New planetarium near Ripon brings the universe to life
Last updated Jan 27, 2024
The planetarium at Lime Tree Observatory.

Seven miles from Ripon is one of the best kept secrets in the north of England.

Lime Tree Observatory and Planetarium, which is located on a remote farm near Grewelthorpe, provides the kind of experience you previously had to travel hours for.

Here you can see the moon close-up through telescopes and lie on cushions and learn about the solar system while watching an ever-changing skyscape in the planetarium.

The project wasn’t set up by a large private company or a rich benefactor, but by three enthusiastic amateur astronomers who built it from the ground up, with the help of a community-minded landowner.

“It’s a hobby that got out of hand,” says Martin Whipp, who has worked alongside Chris Higgins and John Roberts on the project.

Harrogate Air Cadets in the planetarium this week.

Martin’s passion for the night skies can be summed up by the fact that whenever he goes on holiday, he visits a planetarium. So far he’s ticked off over 100 and although most are better known than his, it’s doubtful whether any is run by someone quite as committed.

The Stray Ferret has been trying to visit since we reported in 2022 that a planetarium, like a distant comet, was heading our way.

It opened later that year at Lime Tree Farm and although the guys love nothing more than spreading their infectious love of astronomy, they were somewhat reticent to invite us because of fears the place could be swamped.

Demand for tickets is already, well, astronomical. What’s more, the observatory is manned entirely by volunteers and only opens on winter evenings when it’s dark enough to stargaze by 7pm or 8pm. Bookings are by appointment-only and all 46 sessions from now until the end of March, when it closes for summer, are sold out.

When tickets went on sale this month for some extra events organised as part of this year’s Dark Skies Festival organised by Nidderdale National Landscape, formerly known as Nidderdale AONB, they were snapped up in a day. Book now and you’re unlikely to get in before March next year.

The planetarium holds 25 people and there is a minimum charge of £100 for eight people. Each additional person costs £12.50. Most bookings are by private groups but some sessions are reserved for individuals who can’t get a group together.

Another reason for keeping things low key is that a large commercial venture wouldn’t sit well with the ethos of Lime Tree Farm, which operates as a community interest company providing activities such as pond dipping, a campsite and stone circles alongside stargazing.

Martin Whipp Lime Tree Observatory

Martin Whipp

Martin Whipp (left) and Chris Higgins play with the telescopes.

‘I’m fascinated by the enormity’

Martin, who lives in Ripon, juggles his hobby with an NHS career in diabetes. He has been into astronomy since the age of four or five. “I’ve just always been fascinated by the enormity of it,” he says.

He joined York Astronomical Society when he was 14 and used to visit Lime Tree Farm, where the landowner — a keen amateur astronomer — invited hobbyists to look through telescopes on a site that is in the Nidderdale National Landscape and on the eastern edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park which has International Dark Skies status. The only light pollution is from nearby Masham and Ripon.

The observatory opened to the public in 2016, with the purchase of a second-hand 24-inch reflecting telescope from Kent. The telescope is nearly 50 years old now and due to be replaced this year with a computer-driven model which will have far superior optics.

When the landowner said he was keen to find a use for a barn, Martin’s brain went into overdrive. Could it be converted into a planetarium? Even prohibitive quotes of up to £50,000 to build one didn’t deter the gang of three — instead they decided to make their own.

They found a company that sells domes and bought a mould for one section then built the other nine and assembled it. Throw in a sound system, a large screen and astronomy software called Stellarium, plus funding from Nidderdale National Landscape and Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust, and after five years of toil the planetarium came to fruition.

Harrogate Air Cadets in the planetarium this week.

The cadets zoom in on the moon and Jupiter.

The presentations can be tailored to the audience: there was a creepy cosmos show at Halloween and a star of Bethlehem show at Christmas. Last year they also had an event that celebrated the 50th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album.

Chris Higgins, who has a PhD in pharmacology and used to have a small observatory in his garden shed at Bishop Monkton, says: “Someone drove all the way from Stirling for it and gave it a five-star review.”

We finally got to sample it this week when Harrogate Air Cadets let us tag on to a visit. We looked through telescopes and learned about constellations and supernovas, Orion and Sirius and got that sense of enormity that Martin mentioned. Did you know you can fit a million Earths into the sun, but the biggest star is a billion times bigger than the sun?

The cadets’ knowledge was impressive, or perhaps mine was awful, as they answered many of the questions posed during the presentation before heading outside to look through the telescopes. We visited on the day Storm Isha was passing and had to wait for gaps in the banks of cloud but the clarity of Jupiter through the lens drew gasps.

The 90-minute session was informative and entertaining — and there’s nothing like it for miles around.

Martin says: “Once we built the dome, we did think that’s really quite incredible.”

That’s an understatement. As local experiences go, it’s out of this world.

Watching the planetarium presentation.

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