Does the idea of wandering on remote Cornish moors in near-pitch darkness appeal to you?
But how about this? At any moment, you might stop and look up to see a silvery explosion of stars and celestial bodies. So many of them, and so dense, they seem to come at you in waves as your eyes adjust to the wonder. Tens. Hundreds. Thousands. Raining down upon you.
This is no ordinary glimpse at a star or two, pecking at the night sky – the kind of thing you might see in a town. This is stargazing in Cornwall at West Penwith. An extraordinary, cosmic experience.
In 2021, this southwestern-most corner of the county was designated an International Dark Sky Park (IDSP), one of only seven in the UK. This designation recognises the area as naturally dark at night, with minimum light pollution. It confirms that on the very doorstep to Penzance you’ll find one of the best places in the world to enjoy the wonders of the night sky. In fact, as we’ll reveal, there’s a very good case for claiming West Penwith night skies are the best in the UK.
In this post, we’re going to provide a guide to stargazing in Cornwall – so you can get out on our wild moors to see our even wilder skies. We’ll be accompanied by Matthew Geyman, an amateur stargazer who lives deep in West Penwith. He has come to know every spot worth knowing for gazing up at our extraordinary Dark Sky show.
What’s so special about West Penwith’s night sky?
As the Dark Sky Park designation recognises, it’s a lack of light pollution and the subsequent quality of the darkness that makes West Penwith special. Matthew would argue it’s the most special stargazing spot in the UK.
He says, ‘Living to the south and west, we have far more astronomical darkness – the true darkness suitable for stargazing – than designated Dark Skies spots further north. For instance, in the Scottish Highlands they have none at all from mid May until the end of July. By contrast, Penwith only loses that true darkness for the longest month – June.’
There’s also our unique location. You can enjoy night skies over both the land and the ocean. And the ocean can be a real draw for the night sky watcher star gazing in Cornwall. Says Matthew, ‘Not only is it obstruction-free down to the horizon, but there’s much greater darkness here than over the land. Even differences in the air mass and weather over the sea can help with clarity.’
Finally, there’s our extraordinary history. The area hosts over 700 ancient sites, including neolithic cliff castles and quoits. Says Matthew, ‘One of the sights that had the biggest impact on me was seeing the comet NEOWISE in 2020 from Chûn Quoit, a monument that may well be more than 5,000 years old. It’s quite possible that the last time this comet came around, ancient people stared up from this very spot and wondered: “Is this a good or bad omen?”’
So, add Neolithic wonders to astronomical ones and you have a pretty profound combination.
Where should I watch the night sky in West Penwith?
The West Penwith International Sky Park covers the coastline from the outskirts of St Ives down to St Just, on to Sennen, then around Land’s End and up to Mousehole. Plus, pretty much all of the area inside this coastal outline.
So, really, anywhere within West Penwith away from a town or village is going to be a top spot for stargazing in Cornwall. The website gostargazing.co.uk particularly recommends Carn Galver Engine House near Zennor, Chapel Carn Brea near Land’s End and the Merry Maidens Stone Circle on the B3315 road four miles from Penzance.
But one general point. Says Matthew, ‘Just remember, you’ll need a sheltered spot to avoid gusts of wind, which may disturb your binoculars – or your tripod and telescope if you’re using more sophisticated equipment.’
When should I go stargazing in West Penwith?
You’ll want a clear night, obviously.
Unless you’re observing the moon, you’ll want to avoid bright moonlit nights. They will massively decrease your ability to see much, other than the planets, so go on the days before, during and soon after a new moon.
There’s often too much sunlight in summer (unless you’re awake in the middle of the night), so autumn, winter and spring are considered the best times to stargaze. In particular, the period between the clocks going back in October and forward in March is optimal.
But seize the day. You don’t have to be a purist about picking the exact moment to observe, and Matthew takes it as it comes. He says, ‘My favourite time of year is when the beauty of the Orion Nebula is high in the South skies, in the dark, deep winter. However, it can be windy and raining, or cloudy at this time of year, so the summer nights are very welcome, too!’
