Did you know that of just 16 highly prized official Dark Sky Reserves worldwide, five are here in the UK? And that the latest – Cranborne Chase – was added only last year? That puts this wild and remote Area of Natural Beauty (AONB) – straddling Wiltshire, Somerset, Devon and Dorset – right up there with sensational locations including central Idaho in the US and Australia’s River Murray; locations where, thanks to super-low levels of light pollution, you get an amazing view of the night sky.
Always on the look-out for new destinations for their ‘Great Drives’ series, this is where the Sunday Telegraph sent me in the Range Rover Evoque, to winkle out a terrific driving route taking in one or two beauty spots and some of the region’s new ‘Top 10 Stargazing Locations’ along the way. I didn’t need to be asked twice.
Packing the Evoque’s decently-sized ‘boot’ with woolly hats, fleeces, scarves, gloves and hiking boots, we headed to a B&B in the village of Cranborne itself, on the south-eastern edge of the AONB, brandishing my night-sky binoculars.
It’s a different world out here, especially if, like me, most of your driving is in London. There’s little traffic, and so few people out and about that you feel they must all be hiding behind the next hill. What passes for a main road is often little more than a delightfully undulating, narrow country track winding its way between fields, past meadows and pretty villages; perfect for fun driving in the Evoque, especially with its high-riding stance, giving great views over the hedges.
First port of call – at dusk – was on hilly Rushmore Estate, to rendezvous with the Telegraph’s photographer. I was led up a steep, rough, bumpy private track by a Cranborne Chase AONB official, giving me the chance to engage ‘Mud/Ruts’ on the 4×4 Evoque. Then, engaging ‘Grass/Gravel/Snow’ (selecting different Terrain Response modes requires a single dab of a screen icon), we edged across bumpy hilltop grassland towards an imposing 65ft Folly, adjacent to the Larmer Tree Gardens, and with commanding views all the way to the Isle of Wight.
Astronomer Steve Tonkin, the AONB’s Dark Sky advisor, hauled a giant 8-inch aperture telescope from his own car and I was instructed by the photographer to peer skywards – straining my neck – as I searched for stars, galaxies or constellations. We were really there for the benefit of the photographer, who funnily enough wanted daylight for his images, not darkness.
By the time he’d finished, and I was ushered back to the tarmac, it still wasn’t properly dark and I couldn’t even spot the moon. So we headed off deep into the countryside in the Evoque, benefiting – as it finally grew dark – from its highly effective LED headlights, toasty seat warmers and the showy Touch Pro Duo automatically assuming ‘dark’ mode to aid night vision – to the spooky ruins of remote Knowlton Church, encircled by Neolithic ritual henge earthworks.
Here, at one of the AONB’s Top 10 stargazing locations, we leaned against the Evoque in total darkness and gazed skywards, soaking up an astonishingly dense carpet of stars, which is putting this stunning region on the international stargazing map. It was pure magic.
Date arrived 16th July 2020
Economy (WLTP combined) 38.2-41.5mpg
Economy (On test) 33.5mpg