Looking south from hill near Sidmouth, the Norman Lockyer Observatory seems to possess the quiet reassurance of knowing the secrets of the universe. And what it doesn’t know, you get the feeling it’s going to find out, or at least is party to the search.
There’s something about observatories that offer an almost mythic quality. These places have codified idle gazing at the sky, after all. It could be down to the domes. Before Nathalie Wood and James Dean were running around the white walls of the Hollywood observatory creating their own piece of post-war mythology, domes have had a celestial appeal.
Star gazing has made way to astronomy, which in turn stepped aside for the space age title of astrophysics, and with each change of gear the magic has been turned up a notch.
The observatory was established by Norman Lockyer, one of those breed of extraordinary Victorian gentlemen who took the opportunity of the age to excel.
Norman made the transition from civil servant through amateur astronomer to director of the Solar Physics Observatory in Kensington. He founded and was the first editor of Nature magazine, and shares the credit for discovering helium. He spotted a yellow line in the spectrum of the Sun, suggested it was caused by an unknown solar element and christened it helium (after the Helios, the Greek for sun).
Somewhere along the way Norman picked up a ‘Sir’, a second wife and a retirement spot at Salcombe Regis, near Sidmouth. It was here he set up his observatory.
Originally called the Hill Observatory when established in 1912, it has had a varied history and is now in the hands of East Devon District Council. The observatory is run by the Norman Lockyer Observatory Society to provide an education centre for science (astronomy, meteorology, amateur radio and sciences of the coast and countryside), and has some of the most historical astronomical gear in the country.
The observatory had a new dome in 2011 to house its 20″ Newtonian Telescope, and celebrated its 100 years in May 2012.
There are regular events taking place at the observatory and plenty of groups that use it – it’s also got links to Exeter, Plymouth and the Open universities. There are two main ways of visiting the Observatory – a scheduled public opening, or as a member of a booked group. Check out the site for details of charges and to enquire about public opening times. Or you could pop along to the South West Astronomy Fair.
(image: Norman Lockyer Observatory Sidmouth Devon: Historic working observatory run by volunteer trust. Three historic 19th Century telescopes housed in own domes + one modern computer-operated. Telescopes used both optically and with digital camera/webcam to produce images. Observers meet every Friday from 7.30pm. © Copyright Iain and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)