What should I take with me?
Even though we’re at the western, milder end of the UK, stargazing in Cornwall can be a nippy experience at any time of the year and especially if there’s some wind. Dress appropriately, using layers.
A torch, including a phone torch, will be useful if you’re heading to pitch-black spots (which you should be). Some people swear by a red-light torch as it won’t affect your dark-adapted vision like a white light will. You can even use a bicycle rear light.
But what about equipment? If you think this article is just for folk willing to lug monstrous telescopes about across cliff and moor, we have good news.
‘You can start with the naked eye and see an incredible amount,’ says Matthew. ‘But even the simplest equipment can massively ramp up your ability to see things.’
We are talking about a modest set of binoculars and the humble smartphone.
‘Says Matthew, ‘Never underestimate binoculars – they will massively enhance your view. If you can, get a 10 x 50 or 8 x 50 set. These will provide a rich, wide field of view, but any binoculars will do. For instance, through most you can observe Jupiter and its moons. You’ll also be able to see nebulae, like the middle ‘star’ in Orion’s sword. Objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy are difficult to see in a telescope, because they are too big to fit into view. But with binoculars you get the full experience of the one trillion stars it comprises, hazily glowing like smoke 2.5 million light years away. Even better – the Milky Way in summer is like looking into a jewellery box of our own galaxy’s 100 billion stars.’
Matthew continues, ‘Also, looking through a smartphone will enhance your view of the night sky – even the Milky Way. Because modern smartphones are so powerful at amplifying the signal, you can literally hold one up to the night sky to see a higher contrast and brighter colours. Nothing highlights their capability more than the Aurora Borealis, which I’ve seen as recently as November 2023. Using a smartphone, my daughter and I watched the Northern Lights play across the cloudy West Penwith sky, with far brighter and more saturated colours than visible with the naked eye.’
If you want to dig deeper, there’s some information about specialist equipment in Matthew’s tips at the end.
What can I expect to see?
You can just observe the night sky and enjoy the spectacle, but knowing what to look for and finding it is hugely gratifying.
We’ve picked out just a few highlights of stargazing in Cornwall. We know they are all definitely observable over West Penwith, because Matthew’s seen them here. Note: we haven’t included any exact coordinates or advice on finding the phenomena below, but you will find some resources at the end of the post to help you quickly and easily locate them.
Says Matthew, ‘One of the closest stars visible with the naked eye is Sirius, the Dog Star. It’s very bright because it’s so close. Also, look out for Arcturus, which is a giant, orange-coloured star and among the brightest that can be seen from Earth. It sometimes appears to pulse many colours, especially when low on the horizon – it can appear red, orange, green, purple, blue and white. This is called scintillation and is primarily caused by our atmosphere refracting or splitting the star’s light.’
‘These are stars that appear to be related in a pattern,’ says Matthew, ‘but may be far away from each other. A favourite of mine is Orion the Hunter. He’s instantly recognisable from his belt of three stars, his mighty shield (I prefer thinking of it as a curved bow), and sword of three stars hanging from his belt. These stars are at vastly different distances, but just happen to line up.
‘However, Orion holds a secret. The middle “star” in his belt is not a star at all, but an immense cloud of dust and glowing, hot plasma, which is birthing thousands of stars. It’s the closest stellar nursery to Earth. At the brightest section in the middle sit four baby stars, each only one million years old. Hiding thousands of others is the nebula, a dust and gas cloud 30 light years across (a vast distance given that every light year is 10 trillion kilometres).’
Stars can be found grouped together, either in loose groups (known as open clusters), which may contain a few dozen stars; or in tight balls (known as globular clusters) which may contain thousands or hundreds of thousands of stars. Since there are many stars clustered together, they tend to be bright and can be relatively easy to find for beginners.
Says Matthew, ‘One of my favourites is Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters. This is the nearest star cluster to Earth (three to 400 light years away) and is thought to contain up to 1000 stars. Five, six, or sometimes seven of the very brightest of these are visible with the eye, but use those binoculars and you’ll see many more.
