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Case Study: Dark Skies

Title: Dark Skies

Category: Landscapes for People
AONB: North Pennines

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In 2012 the North Pennines AONB Partnership started researching the possibility of getting locations in the North Pennines designated as official Dark Sky Discovery Sites (DSDS). For many years, our neighbours at Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water and Forest Park have increased their reputation as two of the best places in the UK for stargazing. We recognised that the North Pennines has dark night skies of a similar quality and greater recognition and promotion of this could benefit the visitor economy. Using our conservation trainees, who were funded via an HLF apprenticeship scheme, and working alongside Durham University and local astronomy groups, the AONB Partnership undertook dark sky quality monitoring to establish the darkest easily accessible places within our boundary. Once the research was concluded, applications for DSDS designation were made for five sites and in July 2013 the designation was made official.

What was done

  • In July 2013, five locations in the North Pennines were officially recognised as being among the best places in the UK to watch the night skies.
  • Our Dark Skies programme was financially supported from a Defra-funded collaboration between Protected Landscapes in the North East, Northern Lands, which financed various visitor economy-focused initiatives throughout the region.
  • Since 2013, the five DSDS have now grown to 16 across all three counties of the North Pennines AONB: Cumbria, Northumberland and County Durham.
  • We worked closely with accommodation providers to help them understand the benefits of Dark Sky Tourism by holding workshops and seminars.
  • We produced marketing materials including a handy pocket-size Stargazing Guide and a leaflet with a map and basic, but valuable, information.
  • We issued press releases and invited press to events.
  • In 2014/2015 we carried out a dark sky quality survey of the North Pennines with the help of volunteers. It actually showed the area is dark enough to secure Dark Sky Reserve Status (a globally-recognised designation).
  • With funding from The Science and Technologies Facilities Council (through its Public Engagement Award) we are continuing to host astronomy events throughout the North Pennines. During the 2015/2016 season all events were sold out.
  • We commissioned a photographer (via other partners in the Northern Lands scheme) to take professional shots of the night skies in the North Pennines.
  • Through our Allen Valleys Landscape Partnership Scheme, the North Pennines AONB Partnership has created a ‘community observatory’. To create the design of the observatory, we ran a competition for architecture students from local universities. Working with a leading firm of Newcastle-based architects, we have turned the winning submission into reality.
  • We designed ‘Starboxes’ which schools and community groups can hire (for free) to help them learn about the dark skies of the North Pennines.

We invested money in interpretation, way markers and stargazing accessories such as laser pointers, star spotting guides, red lights and Stellarscopes.


  • A recent report by the CPRE, entitled Night Blight, has found:
  • 86 per cent of the North Pennines skies are pristine
  • The North Pennines is the darkest AONB on mainland England (only the Scilly Isles are darker)
  • The North Pennines is darker than all but two of the English National Parks
  • 40 per cent of all AONBs are in the darkest category
  • A community observatory is being built in the North Pennines this autumn
  • Tourism providers can use the DSDS as an additional pull for potential visitors
  • Volunteers have been trained in dark sky quality monitoring
  • Strong links have been forged with regional universities, astronomy groups etc.
  • We are working with partners to further develop a new audience of visitors to the North Pennines
  • The North Pennines has more Dark Sky Discovery Sites than any other destination in the UK
  • A four-year programme of Dark Sky events that has been funded through the Science and Technology Council
  • We are considering an application for Dark Sky Reserve status for the North Pennines


  • Partnership working with landowners, astronomy groups and community organisation
  • Relationship with volunteers who have turned out in all weathers to help us monitor the darkness of our night skies
  • Good relationships with regional media who have been key in promoting our work and events
  • Securing new and additional funding was essential to enable a programme of public events to back up the designation of sites and help to give the project more tangible outcomes.

Further information                  


Quote from project manager:

“One of our primary special qualities is our dark night skies. This area of work has been all about widening their appeal to a diverse range of audiences to support the visitor economy.”

Quote from participant:

“We had a great time – the kids loved it. We all felt very welcome in the group, especially as the leaders took the time and effort to explain about their telescopes and what we could see.”

Key search words: North Pennines, stargazing, Dark Skies, Dark Sky Discovery Sites

Photo Credits: Dark skies above Rookhope Arch in Weardale (c) Cain Scrimgeour