Stargazing and cities aren't often great bedfellows — we tend to think we need to be on the open plains to gaze up at the cosmos. But, although London's light pollution makes stargazing an unusual hobby, it's not unheard of. Here's were you can get your fill of the stars — ogling them, learning about them, discussing them — in London.
Observatories and stargazing spots in London
The Royal Observatory, Greenwich
The obvious place to head for all things stargazing is Greenwich, home of both time and space in London. As well as straddling the Meridian line, tourist pursuits in this part of town include enjoying a show on the overhead screen at the Peter Harrison Planetarium. There's an introductory show for under 7s, as well as the classic The Sky Tonight. The Royal Observatory is also home to the Great Equatorial Telescope, which was built in the 1890s, so isn't working with the most up-to-date technology, but it remains the largest of its kind in the UK.
Next door, the Altazimith Pavilion is home to the Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope, a relative newcomer to the astronomy scene, installed in 2018. The benefit is that it's all modern technology; the suite of telescopes are designed to be used photographically with digital cameras rather than with the human eye. Some celestial events are streamed from the AMAT directly onto Facebook and YouTube. Although it's not always open to the public (and currently closed until the end of March 2022), there are often tours taking the public behind the scenes.
Hampstead Observatory and Hampstead Scientific Society
Did you know that there's an observatory in Hampstead, right next to the Heath (Lower Terrace, NW3 6RF)? It belongs to the Hampstead Scientific Society, and is located on top of a covered underground reservoir, at one of the highest points in London. It's usually open to the public Friday and Saturday evenings, from September to April — but only when the skies are clear, for obvious reasons. It's free, (donations welcome), and there's no need to book. But there's only space for about 12 people at a time, so you may have to wait your turn.
Members of the society are on hand to help you with your stargazing, and advise you on telescopes and other bits of kit if you're thinking of buying your own. It's occasionally open for other special events too — keep an eye on the website.
UCL's Astronomical Observatory, Mill Hill
If you've ever wandered through Mill Hill's solar system themed subway, you may have wondered about its significance. It's a nod to the nearby UCL Observatory, where scientific research and student training is undertaken.
It's not all about the astrophysics students though — the observatory occasionally opens for public visits, giving us mere mortals an insight into what goes on at the observatory and how the equipment works, as well as offering virtual tours from time to time.
Norman Fisher Observatory, Kenley
Owned and operated by the Croydon Astronomical Society (details below), the Norman Fisher Observatory — also known as Kenley Observatory — sits next to Kenley Aerodrome, up on the North Downs on the London-Surrey border. The observatory opens to the public most Saturday evenings when conditions are good (check the website and Facebook before you travel as they update it on the day) and you can use their telescopes to ogle the distant planets. Just be aware that there's no parking or toilets on site, and the building isn't heated, so dress warmly and be prepared for a walk down a farm track to get there.
Stargazing groups and astronomy clubs in London
Baker Street Irregular Astronomers
A few decades ago, Baker Street was where to head to for all things astronomical in London, thanks to the Planetarium. The green dome still looms tall, but sadly, the tourist attraction closed down in 2006, and these days, the only astronomical thing now is Madame Tussauds' ticket prices... unless you venture into nearby Regent's Park.
The Baker Street Irregular Astronomers group meets at The Hub, usually about once a month, to indulge in a spot of amateur astronomy. They're a welcoming group, open to all and free to partake (voluntary donations welcome). Keep an eye on their website for details of their next meeting, and try to take along some binoculars or a telescope if you have one, though you'll likely find someone willing to share theirs. Just keep in mind one of the top rules of stargazing (and life, actually) — don't touch other people's equipment without permission.
The Irregulars have special permission to stay in Regent's Park after dark, and after the gates are usually locked — so you'd do well to go with a friend, or buddy up with someone once you get there to walk back to the park exit with in the dark.
Flamsteed Astronomy Society
As mentioned above, Greenwich is the obvious place to head for all things stargazing in London, something the Flamsteed Astronomy Society have cottoned onto. The amateur stargazing society is based at the Royal Observatory, and holds regular talks at the lecture theatre of the National Maritime Museum, or in the Peter Harrison Planetarium at the Royal Observatory Greenwich — as well as observation evenings using members' own telescopes. Occasionally they stage viewing sessions using the Great Equatorial Telescope too. You're looking at about £80 a year for membership. Many members are complete beginners when they join, so you won't be alone.
West of London Astronomical Society
Alternating between venues in Harrow and Hillingdon, the West of London Astronomical Society meets once a month (except August) for talks on an astronomy theme. Past topics have included the history of the telescope, and galaxy clusters. The society also runs occasional observing trips, both to local venues such as Ruislip Lido, and further afield to Wales. Events are designed to include everyone, regardless of their knowledge or experience (the group describes itself as "interested but not obsessed").
Croydon Astronomical Society, Kenley
As mentioned above, this group has the Kenley Observatory, which they open to the public on Saturday evenings. They also hold regular talks on astronomy topics at Trinity School in Croydon. Membership to the Croydon Astronomical Society is free, though donations are welcome, and although you don't need to be a member to attend observatory open evenings or public talks, you do get access to the Croydon Astro forum where you can have online discussions with other members.
