Flamsteed Astronomy Society

Flamsteed visit to Herstmonceux — June 14, 2008

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by Roger Geeson

On a somewhat blustery but beautifully sunny Saturday, some 34 doughty Flamsteeders made their way, by coach and car, to the grounds of Herstmonceux Castle.  We were headed for what was between 1954 and 1990, the new home of the ‘Royal Greenwich Observatory’ relocated from Greenwich Park.   Following the RGO’s second move (to Cambridge in 1990) it later reopened in 1995 as the Observatory Science Centre, Herstmonceux.  Sadly, the Royal Observatory’s residence in Cambridge was also to be short-lived as it was dispersed in 1998 and the continuous and exalted 323 year existence of King Charles’ institution finally came to an end.

Though well intended, the move from Greenwich to the cleaner rural atmosphere was not ultimately successful from a scientific point of view.  The opening-up of mountain-top sites around the world soon exposed the weaknesses of observing conditions in good old Sussex by the sea!   Great care had been taken with the architectural design to ensure that the complex blended in with the bucolic background.  Patinised copper domes, rustic wood fired local brick or knapped flint facades and York and Portland stone paving were all utilised in the best possible taste and at huge cost.  But the installation displayed practical design flaws which the astronomers found it difficult to deal with.   The extended layout and the varying levels of unguarded walkways were a problem at night and there are tales of astronomers pitching into the central lily pond in the darkness.  Despite its drawbacks, the whole observatory was a truly significant construction of the period and is now preserved as a Grade ll listed building.

The collection of six domes is referred to as the ‘Equatorial Group’, after the manner of mounting of the three reflecting and three refracting telescopes, on ‘equatorial mountings’ with axes parallel to the Earth’s own axis of rotation.  The Observatory Science Centre was commissioned in 1995, with the historic telescopes in place.  The buildings and observing equipment were further repaired and up-graded in 2004 with the aid of National Heritage Lottery funding.

Upon arrival, just before 1.00 pm, we partook of light lunches, which had been efficiently pre-ordered by Jane but not necessarily it seemed, pre-organised by Herstmonceux.  At least one amateur astronomer’s knapsack concealed not a Field Marshall’s baton but a bottle of chilled Pinot Grigio which, given the very warm weather, went down quite well.  Following lunch, we were all conducted by Keith Woodcock, in two separate groups, on a guided tour of the various domes.

Keith freely admitted that he was more accustomed to organising tours by groups of twelve-year-olds, more interested in pushing buttons and winding handles on the scientific ‘toys’, and appeared to approach his task with just a suspicion of trepidation.  Whilst he provided much useful background and some amusing anecdotal information, we were also fortunate to have on hand both Mike and Jim who added interesting technical and scientific detail for us about the telescopes and ancillaries.


The lily pond — great for surprise midnight dips!

[Pic: Mike Dryland]

The Flamsteed group in post-lunch good humour.  Could it have been the Pinot Grigio?

[Pic: Mike Dryland]

Mike and Jim hold forth  —  Keith has a dignified air of quiet resignation 

[Pic: Gil Newnham]