‘Ancient warriors were required to demonstrate they could see all seven stars to prove their eyesight was sufficient for battle. In the intervening mists of time, it seems probable that one of the seven brightest has dimmed (all seven are slowly losing their lustre) so, if you can see seven or more, you have superb eyesight.’
Galaxies are massive collections of dust, gas, billions of stars and their associated solar systems, held together by gravity.
The Milky Way is our home galaxy and is composed of hundreds of billions of stars, including our sun. With the naked eye, it looks like a hazy, milky band in the sky. Says Matthew, ‘Anyone can see the Milky Way on a dark, clear night. It’s easiest to observe later in the summer or early autumn.’
Also, look out for the Andromeda Galaxy. Says Matthew, ‘It’s a trillion stars 2.5 million light years away. And it’s one of the furthest things you can see from here with the naked eye.’
A nebula is a giant cloud of gas and dust. Says Matthew, ‘They’re not easily visible with the naked eye alone. However, exceptions include the nebula around the Pleiades and the famous Orion Nebula, which is one of the brightest nebulae in the sky – just below Orion’s Belt. Also, the North America Nebula, next to Deneb in Cygnus, can be seen by some people. In general, binoculars or a telescope are much better for ‘Deep Sky Objects’ like these, and dark, unpolluted, skies are needed.’
Many planets are visible with the naked eye, including Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. But how do you distinguish a planet from a star?
Says Matthew, ‘Planets are relatively large points of light and so don’t flicker; stars are smaller and more distant, and so appear to flicker (because their light is affected by our atmosphere).
‘You can see Venus just before sunrise and just after sunset. You can often see Mars, and if it’s bright red you’ll know it’s very close to Earth in its orbit. Jupiter’s the brightest planet and binoculars will reveal four of its moons. If you have access to a telescope, you can even see Saturn’s rings. This is always an exciting moment for a new stargazer.’
Why stargazing is actually travelling in time
For Matthew and many West Penwith star gazers, looking up also prompts a pretty deep look inward. It’s almost impossible to see these wonders and not get philosophical.
He says, ‘The stars are everything. They are where we came from and they are every element we are made of. We all came from the centre of a star once.
‘There’s the time factor, too. For instance, the Andromeda Galaxy is 2.5m light years away, so what you are looking at is the light from one trillion stars 2.5 million years ago.’
We’re all made of stars.
We’re all travelling back in time when we look up.
And we’re off to the moors now because we’re utterly convinced. We hope you are too.
Stargazing in Cornwall: Matthew’s tips
2. Subscribe to The Binocular Sky newsletter, which reveals how to get the most out of stargazing with binoculars, and which to choose for every budget.
3. Get a Newtonian reflector. If you want more specialised equipment, don’t buy a cheap telescope – pick up a Newtonian reflector. It gives you the most ‘bang for your buck’ in this price range. Find out more here.
4. Keep a notebook. Says Matthew, ‘Keep a diary of what you have seen and when. It’s great to look back on years of family observations, to see sketches of galaxies, nebulae, planets, globular clusters and moon phases – and to re-read experiences of eclipses and meteor shows.’
5. Join the Cornwall Astronomy Society. If you’re local or a regular visitor, it’s a great way to get involved in stargazing with other enthusiasts.
If you’re interested in stargazing in Cornwall, why not make our famous port-town Penzance your base? It’s a great spot for cosy accommodation, award-winning pubs and dining, a wildly creative arts scene, and independent shopping. You’ll also be right on the edge of West Penwith International Dark Sky Park, and perfectly placed for expeditions into the magical Cornish night.
Thanks to Matthew Geyman, IT & Cyber Security business owner and avid amateur astronomer for help during this article. All images in this post are provided by Matthew. Most are taken with a small (60mm) telescope with a special ‘webcam’ and a mount. This turns slowly to counter the rotation of the earth, thereby keeping the point of interest still within the frame.