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It sounds a bit like something out of a gamer's fantasy world, but the largest "Dark Sky Park" in Europe has just been unveiled, and it is not a million light years away. In fact it is in England. Northumberland just got a massive boost to its tourism industry today with the news of the accolade. The quality of the night sky is the reason for the protection, which will cover 580 square miles between the Scottish borders and Hadrian's Wall.

The International Dark Skies Association gave Gold Tier status to Northumberland National Park and the Kielder Water Forest Park and they will now combine to become known as the Northumberland International Dark Sky Park (NDSP). They join the ranks of the Death Valley and the Big Bend dark sky parks in the USA. In order to be accorded this status the area has to have an exceptional quantity of extremely starry nights and be far from sources of light pollution. There was already one site ear-marked for hazing at the stars and this was at Cawfields Picnic Site. Now these will spring up all over the national park and allow those who want to watch the heavens to pull in safely and take advantage on on-site interpretation facilities.

It's taken 2 years to get this protected status and it is now hoped there will be a surge in astro-tourists. The Kielder Observatory has already paved the way by welcoming over 50,000 visitors since it opened in 2008.

Impressionist John Culshaw is a keen astronomer who has filmed an episode of The Sky at Night from the Kielder Observatory. He remarked on the quality of the darkness, it felt so dark, he said, that you could have sworn the stars were casting shadows. Such sites are increasingly rare in our brightly-lit world.

The Chair of the working party who bid for the Dark Skies status, Elizabeth Rowark, was gleeful; she said that now the sky was truly the limit. People who live in towns and cities almost never get the chance to appreciate the full beauty of the galaxy, but now the full cosmic panorama is available to gasp at, and it's just up the road. The best months are going to be from October through to March when the skies are at their clearest and local hotels are already taking bookings as they prepare for an influx of interested stargazers.

There are lots of other reasons to visit Northumberland, apart from the timeless appeal of the remaining sections of Hadrian's Wall. It has a remote and a tranquil feel and is already loved by walkers, and nature lovers.

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