Observatories: Northumberland

Acfield Observatory ( -1970s), established by Frank Acfield at his home in Forest Hall, Newcastle, which housed a 10-inch reflecting telescope (Gooch 1979).

Espin Observatory  Close House, Heddon on the Wall, Northumberland.  In 1960 the Close House mansion and grounds were acquired by Kings College, Newcastle (later to be renamed Newcastle University). The two large green telescope domes were manufactured locally by Brown & Hood Ltd in Wallsend, and sited later that decade. The smaller, half-brick building with the Ash dome was constructed much later, at the end of the 1970s.

The Observatory’s 3 domes

The Espin observatory currently consists of three domes situated on a ridge to the north of the Close House mansion building, which is now a hotel. A public footpath runs alongside. The domes can be identified in Google Maps aerial photographs of the site.The 24 inch reflecting telescope housed in the largest dome was originally built by the telescope manufacturer Calver around 1914. The telescope was owned firstly by the Reverend T.H.E.C. Espin (1858 – 1934), known as “The Vicar of Tow Law,” where he worked in County Durham.

Domes made by Brown & Hood

After Espin’s death the telescope fell into disuse. In the 1960’s  David Sinden and Grubb Parsons were responsible for building some of the largest and best telescopes in the world in the 1960’s – 1980’s, including the Anglo-Australian Telescope (located in Australia), the UK Infrared Telescope (Hawaii) and the William Herschel Telescope (La Palma, Canary Islands).s the telescope was completely restored by David Sinden, the chief optical engineer at Grubb Parsons in Walkergate, Newcastle upon Tyne, after he traced its location and re-discovered it on a farm. The telescope had been dismantled and part of the tube was being used as a trough to feed the farm animals.

Close House from Google Maps

David Sinden was also a member of the Newcastle Astronomical Society, like Espin long before him. The restored telescope was donated by Sinden to the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, who installed it at Close House in the mid 1960s. The 24 inch reflector remains the largest telescope in the North East of England to the best of our knowledge. 

David Sinden with the restored 24 inch telescope

Also housed in one of the domes is a 4.5 inch Cooke refracting telescope. We are unsure of when the University acquired this telescope, but it would also have been installed at Close House in the mid 1960’s. It is very similar to the 4 ¼ inch Cooke refractor used by T.W. Backhouse in Sunderland, which is currently held by the Scottish National Museum in Edinburgh.

In the early 1970s Close House was also the location of research by Newcastle University on samples of lunar soil brought back from the Apollo missions, under the direction of Professor Keith Runcorn, a world recognised physicist and lunar geologist. Sheds were erected on the grounds to conduct the research, held together with copper nails: Iron and magnetic materials were not allowed near the lunar samples as this may have affected the lunar magnetism which was under investigation.

Comet Hale Bopp, taken in 1997 in the sky above one of the Close House domes.

 The telescopes at Close House were in regular use until the early 2000’s. As well as undergraduate and post-graduate work at the University, the 24 inch was used by David Sinden and members of the Newcastle Astronomical Society. Close House was sold to local businessman Graham Wylie in 2004, who converted the mansion building into a hotel and developed the grounds into a major golf course. Two smaller university telescope domes, much closer to the mansion house behind the courtyard, were emptied and taken down as part of the sale.

The University of Newcastle closed its physics department in the mid 2000’s and there does not appear to have been much use, maintenance or investment in the observatory since then.[D. Newton]

Lilburn Observatory, 1852
Built by Edward John Collingwood, the nephew of Nelson’s colleague Admiral Lord Collingwood, born 1815 North Shields, married Anna Burdett (of Co Tipperary) 1842, 3 sons, 2 daughters, elected FRAS 1851 Feb 14.

Lilburn Observatory3

Parts of the regulator and drive mechanisms for the refractor.

Lilburn Observatory

The well preserved observer’s chair – are you sitting comfortably?

Lilburn Observatory1

The 6⅓ Troughton and Simms F/12 refractor and its English mounting

Lilburn Observatory2

The 4-inch F/15 transit circle housed in a separate room next to the Dome.

In about 1852 he built the Observatory 100 yards south-west of his home Lilburn Tower, near Wooler. It was equipped with a 6⅓” Troughton & Simms on English cross-axis mounting. and a 4″ transit. (see article and photos SHA Bulletin, Issue 22 (Autumn 2012), 54-56). But EJ went blind shortly after its completion, so the Observatory was never used. In 2012 it still exists as a listed building, and is in the condition of a “time capsule” after some refurbishment in the 1990s. Collingwood died 1895 (see Obit.’, MNRAS, 56 (1896), p.197).

West Hendon House Observatory, Sunderland (south): Lat. 54d53m51s N. Long. 01d22m47s W.  Constructed 1863/4 for Thomas William Backhouse F.R.A.S., F.R.Met.S.(1842-1920). The observatory was constructed on the western roof of the property and is still there today. Renovated in April 1997 by Don Simpson.  Housed four and one-quarter inch f/15 T. Cooke & Sons (York, 1863) refractor on equatoreal mount. Scope no longer in observatory but has been located. Berthon style roof with one hatch opening out-over.

Hepple Observatory (c.1913-c.1940s), Hepplewoodside,  Northumberland, established by Dr Wilfred-Hall (1874-1950s) of Woodside, Sharperton, Northumberland (1943).  The observatory housed a 15-inch refracting telescope by Howard Grubb, Dublin, formerly owned by George Dunn at Woolley Hall, Berkshire.  In 1950s the telescope was transferred to University of Central Lancashire as part of the Alston  Observatory.

Woodside Observatory 1913

Woodside Observatory 1913

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