Stargazing at High Legh

The villagers of High Legh are reaching for the stars with a plan to have a community observatory operational by the winter. Barry Hook went to take a closer look.

Rev. Jennifer Croft, co-founder of the High Legh Community Observatory

It is a beautiful clear evening and the Rev. Jennifer Croft looks to the heavens. The vicar of St John’s church in High Legh is not searching for divine intervention. With other members of the High Legh Community Observatory (HLCO), she is scouring the night sky to witness the conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and Mercury.

It is not an everyday occurrence. When the planets came together at the end of May it formed the most compact group of the trio to be seen until the year 2021. But, by then, the amateur astronomers of High Legh will no longer need to pitch their telescopes and cameras in a field. By that time, the village will have it own public observatory.

The project is the brainchild of two life-long amateur astronomers, Jennifer and Mark Holmes.

Before she was ordained, Jennifer was a medical scientist and a senior research fellow atWarwickUniversitywith ‘a lifelong interest in astronomy’.

Mark is a graduate chemist whose paternal grandfather bought for him as a child the trappings of a scientist – a Meccano set, a microscope and more importantly a telescope.

Dome ObservatoryHe was hooked and astronomy has been his ‘serious’ hobby ever since.

In 2011 the pair spoke about the idea of a community observatory for the village and in January last year, they held their first open meeting in the village hall. A steering group was formed and since that time, such has been the enthusiasm for the project that stella progress has been made.

A concept for the observation dome has been finished, a budget set and a location found.

Such rapid progress has been helped by several anonymous donations. It means the observation dome will be under construction by the autumn and by winter, users will be able to slide the roof open in order to view the heavens.

The telescope has already been acquired – a 150mm (6″) Meade Refractor, which will be mounted on a pillar within the dome. Known as a ‘go to’ telescope, it is motorised and computerised; punch-in the relevant information and after a little ‘wurring’ and ‘whizzing’ it locates the star or planet you are searching for.

Thanks to a very generous offer from Tim and Janet Harrison of Abbey Leys Farm and Shop, the dome will be based on their site atPeacock Lane.

But even when the dome is in place the project doesn’t end there. The next phase will be to build a ‘warm room’ next too the dome; a sanctuary for observers on cold winter nights.

That is going to mean the group has to start searching for grants to supplement the income from the public meetings which are held on the second Thursday of each month at the Church Hall. There are normally two topics per meeting, interspersed with tea and biscuits. The cost is £3 and everyone is welcome.

The topics covered have been as diverse as the planet Mars, through basic astrophotography, and a rather ‘heated’ discussion on why the ‘Big Bang’ might not quite be the way things work. Last month, the topics were ‘The Axis of Evil’ followed by ‘The Spring Sky (Noctilucent Clouds)’.

Go along this month and the main topic will be the Hubble Space Telescope, followed by a discussion on either Meteorites or Radio Astronomy.

Visits also come within the compass such as the one to Keele University Observatory

In addition to the public meetings, frequent observation nights are held at Abbey Leys Farm.

Waiting for the dark. Phil Dell and Malc Beesley

The interesting thing about the whole project is that the HLCO is neither a club nor an astronomical society.

“We are centred around public observation and meeting other people,” says Mark who pooh, poohs the idea that it is in any way an elite group for specialist research.

“Community, Education and Astronomy are out key words,” says Jennifer. It is for 8-year olds who simply want to look at the moon as well as more seasoned amateurs. We have received a lot of support from the Parish Council.”

And when to dome is complete, the group’s agenda will be broadened with carefully constructed outreach programmes for local schools and other organisations and groups.

Bernard Humphreys (treasurer) and John Anderson (secretary)

Without question, the HLCO facility will be a public asset from which the whole of the village, and beyond, will benefit. People are going to come from far and wide to use and visit the HLCO  …  are you there ET?


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