Herstmonceux and Serendipity

One weekend ago, in a land called East Sussex, my husband and I spent our one-year wedding anniversary (!) at Hidden Spring Vineyard. Fortunately, the weekend weather was as un-British as it could be; sunny and so hot we actually (almost gratefully,) got sunburnt.

The plan for the weekend was, of course, to do nothing at all, to laze about in the sun, to indulgently eat lots and lots of food, and to see some castle nearby because Kelley goes crazy when she does nothing at all, so she conspired to drag Dani to the castle, though he brought a book anyway so he could laze about in the sun, and this was a satisfactory compromise for all parties.

Outside Herstmonceux Castle

Outside Herstmonceux Castle

Fortunately for the sanity of all parties involved, the castle was closed for tours that day, but the sprawling green grounds, complete with ‘Shakespeare Garden’ and aviary, were open, as well as a tea room where one might consume copious amounts of Cream Tea, (the pure thought of which makes my stomach start shouting,) as one does when out in the countryside at a place like a castle.

Oh great British invention! Consume infrequently and with abandon.

Oh great British invention! Consume infrequently and with abandon.





But there was something else at Herstmonceux, and a serendipitous surprise it was…

For the full name of Herstmonceux is Herstmonceux Castle and Science Centre, and it is home to The Royal Greenwich Observatory. Confusion, to two who live near Greenwich? Oh, yes.

This is the RGO, not the ROG. (Royal Greenwich Observatory, not Royal Observatory at Greenwich.) Still not clear? I’ll maintain that the insistence on retaining ‘Greenwich’ in the title is the cause of all my trouble. Throughout the thickening smog of the Industrial Era, the site of the Royal Observatory in South East London (at Greenwich,) became less and less suitable for observing the heavenly spheres. So finally, just after WWII, the Observatory moved out into the countryside…to a land called East Sussex.

RGO telescope.

RGO telescope.

To quote from ‘Astronomers at Herstmonceux,’ a delightful little book with input from a handful of astronomers who worked there over the years, ‘for forty years, Herstmonceux in Sussex was the home of one of the world’s leading astronomical establishments, the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Its two most striking features were the splendid mediaeval castle, and the six green domes of a unique set of buildings known as the ‘Equatorial Group.’

Later, ‘Herstmonceux as an observatory was unique–what other national institution in recent years has enabled people to study the heavens from the grounds of a mediaeval castle?’

Now, the old RGO is the site of The Observatory Science Centre, a place where guests and especially children (or those young at heart!) can enthusiastically enjoy hands-on activities learning about a variety of scientific topics, especially astronomy. There are talks about the history of the place, and of course the enormous reflecting and refracting telescopes that were abandoned there in their obsolescence after the RGO moved on to Cambridge in 1990. To the detriment of its fascinating history, now Herstmonceux Castle and The Observatory Science Centre are treated nearly as separate entities; even the websites give little hint of their former relationship– this was why, when we arrived, we were so surprised to learn about the history of the place.

Hands-on fun with physics

Hands-on fun with physics

It was a delightful and serendipitous visit, namely because I am currently writing a novel about astronomy and Dani is extremely interested in hands-on-activities-for-the-young-at-heart. We had a brilliant time and enjoyed an interesting and informative talk from one of the Science Centre staff. Part of the charm of the Science Centre is that it is a wee bit shabby, not the most high-tech, and a little sun-bleached, but fascinating and completely engaging nonetheless. It brings me back to days where kids could have fun without computer screens and over-stimulation. And there were a lot of kids having fun there that day, too.

One of the other (many) great things about the Science Centre is that they use some of the great telescopes they have there for public viewing evenings. Even though the current observatory has moved on to much further-away lands– (La Palma, Spain,), and no research is done here anymore, the public have the opportunity to use telescopes they’d never normally get the chance to look through. Dani and I are keen to go back for a viewing evening. And maybe another cream tea.

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