Watching the skies in war and peace - Bristol stargazers celebrate 70 years
As Stargazing Live returns to our screens tonight and the Bristol Astronomical Society celebrates its 70th anniversary, David Clensy talks to the current vice chair, Chris Lee, about the prestigious group of city star-gazers
IT all started simply enough – with a group of ARP Wardens during World War II developing an interest in the stars, as they gazed skywards in their constant search for enemy aircraft over the city.
But as the Bristol Astronomical Society prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary this year, it's clear that the sky really is the limit for this, one of the most successful amateur astronomy organisations in the country.
Chris Lee, vice chair of the group, which boasts a membership of more than 120 keen amateur astronomers from across the city, says the group started when wartime blackouts allowed Bristolians to see the stars properly for the first time in more than a century.
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"A group of ARP wardens found they were increasingly talking to each other about the different constellations, and decided they wanted to learn more," says Chris.
"So they put an advert in the Evening Post, calling for others with an interest in astronomy to get together – 'we would be particularly pleased to hear from anyone who owns a telescope' the advert said optimistically."
Meeting weekly at Bristol Grammar School, the group steadily grew over the decades – and soon settled into the pattern it maintains today, of having a talk from one of its members one week, and a talk from a professional astronomer every other week.
"We have had some remarkable talks from some of the world's greatest astronomers over the years," he says. "We've even flown visiting speakers in from around the world.
"We were very lucky, because Bristol-born Sir Bernard Lovell was our president for many years. Sadly of course, he passed away last year, but we are once again lucky to have another expert in the field as our new president – Professor David Southwood of the Royal Astronomical Society .
"We will be officially welcoming him with a formal dinner reception evening in February, at which he will be giving us a talk."
Another highlight for the group came in 1972, when Sir Patrick Moore officially opened their new 18-inch telescope at their own dedicated observatory – a turning tower located in a farmer's field in Failand.
Still one of the largest telescopes in the South West, the group opens it to visits from members of the public every Saturday, by prior appointment via the group's website.
The group will also be appearing on our screens much more often later in the year, when ITV1 will be releasing a new channel ident featuring the society's members gathered around their 18-inch telescope.
But for Chris, the organisation is all about making astronomy accessible to all.
"The founders said in their Evening Post advert that it wasn't a group solely for experts," he says. "And although many of our members are experts in their own field, we also have many armchair astronomers who are simply interested in hearing the talks, and we are always keen to encourage more members, especially younger members who will keep the society alive for future generations."
The 55-year-old, from Alveston, works by day as a software engineer with SCISYS, a small space industry company in the city that produces among other things, software for Mars rovers.
But his eyes are also on the skies at night – he has been pointing his telescopes to the stars ever since he was a boy.
"It's such an interesting hobby – the more you do the more interesting it becomes, and it's more accessible than its ever been," he says.
"Partly because the Chinese now make very affordable telescopes, but also because you can now get so-called go-to telescopes that use GPS and computer technology to be able to find the stars you want to look at automatically – they take all the hard work out of it.
"But star-gazing can be a fairly solitary pastime, and that's why so many people like to be part of an organisation like this, where you can meet like-minded people and discuss the things you have been looking at through your telescope that week."
As part of the BBC's Stargazing Live week, members of the society will be holding "star parties" at Tyntesfield across the next three nights (Jan 8, 9, 10).
"People can come along, pay a small entry fee to the National Trust on the door, and join us as we point our telescopes towards the stars," Chris explains.
"It's the perfect way for anyone to have a first taste of astronomy – especially for parents who would like to spark youngsters interest in astronomical science."
The society meets at 7pm every Friday at Bristol Grammar School. For more information about joining, visit the website at www.bristolastrosoc.org.uk For details about the Tyntesfield events, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/tyntesfield
Stargazing Live begins tonight, at 8pm on BBC Two.