Click here for the current weather at the ORM (not in my back garden) - The Santa Cruz panel is closer to the truth!
Although my love of telescopes goes back to at least 1953 (click on thumbnail) my interest in astronomy started about 1956 when Brooke Bond (a British tea company) issued a set of cards called OUT INTO SPACE. In a packet of tea was one of the cards from the series. There were 50 cards in total and eventually I managed to collect the full set. Click here to see my album.
Another strong influence for me was the start of The Sky at Night television programme in 1957 hosted by the late Sir Patrick Moore (1923-2012). I had the pleasure of meeting him several times both on La Palma and in the UK. THE SKY AT NIGHT must have influenced many of todays established UK astrophysicists to have taken up this branch of science as a career and to an even greater extent, the large amateur astronomical community as a great pastime.
My first telescope was bought for me from BOOTS (the chemist) by my parents whilst on holiday in 1959. It had three draw tubes and a simple lens of about three quarters of an inch diameter. The images were terrible and very chromatic, but it gave me my first views of the craters on the moon, the satellites of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, etc. I must have felt the same excitement as Galileo did when he first turned his crude telescope on the sky and made these amazing discoveries. I constructed a small mount for the telescope with MECCANO and often observed from my bedroom windowsill. At that time I lived in East Dulwich, SE London and in a house on the busy (and well illuminated) South Circular road. Not exactly ideal conditions for observing the night sky. Due to the close proximity of our house to the neighbours my view of the sky was extremely limited also, but in the future, all that would change.
Record of observation was made whilst on holiday on the 18th Aug 1960
at 10pm from Teignmouth (South Devon)
Although very limited in content, these tea cards spurred me on to read even 'greater books' on astronomy. I-SPY THE SKY for example.
Now, that was good fun going out into the back garden, locating the constellations and planets and recording the place and time of the observation into the booklet. I never did manage to complete that project and send the booklet off to 'Big Chief Eye Spy' for a certificate. I mean to say, how often do you see an eclipse of the sun from south London? I'd have to wait another 39 years!
The OUT INTO SPACE album mentioned about the Royal Observatory in Greenwich (ROG) having recently moved to its new home at Herstmonceux in East Sussex. It then became known as the Royal Greenwich Observatory, Herstmonceux (RGO). At the time, I often thought it would be a nice place to work, but never would have believed that 30 years later my childhood desire would become a reality. During the 1960's, astronomy took a back seat due to other interests. Although the desire to work in astronomy still lingered, I never obtained the academic requirements so I decided to follow a career in electronics. I worked through a 5 year apprenticeship after finishing school in 1964.
The first time I visited the RGO was unofficially in 1961. I was camping with my scout troop in Ninfield which is close to Herstmonceux. I had asked the scoutmaster if he could arrange a visit, but he mentioned it wasn't possible due to it being a military establishment. He was correct of course as in those days it was run by the Admiralty, but I was determined to go all the same. However, the basic response I got from the gatekeeper at the east entrance when I asked him if I could walk around the domes was enough to deter me that day! I finally made it through the gate during the time of the RGO Tercentenary open days in 1975. I enjoyed it so much that I went down twice.
My interest in astronomy became active again when I joined the Croydon Astronomical Society (CAS) in 1974. For the first time, I could share my interest with other like minded people. During this period, the society was actively involved in fund raising which finally culminated in the inauguration of their 18 inch reflector; The Fred Best Telescope and observatory in Kenley, Surrey in June 1979. In 1981, the society through their chairman (then Norman Fisher) organised an Astrocamp (n.b. This a Facebook link and one needs to have an account to login) in Ashdown Forest in Sussex. These ran for many years (and still do) and were great fun. My last active involvement with the CAS was in 1991 when I was invited back to the UK to open the society's new clubhouse.
In 2006, the CAS renamed their observatory: THE NORMAN FISHER OBSERVATORY in memory of the man who did so much for the society and to make the observatory a reality. Unfortunately I couldn't attend this event, so I have dedicated a page to Norman showing the renaming ceremony. I considered him a good friend as I'm sure many did who knew him.
Through the CAS I met many people, some who worked for the RGO. I remember going to Herstmonceux for the Federation of Astronomical Societies (FAS) annual meetings from 1981 onwards held in October, a great event. The highlight for me was in 1984 when I attended a weekend symposium on photometry held on behalf of the International Amateur-Professional Photoelectric Photometry (IAPPP) organisation which included a banquet and a couple of nights lodging in the castle. A most enjoyable experience.
In 1985, after working 15 years as an electronics technician in a college, I saw a job advertised for electronics personnel to work for the RGO at their overseas observing site, now called the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (ING) on La Palma in the Canary Islands. I applied, was successful and have lived on the island ever since. So, I did eventually achieve my desire as a young lad in that I worked at the RGO in Herstmonceux for a few months in 1986 before coming to La Palma. See my pages: The Rise and Fall of the Royal Greenwich Observatory A photographic history from my perspective as someone who worked there and the sad tale of how the bureaucratic system closed what was the oldest scientific establishment in the UK. Founded by King Charles II in 1675 to help his navy navigate the seas and closed by H.M. Government in 1998 to save a few quid!
Inevitably due to cuts in government funding, the ING was also forced to make cutbacks in staff and restructure its organisation. I accepted an offer (really had no choice!) of early retirement in 2002. I worked for the RGO/ING for just over 16 years and later from 2004 to 2010 as a part time self employed contractor. I still keep close ties with the observatory and enjoy showing visitors around the ING telescopes. See my La Palma pages to get an idea of what its like to work in a world class observatory.
Things have certainly improved since I observed through my bedroom window with my cheap telescope and Out Into Space as my guide back in London some 50 years ago. In 1988 I purchased a TeleVue Genesis 4" fluorite refractor and in 1997 paid into a share for a Meade 10" LX200 SCT. In more recent times I have the use of other equipment which I look after for UK astrophotographers Nik Szymanek, Ian King and John Evans who come to La Palma occasionally to image under pristine skies. I enjoy imaging deep sky objects with my Starlight Xpress SXVR-H9 camera when I have the time or more to the point if the weather permits!
Here's some links to Nik and Ian's superb astro photo gallerys: Nik's photostream on 'flickr' and to Ian's: Ian's images on Zenfolio. Their home pages can be found at Ian King Imaging and at Nik's CCDLAND home page.
The 10" Meade LX200 was used to image Mars by Damian Peach (whose known world wide for his superb planetary images) and myself during the close conjunction of that planet in August 2003 for the BBC 2 live broadcast: The All Night Star Party. A memorable event which I thoroughly enjoyed.
La Palma offers a night sky that a London dweller would never see. So, I also owe a lot to OUT INTO SPACE and Brooke Bond tea! Visitors who come over to observe would always bring me a box of PG TIPS tea bags as the local brand tasted awful, but at last I can find PG teabags in the supermarkets here now :-)