Astronomy in Marlborough

(article for Gazette and Herald by P.H.D Wetton CMG)


Ever since the 1930’s anyone walking up Hyde Lane towards Marlborough common would have seen, in the middle of the College playing fields, the dome of an astronomical observatory. Some might be curious as to what was going on there.


The answer, since the war years and until recently as far as local schools or inhabitants were concerned, was nothing very much. The telescope, a beautiful 10-inch refractor (the largest in Wiltshire) made in Victorian times, had gently decayed and was only occasionally used for limited observation by groups within the College. Happily, all this changed a couple of years ago when Charles Barclay, an enthusiastic astronomer who studied at St. Andrews University, came to the College and persuaded the governing body to fund the complete renovation and refurbishment of the instrument. It now has an advanced computer drive, an engineering and electronic triumph entirely developed in the UK, which allows accurate acquisition of the planets, stars and galaxies. Barclay, who now directs the Observatory, has also had fitted advanced solar filters which allow direct viewing of the sun, extending the use into daylight hours. The Observatory is a centre for the annual NASA/ESA Sun-Earth day (publicising the Sun-Earth connection). The telescope is also a focus of two Summer School courses.


The College has generously devised an outreach programme so that everyone living in and near Marlborough, and particularly school children, can benefit. During the transit of Venus across the Sun in June (a rare event only witnessed 5 times since 1639) some 80 children from 6 local schools were among 250 members of the public who were thrilled to see Venus passing across the face of the sun. The programme has now been extended to night-time observation, and the views of the planets, including Uranus and Neptune, unknown to the ancients, are particularly appreciated. The sight of Saturn and its rings through the telescope is simply marvellous.


Finally, locals with a particular interest in astronomy have been invited to form a group “Friends of the Marlborough Telescope”, being launched this week-end, which will involve both use of the telescope and lectures from leading astronomers. The programme of events will include public open evenings, the first of which is on 19th November and public lectures (the first on 20th March next year) Events will be free, but due to limited space, places may have to be booked. The Local Information Point in the Town library will have the details nearer the time. So all we need now are some clear skies!