Crayford Manor House Astronomical Society
Just outside London, close to Dartford and the M25, the Crayford Manor House Astronomical Society has its own private observatory, housing a 16" Meade LX200 Schmidt Cassegrain telescope, available to members with a certain level of proficiency. Professional lectures, weekly meetings and occasional workshops are also benefits of joining.
Walton Astronomy Group
Just a spit outside London into Surrey, the Walton Astronomy Group is based around Esher. They generally meet at the Prince of Wales pub on the night of the New Moon, for general chat and socialising, plus observing if it's a clear night. You can attend these free of charge before deciding if you want to become a member (£15 a year), which gives you access to their dark sky trips to the South Downs National Park.
Stargazing spots in and around London
Want to have a go on your own? Ideal conditions for stargazing are; as dark as possible, and as high as possible. One is great, both is ideal, and obviously you'll be wanting a clear night, otherwise you'll be cloud-gazing rather than stargazing. For safety reasons, we recommend taking a friend or two with you, as it will (obviously) be dark.
Stargazing at Morden Hall Park
Morden Hall Park in south London is widely recognised as one of the best stargazing spots in the capital, despite not being particularly elevated (it sits at about 20m above sea level). However, it's far enough away from both the city centre and, once you're on the field, local light pollution, to offer some fairly dark skies. As advised by the National Trust, head to Phipps Bridge tram stop for the best spot.
Stargazing at Ruislip Lido
By day it's known for its artificial beach and miniature railway, but by night, it's a different story at Ruislip Lido. The suburban location means sufficiently little light pollution to be a decent place to pitch your telescope on a clear night — in fact members of the West of London Astronomical Society (above) sometimes meet here.
Dark sky spots near London
If you're willing to travel a bit further afield, the National Trust has pulled together a list of recommended stargazing spots on its properties in London and the South East, including the car park at Slindon Estate on top of the South Downs, and Toys Hill in Kent, which sits only a couple of miles outside the M25.
The Go Stargazing website also has a list of recommended locations nationwide, from Cornwall to Aberdeen. Do note that some of them are simply meeting places for clubs and societies (such as village halls) rather than dark sky spots, but Abberton Reservoir near Colchester, and Great Notley Country Park near Braintree are among the decent but not too distant options.
Of course, you're likely to need a car to get to some of these spots, due to their necessarily remote locations, and the fact that public transport is less regular late at night.
One more thing. If you'd like to see more of these 'dark spy spots', encourage your MP to join the All Party Parliamentary Group for Dark Skies, which promotes the adoption of dark sky friendly lighting and planning policies — meaning you might not need to travel so far into the deep, dark countryside in the future.
Tips for stargazing in London and surrounding areas
Back in 2013, we spoke to Tom Kerss, Planetarium Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, about his top tips for stargazing in London. Patience is a virtue, he said, along with the importance of acclimatising your eyes, and getting rid of any lamp posts in your sight line — often solved by simply moving around the corner.
The Natural History Museum also offers some tips for stargazing in a city, courtesy of planetary scientist Ashley King, who says that planning is key, and you don't need to rush out and buy expensive equipment. That being said...
Where to buy telescopes and astronomy equipment in London
So you've had a go at stargazing, joined a group or two, and you think you could really get to enjoy this star-bothering malarkey. In short, you want to buy your own telescope. But where to start?
The Royal Astronomy Society offers some tips on buying your first telescope, including warning that cheap equipment isn't always effective and that you may need to spend several hundred pounds to get something that works. It does suggest a good pair of binoculars as an alternative, if your budget doesn't stretch that far.
Walton Astronomy Group offers a really helpful introduction to the types of telescope available and what they're used for (as well as, equally important, what to avoid), so do have a read.
For in-person purchases with a side of helpful advice, Microglobe on Galen Place (close to the British Museum) specialises in Skywatcher telescopes. And despite its name, London Camera Exchange on Strand also sells telescopes, binoculars and other astronomy equipment — though worth calling ahead to make sure they've got what you're after, as it's a fairly petite shop.
To avoid an all-the-gear-but-no-idea situation, swing by the Astronomy section of Londonist favourite Stanfords, in Covent Garden. The map and cartography specialist has extended its reach beyond planet Earth, and offers a range of astronomy maps and posters, to help you identify what you're seeing at the end of your shiny new telescope. They do sell the occasional telescope in their Nautical department, but they tend to fall under the 'decorative instruments' category, rather than serious stargazing.
Where to learn about astronomy in London
And finally, if just seeing the stars isn't mind blowing enough for you, swot up on them at the following institutions:
- The Royal Observatory, Greenwich offers a series of astrophysics courses, from basic introductions to more advanced topics.
- City Lit adult education college runs regular astronomy courses, from one-off lectures to weekend courses, and occasionally a longer syllabus lasting several weeks.
- UCL Department of Physics and Astronomy offers a Certificate of Higher Education in Astronomy, in the form of a two-year, part-time (evening course). The current intake is on hold due to Covid but check the website for how to apply in the future.