How Brian Cox and Mark Thompson have made Norfolk mad about stargazing

It was once considered the sole domain of old bearded scientists who spent vast amounts of time huddled around their telescopes.

But over the past couple of years, astronomy has gone through a bit of a re-branding with the ability to identify the Orion Nebula and tell the difference between a shooting star and a banking aeroplane a much-sought after skill.

Now whether it is the wonder of the unknown, the beauty of a star-filled vista, or the smile of a popular television presenter, interest in Norfolk's stunning dark skies has certainly rocketed.

Either way, a lot of it can be put down to the BBC's recent Stargazing Live show, which returned for a second series this month.

Presented by comedian Dara O'Briain and housewives' favourite Brian Cox, it has opened up the world of astronomy to a whole new audience.

Amazon has seen a 500pc increase in telescope sales and the Viking Optical Centre in Norwich also reported a marked increase in interest over the last week. Dave Balcombe, chairman of the Norwich Astronomical Society, said the boost began following last year's series and his group had continued to see the effects.

He said: 'We noticed an increase in the number of people coming to our open events and they have carried on coming. 'We've also had a huge increase in people requesting group visits [to the society's Seething Observatory]. We've had to restrict those to one a week because we're all volunteers.'

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The group's website has seen a 400pc increase in hits as a result of the BBC show and attendance at public events – including those organised as part of Stargazing Live – is up by about 25pc.

It is a similar picture for the North Norfolk Astronomical Society, which also staged special events last Thursday and Friday.

Treasurer John Prockter said new members had signed up to the small club as a result and he expected the numbers to increase further. He added: 'Thursday it was pouring with rain all evening and Friday it was overcast. We couldn't even use telescopes – but that didn't put people off.'

According to the clubs, this new-found love of astronomy is capturing people of all ages, backgrounds, and gender.

Mr Balcombe, who lives in Wymondham, said: 'There's always been an interest from youngsters – they love space – but there are more and more women coming along as well.'

And why is that? 'It's probably the Brian Cox effect,' he said. 'Although we've also got Mark Thompson who is very popular as well. He comes across very well on television.'

The smiling face of physicist and former D:Ream band member Prof Cox has been credited for much of the stargazing revival.

But those involved with astronomy, including Norfolk stargazer and The One Show's resident astronomer Mr Thompson, believe there is a little more to it than that. Mr Thompson, who has also seen an increased demand on his time as a result of the programme with publishers and television producers all hoping to make use of his skills, lives near Harleston and has been a keen member of the Stargazing Live team.

He said the welcoming way the television shows had been presented had made people realise how accessible the hobby was.

He said: 'It's one of the sciences that anyone can get involved in. You can get into the very deep, academic side of it or you can just go outside and look at the sky. The fact that you can go into your back garden and do it makes it thrilling to people.'

The Norfolk astronomers said it was hardly surprising that this county, along with many other parts of the country, was seeing a surge in interest.

As budding stargazers in this area turn their eyes to the skies to have a look at Venus or Jupiter this evening, they are likely to get one of the best views.

Mr Balcombe said: 'It's a rural county which means you don't have to go far to get away from the street lights. There are lots of places to go to get a nice dark sky. It makes Norfolk a great place for it.'

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