Stargazing in Europe’s First Dark-Sky Preserve

The remote, rolling hills of Exmoor National Park, tucked away in England’s shy and overlooked southwestern corner, are home to Europe’s first dark-sky preserve, established in 2011. In winter, the park becomes an ideal stargazing destination, when clear, long-lasting skies sparkle with natural light shows and hotel rates plummet.

By day, this is jolly old England, a popular place to hill-climb over the prehistoric mounds dotted with sheep and ribbed with ancient stone walls overlooking ocean and village vistas.

But come night, another kind of drama unfurls. A theatrical orange sunset yields way to glittering Cassiopeia, the Plough (the British name for the Big Dipper), Polaris, and thousands of other stars that can be seen with the naked eye while meteor showers blaze across the crisp, cold, chimney-smoke-scented air.

“Winters used to be long and dull around here,” says Lucy Naylor from husband-and-wife-run Exmoor Stargazers. “But now we chase the brilliant stars in the sky all night and couldn’t be happier.”

There are ways to get in on the stargazing action in this coastal park, where organized bog night walks and constellation-centric pub meets have become increasingly common. On chilly winter nights, spend a few evening hours watching the shimmering Milky Way and then warm up with a fireside pint in a cozy pub afterward.

> Inns and Pubs Ideal for Stargazing:

  • Blue Ball Inn: The spacious, 13th-century Blue Ball Inn in Countisbury overlooks the moors of the Doone Valley and is a popular meeting spot of Exmoor Stargazers.
  • Exmoor White Horse Inn: The River Exe-perched, 16th-century inn and pub drips with Virginia creeper and charm. It also offers safaris and is an ideal spot for stargazing.
  • Yarn Market Hotel: In the tiny village of Dunster, the Yarn Market is a cozy getaway with stargazing packages, including guided tours by astronomers. Its jolly proprietor Antony is happy to suggest hill climbs, walk-abouts, and stargazing sites.

This article originally appeared in the National Geographic book Four Seasons of Travel.