1960 to Now
Situated at Hinton Heights, on the Portsmouth Water Company's reservoir above the village of Clanfield, is the Clanfield Observatory, owned and operated by the Hampshire Astronomical Group. The Observatory, housing some of the finest astronomical equipment in the UK, has for the past thirty-five years been the focus of the group's activities and a local landmark.
Founder member, Ray Bootland
In the beginning, Ray Bootland, a GPO telephone maintenance engineer, and a number of like-minded people who responded to an advertisement placed in the Portsmouth Evening News in the autumn of 1960 by him, founded the Hampshire Astronomical Group (initially called 'The Portsmouth Astronomical Group'). Meetings were held in the Mile End Community Centre in Portsmouth until an observatory location at Crookhorn, Purbrook, was sourced in the spring of 1961. Unfortunately, after just two years, the Group was forced to relocate due to a housing development and the associated light pollution.
A new site was found situated on farmland close to Fort Nelson on Portsdown Hill. This was an old WW2 gun emplacement that was in need of major renovation. A number of the members set about this with a will, thereby setting a precedent which survives to this day, as nearly all work required by the group is carried out by the membership. By the early 1970's it was apparent that a new site once more would be needed for the Group's growing telescope facility and as the Fort Nelson Observatory was being ever more affected by growing light pollution from housing and the new M27 motorway development. Successful negotiations commenced with the Portsmouth Water Company for the purpose of obtaining use of their Clanfield site reservoir.
Work began over the Easter holiday of 1972 on the foundations of the dome that was to eventually house the then-proposed 20-inch telescope. Patrick Moore (now Sir Patrick) officially opened the completed dome and telescope on the 4 th November 1978 following 6 years of hard work.
Patrick Moore opens the 20 Inch Dome
Patrick Moore - far right - officially opens the 20" dome
Sadly Ray Bootland (our founder member) passed away in December 1975 unable to see his brainchild come to fruition. Since those days the 20-inch has become a 24 and 4 further domes have been added to the site, the largest of which houses a 5-inch Cooke refractor, which is itself quite a star. Built in the 1890's and thought to have at one time been owned by Sir Harold Spencer-Jones, a former Astronomer Royal, the telescope came to the Hampshire Astronomical Group from the Royal Navy to whom it had been bequeathed, as a trophy, by Admiral Watson of Hambledon. The 5 inch Cooke has recently been twinned with a 4.5 inch Beck telescope making it an extremely versatile instrument indeed.
The 5inch and 4.5inch Dome
The dome, in which it is housed, itself is also of interest as it was obtained from the former Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux in Sussex , where it had been used to house the RGO's Solar Observatory. The RGO was relocated from Herstmonceux to Cambridge thereby releasing some of the buildings for redevelopment, and the Hampshire Astronomical Group was fortunate enough to obtain the dome. It is thought Thomas Cooke & Co. also manufactured the dome aswell.
The remaining three domes on site house a 7-inch refractor and a 16 and 12-inch Newtonian reflectors. The Group regularly hosts visits for local groups including Universities, Colleges, Schools, Cubs, Scouts and other organised parties. Further Education evening classes are held each year utilizing the Groups superb facilities. These classes are always popular and are one of the main sources of new applicants for membership. Furthermore, the Group is host to students from the University of Portsmouth for whom facilities are provided to give the practical element of their studies for a degree course in Mathematics or Physics with Astronomy.
Away from the observatory site the Group has, with support from the Queen Elizabeth Country Park , created a scale model of the Solar System around which a pleasant 2 mile stroll can take place whilst appreciating the size of the Solar-system.
As for the future, the group is looking to expand its solar observing capabilities and to provide better and more comprehensive facilities for educational visits, particularly as astronomy is now part of the National Curriculum.
All this depends upon the maintenance of dark skies, which is the one other area where the Group is extremely active. Over recent years poor lighting and the ever-increasing building encroachment into the countryside has resulted in a major loss of our most precious resource - darkness.
Thoughtful planning by local councils and the co-operation of our neighbours has resulted in the Clanfield facilities being able to survive the worst of the encroaching pollution but vigilance must be maintained if we are to preserve the Night-Sky for future generations to observe and enjoy.