North Pennines Stargazing Week
Camping under the stars
31 October 2020
Camping under the stars
An interview with Alison Lamb from Doe Park Caravan Site
I’m Alison Lamb from Doe Park Caravan Site in Teesdale. Doe Park is a family run and owned site which was established by my parents-in-law as a farm diversification in the 1980s. Initially a five caravan site, Doe Park has grown gradually and sympathetically over the years into a 70 pitch touring site which is open from March to October. Some of the guests who first stayed with us in the 80s still spend time here, as do their children and grandchildren. We are fortunate that most of our guests return and many are regular visitors. Our rural situation on our mixed livestock farm provides a peaceful location and opportunities to engage with nature and the landscape.
Doe Park is an accredited dark sky friendly business. I attended Dark Sky workshops organised by the North Pennines AONB Partnership and Visit County Durham and realised that we were perfectly placed to be a dark sky friendly site.
I continue to attend Dark Sky training/workshops when practical, and maintain links with Shane (Responsible Tourism Lead) at the North Pennines AONB Partnership and astronomer Richard Darn. On a practical level we have had to make very few changes to meet the requirements of being a dark sky friendly business. Our site only has minimal, low level lighting so light pollution wasn’t an issue, we provide information for guests on our website, social media and in our reception area about what to look for in the night sky and when, and we also provide basic equipment should they wish to borrow it.
We hosted Star Camp during the North Pennines Stargazing Festival in 2018 and 2019. The Festival runs at the end of October and by hosting Star Camp, our guest numbers have increased considerably for that month. In the last two years demand to attend Star Camp has outstripped our capacity. However, it’s important to keep numbers manageable in order to provide attendees with the best experience.
It is obviously very disappointing that there’s no Star Camp this year. Covid – where do I start? Everyone will understand the negative impacts on tourism but there are positives too. We’ve noticed many new visitors to the area this year. Families who would normally go abroad have bought a caravan and taken a domestic holiday instead. I’ve noticed an increased appreciation of the outdoors and interest in what’s happening in the landscape and why, and awareness of our impact on the environment.
We got involved in Star Camp when I offered Doe Park as a possible venue whilst attending a North Pennines AONB tourism forum. It’s been a real highlight and is as enjoyable for us as it is for our visitors (except for the worry about the weather!).
The build up to Star Camp involves marketing the event and the whole Stargazing Festival, liaising with Shane and Richard, taking bookings/payments, organising indoor space in our barn at the farm (the cows have to move out temporarily!), carrying out a risk assessment and generally carrying out any tasks which will provide our guests with the best possible experience.
The weekend begins with an informal get together in our barn. Guests get to meet the experts, get an idea of the proposed timetable for the weekend (flexible) and enjoy hot chocolate, mulled wine and home baking. Richard Darn gives an introductory talk – very accessible, friendly and not ‘geeky’ and shares amazing images of what can be seen in the North Pennines dark skies. Depending on the weather, there is stargazing. We have friends from local astronomy societies who bring their telescopes and help guests to use them and point out planets and constellations. It’s a wonderful atmosphere!
On Saturday there are family activities throughout the day – rocket launching, a planetarium, solar gazing (through a special solarscope) followed by an evening of stargazing, again supported by Richard and astronomer friends. We’ve been fortunate with the weather in the past but always have a Plan B (indoors) just in case.
On the day of departure guests are encouraged to give feedback on the event and make suggestions of how it could be improved further.
We have a mixture of guests – some are already our customers, some new customers attracted through Stargazing Festival marketing, some totally new to stargazing and others -seasoned astronomers, couples, families and single guests. 65% of guests from our first Star Camp attended the second one.
Feedback is positive about all parts of the weekend, but I think the stargazing, supported by friendly and knowledgeable experts, is the highlight.
I have learned more about the night sky from hosting Star Camp. But you don’t have to learn much just to appreciate how lucky we are to have amazing dark skies in the North Pennines. You don’t even need to know what it is you’re looking at – just looking, seeing and appreciating is amazing in itself.
On a clear night at Doe Park you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye and the Northern Lights if you’re very lucky with your timing. We’re also a few minutes’ drive away from the Dark Sky Discovery Sites at Bowlees, Hury, Blackton and Grassholme reservoirs.
We really hope to run Star Camp next year. Many of our guests this year were very disappointed that it couldn’t go ahead and have asked to be kept informed of arrangements for 2021. To anyone else running a business in or around the North Pennines and thinking of looking into the opportunities around stargazing – I’d say just do it! It’s a great way to extend your season and share the dark skies of our area with others.
This blog is part of the North Pennines Stargazing Week 2020. Visit our Stargazing Week hub for more events, blogs and features.