This is the Observatory Science Centre, in Herstmonceux. There are a number of reasons why this spot occupies a special place in my heart – first of all it is the place where the BBC Radio 4 pips used to be made. Don’t ask me exactly how or why they were generated here. It’s been explained to me loads of times and still I don’t get why there wasn’t just a man sat behind a desk in the studio who looked at his watch and made the noise himself like the rest of us do when we’re doing our best radio 4 impression. Still, that makes it The Most British Place in Britain, as far as I am concerned. Legend has it that, back in the days when this was a fully functioning research centre, the astronomers would spend all day playing cricket, and all night gazing at the stars, like Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor, kind of.
Secondly, I have been a little bit obsessed with observatories (and libraries) ever since I was a little girl. My dad owned an amazing book called Moon Journey, which was an illustrated adaptation of Jules Verne’s novels, by Jay Williams. In it there is an illustration of a kind of steampunk observatory – all intricate Victorian iron work and brass piping. It totally captured my imagination (Dad found me a copy for Christmas this year and I still LOVE IT), and, while Herstmonceux is nothing like the picture in the book, it is still as near to an evil-genius’s-volcano-lair as I am ever likely to come without sleeping with a Ecuadorian drugs baron. So I am happy with that.
Thirdly, it is a portal to another world. Ok, not actually – but you can go there to look at them, and that’s pretty magical. Recently I have been working on another 7 Steps piece for the irrepressible and gorgeous Lionheart Magazine . I decided it called for some stargazing, so my Dad and I went to Herstmonceux to partake in one of their stupendous open evenings. This one happened to coincide with a meteor shower.
The first shooting star I saw that night was the first shooting star I have ever seen. It looked a little like the stray sparks from a firework, darting through the sky like a frightened fox. It was noiseless, of course, but in my head it made a faint zipping sound. Over the course of the evening I spotted 6 in total, one even whizzed past the lens while I was looking at a double star called albireo, part of the Cygnus constellation, through the big telescope. I also saw the M13 globular cluster – a kind of intergalactic salad made up of 300,000 separate stars. Amazing. The most special moment of the evening though had to be watching a little boy, who must have been no more than eight – stand on his tippy toes to reach the tiny eye-piece of a telescope about 4 times as tall as him in order to look at a distant galaxy. The guide leant in and said to him ‘you see that star? It’s 380 light years away. The light from that star, the light you are seeing now, left it 380 light years ago. It just arrived at this moment, and now it’s gone… forever.’ Mind =blown.