When you think of places to go stargazing, you might think of the north of England or the highlands – sweeping hillside ranges far away from civilisation and with the clearest skies you can imagine. But you don’t have to go so far away to experience the beauty of our night skies: two of the world’s seventeen Dark Sky Reserves are on our network!

Travelling by train to go stargazing might not seem like a typical way to get there – but with modern lightweight equipment and our generous luggage allowances it’s a surprisingly effective way to see the night sky. Late-night services out of London mean that it’s easy to pick when you want to arrive in the countryside, and early-morning services home mean you can rest easy in your own bed before rush hour starts. And the pollution you’ve avoided creating by taking the train means our skies will be kept clearer too!

So where can you go to enjoy spectacular views of the skies above?

Cranborne Chase

Covering parts of Dorset, Hampshire and Wiltshire, Cranbourne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) was awarded International Dark Sky Reserve status in 2019. Visit on a clear day to get spectacular views almost as far as the Isle of Wight from its highest point, but it’s at night when you can really take in just what the IDS Reserve status means.

Astrophotograph from Cranborne Chase taken by Paul Howell
A view of the night sky from Cranborne Chase | Image credit: Paul Howell

Cranborne Chase offers an opportunity on a clear night to observe the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies with the naked eye – something impossible in towns and cities. Working with local authorities – including highways management – you’ll find minimal lighting here giving the opportunity for walks lit only by moonlight, or enjoying some of the most spectacular skies in the west of England.

If you’re not planning to spend the night on the hill, staying local is easy – Ludwell is just two miles from the highest point in Cranborne Chase and the Grove Arms offers cosy en suite rooms starting at just £50.

Best place to stargaze: Wingreen Hill, the highest point in Cranbourne Chase

Nearest station: Tisbury (1h 45m from London)

South Downs

England’s newest National Park wasted no time in making sure it could be enjoyed both night and day, gaining its IDS Reserve statement just five years after its formation. The Dark Sky Reserve has been christened “The Moore Reserve” after local and famed astronomer Sir Patrick Moore.

Astrophotograph from the Surrey Hills taken by Matthew Savage
The night sky above the Surrey Hills | Image credit: Matthew Savage

Stretching from Winchester to Beachy Head, the proximity of the Reserve to London is nothing short of remarkable. The entire National Park lies within 65 miles of London – one of the most light-polluted cities on earth – so being just an hour from the capital makes this site a particular gem.

Upper Parsonage Farm near Butser Hill offers campsites and a bed-and-breakfast that make it easy to stay the night if you’re not planning a night on the hill – and Winchester has ample options for places to stay if you’re visiting the Planetarium.

Best places to stargaze: Winchester Science Centre & Planetarium and Butser Hill

Nearest station: Winchester (65 minutes from London), Petersfield (70 minutes from London)

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Tips for getting the best night sky photographs

Astrophotography is a skilled hobby, and takes time and practice to get right. Still, there’s some easy ways to get the best out of your camera and equipment.

  • Use a tripod: a given – when you’re taking photos of such small sources of light, any camera movement will cause a noticeable blur.
  • Set a delay: a 10-second timer will prevent button-press shake on your images
  • Landscape features in the foreground can be illuminated with a flash from a good-quality LED torch.
  • Set your exposure time to 25-30 seconds for an image.
  • Use the widest F-stop available on your camera – your camera will need to capture as much of the limited light as possible!
  • ISO settings for night photography should be between 400 and 1600 – experiment between them to minimise the graininess in your photos whilst still keeping the light in the image.

Everything you need to go stargazing

Whilst stargazing doesn’t need huge amounts of specialist equipment, there are plenty of things you can take with you (aside from your trusty telescope) to help make the night easier:

  • Red flashlight: the human eye is less sensitive to red light, meaning that you can use a red flashlight to see your way around without your pupils reacting and spoiling your view. Red filters for laptops and smartphone screens are also useful!
  • Beach towel: great for setting up underneath your tripod to catch anything dropped
  • Binoculars: help you to see reference stars that you can’t find with the naked eye
  • Green laser pointer: great for pointing out things for everyone to see if you’re stargazing with a group (but make sure you use it responsibly!)
  • White headlamp: when you’re done observing, a regular headlamp will make cleaning up much easier.

So if you’re tempted to head to the countryside and discover the beauty above our heads, taking the train should be at the top of your list. You’ll find great savings with railcards and when you travel as a group, and our Advance tickets offer even bigger savings when you travel long distance.

We love seeing your pictures too! Tag us on Instagram with @sw_railway.