect hobby," he adds before adding a slight caveat.

"The only problem sometimes, of course, is the British weather!"