Monday, 21 September 2009

The Observatory Science Centre Herstmonceux

I know, I know, this isn't even close! But you don't want to hear about my trapped nerve, my dodgy back or my wonderful play. You want to hear about the Independant Republic of Shoreham Beach. Well, the top road is exciting, now we've got the slalom and the lower road has lost the magic since it was re-surfaced. I enjoyed the shake, rattle and roll. It added a bit of the Wild West to a small part of Shoreham Beach.

Anyway, welcome to my blog. If you're a regular, sorry. If you're a newcomer, I'm apologising for being three days late.

Talking of which, I've only just realised that 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy, so I thought I'd better mention The Observatory, Herstmonceux.

If you haven't been yet, it's fabulous. It's owned by Queen's University of Ontario and operated by Science Projects, a charity specialising in promoting learning through interactive exhibits. There are hundreds of these at the Observatory and a Discovery Park where you can roll a ball up a giant Archimedes screw, balance on a wobbly "boat" or race wheels down a ramp. My favourite is the giant pipe tower where you have to guess where the sound will come out and my son likes the whispering cone, (which he shouts into), and the DNA "climbing frame". It also has workshops, discovery days, seasonal activities and even kids parties.

The Observatory is set in 380 acres of Sussex countryside and lies next to a 15th century castle. That, however, does not mean it's easy to find. If you whizz along the A27 and miss the turning for Wartling, you can end up in Pevensey. Pevensey is nice but it doesn't have an Equatorial Group of Telescopes. When you find your way back to the right road, the first sight of the Observatory is startling. Six massive copper clad domes rise above the gently sloping woodland. How on earth the local planning committee thought that copper cladding would help them blend in is beyond me!

Despite being called the "Observatory," the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) at Herstmonceux left in 1990. Nevertheless, their brief stay has been described as "a sort of golden age for the RGO, when the best and most innovative work was done."

The Royal Observatory was founded in 1675, in a country village called Greenwich. As London grew, so did the sprawl and pollution and by the end of World War II had reached such proportions, that the Observatory had to be relocated. A suitable site was eventually found at Herstmonceux, where the air and skies were clearer. Significant building work began there in 1953, but the architect, Brian O'Rorke, had a difficult brief. He had to produce something that was elegant and attractive in design. He succeeded, but the ornamental lily pond was too much for one astronomer, who fell in. The buildings were completed in 1956 and the following year the staff left Greenwich, the scattered departments were re-united and the Royal Observatory was renamed the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux. It was 1957 and Herstmonceux was open for business.

The move had taken 10 years but, within a decade, it had started to decline. Arguably it began when the powerful Issac Newton Telescope was opened by the Queen in 1967. Intended to compete with it's counterparts in the USA and Russia, it was quickly realised that it was in the wrong place. Inclement weather meant that it could only be used 33% of the time. In 1979 it was moved to La Palma in the Canaries where it could be put to better use. A combination of that and factors such as technological advances, policy decisions and budget cuts, made the RGO's presence at Herstmonceux difficult to justify. In 1990 the RGO left Herstmonceux and moved to Cambridge. Then in October 1998, the Royal Greenwich Observatory was shut down completely.

In it's heyday, the RGO at Herstmonceux had over 200 staff. The castle provided accommodation for astronomers and visitors, a library, the Director's residence and offices. Within it's grounds, the cricket pitch, tennis courts, swimming pool and clubhouse buzzed with activity. Then at night, the sound of nightingales and music floated around the Telescopes. It must have been idyllic.

Today, some of the Telescopes are still open and the Observatory is a hive of activity with parties of school children racing from one exhibit to another. I haven't got the foggiest idea how most of them work, but I still have a go and accept my son's distain when he realises I know nothing. It's a wonderful place to lose yourself and Herstmonceux always makes me smile, from the moment I see those copper domes, to the moment I leave.

My thanks to Chas Parker for his fascinating story of the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux and whose words have appeared in quotes.

Have a good week and see you next Monday - promise.

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