Summer Schools in the making: stars and snowdrops


Very late winter, just before the wretched daffodils (sorry, a personal and very unusual dislike, I know), is one of my favourite times of year. The trees show their 'inner beauty', and are just as beautiful without their leaves as they will be when they are in full greenery.  This one was caught on a misty day in the grounds at Burghley.  (See if you can spot which one it is if you join the excursion on Sunday 17 July!)  If only the really cold weather in our part of the country has gone for good, and we can believe that the snowdrops and catkins are heralds of a seamless transition into balmier days, then there’s a feeling that the year is just about to get into its swing. I can’t wait for the cherry blossom to show, but it’s a little way ahead of us yet, till I can see the likes of the wonderful blossom like this one at Hanwell, where Rowena Archer (Programme Director for the Medieval Studies Summer School) is lucky enough to live. I helped out at Rowena’s place a couple of weeks ago, where she and her astronomer husband, Christopher Taylor, open the grounds of their house to visitors in an annual ‘Stars and snowdrops’ weekend. People were able to see the ancient colonies of - literally – millions of snowdrops on this medieval site, and to visit Hanwell Community Observatory to learn about star-gazing evenings, get up close and personal with their ‘Millennium telescope’, a 30-inch Newtonian reflector. It’s frustrating to me that the whole site is rather too far from Cambridge for us to show it to our Science Summer School students, but we can claim some connection, as their patron, Professor Alec Boksenberg, who officially ‘opened’ the telescope in September 2009, is part of the Astronomy department here. (And we do, of course, have some pretty nifty telescopes right here in Cambridge.)

It was clear enough on that Saturday night to join the volunteers of Raleigh International who were working on the Hanwell grounds all weekend (for the tenth time) to take my first look through the 30” telescope at the Orion Nebula. I’ve always had a fascination with astronomy, but have – alas – retained remarkably little knowledge. I happened, though, to catch dear Sir Patrick Moore a few days before, talking on ‘The Sky at Night’ (a bit of a British television institution, being broadcast now for 54 years) and to realise that Chris Lintott, also presenting, was once one of our Resident Tutors for the Science Summer School. Chris is, I learn from Christopher Taylor over the breakfast table on Sunday, the man behind Galaxy Zoo, a project that involves 150,000+ astronomers in classifying over a million galaxy images. Astronomers amongst you might like to track Chris Lintott’s blogs, too

But my own contribution to the ‘Stars and Snowdrops’ weekend was far more humble, albeit very well-received: I helped to serve teas, coffees and home-made cakes to the 700+ visitors of all ages.   Val Brodie, who contributed a great talk on ‘Music and Henry V’ to last year’s Shakespeare Summer School, called through again: always fun to be caught unawares by people out of context. When we were not tied up the large team involved in running the weekend, Rowena and I were able to snatch the odd Summer Schools’ ‘admin’ conversation

Speaking of stars: that reminds me to get back in touch with all of our very busy Programme Directors, and talk plenaries!


# Herb Fontecilla 2011-03-02 15:03 " It’s frustrating to me that the whole site is rather too far from Cambridge for us to show it to our Science Summer School students…"

What a tease ! First you tell us how great it was and then you tell us it's not for us. How far away from Cambridge is it?

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# Sarah Ormrod 2011-03-03 08:58 Sorry about that! If you are in the UK you can contact Hanwell to arrange a group booking. But during the Summer we’d need to head towards Hanwell after dinner, and it’s two hours by bus. You’d have to gamble that the weather would be good on the day for which you had booked the coach. To get a decent amount of viewing time you’d not leave Hanwell till midnight at the earliest, and would not arrive back in Cambridge before 2am, and it would be tough to have everyone back in classes, bright and early in the morning. BUT the Astronomy department here in Cambridge has some great telescopes (and some remarkable astronomers!), and we are investigating a possible visit for our Science Summer School students one evening. Reply | Reply with quote | Quote