A night in England’s darkest village

The Owl in Hawnby at night
The Owl in Hawnby at night - Steve Bell

Should I pack a head-torch, I wonder? Or maybe some distress flares? I’m heading into the North York Moors, several miles from the welcoming lights of a town, to spend the night in England’s first Dark Skies Friendly Village. Hawnby (population 193), which sits in a tangle of country lanes, is fighting back against the modern scourge of light pollution.

“It’s not about turning the lights off and plunging into darkness,” reassures Mike Hawtin, of the North York Moors National Park, “but about a better way of doing things.” Hawtin, who revels in the Darth Vader-ish-sounding job title of “Dark Skies Officer”, explains that “tranquillity” has always been a big thing for the National Park (declared an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2020) as part of the Park’s two roles of “protect and preserve” and “promote enjoyment”. Cutting down unnecessary and intrusive lighting – over 30 per cent of wildlife is nocturnal, he points out – is seen as very worthwhile.

Unlike other Dark Sky places – such as Presteigne in Wales – the whole village of Hawnby has embraced the project: the lighting has been altered in houses, commercial buildings and street lights (to be fair, there are only two of the latter), with farms next on the list.

Hawnby's residents have adapted home lighting to prevent light pollution
Hawnby's residents have adapted home lighting to prevent light pollution - Steve Bell

So how dark is it? Walking down Hawnby’s sloping main street – the village is in two parts, with a cluster of buildings near the river Rye at the bottom and another around The Owl at Hawnby pub, at the top – two things strike me. First, light shines only where it was needed – over front doors, by gates, on the corners of buildings – and doesn’t spill over the road, neighbours’ gardens or, crucially, up into the sky.

“Before, light was thrown indiscriminately; up, down, left, right, in-your-face, but not on the target where needed,” explains Hawtin, adding that colour – the Kelvin rating – is equally important. “The higher rating, around 6,000K, is bluer, and mimics daylight. It also scatters more readily into the atmosphere, so there’s more glow. Warmer light scatters less.” The combination of light bulbs with a lower Kelvin rating plus targeted light fittings – swan-neck or traditional carriage lamps – had created the Christmas-card-like golden glows that guided me through the village.

A lack of light pollution allows us to view the Milky Way above Young Ralph's Cross in the North York Moors
A lack of light pollution allows us to view the Milky Way above Young Ralph's Cross in the North York Moors - Steve Bell

Some residents had reservations (the National Park paid for the fixtures, 50 to 75 per cent of the total; owners paid for their installation), principally around mobility and safety concerns. “They didn’t realise that so much light could come from something that points down,” says Hawkin. Passive security lights are still causing issues, I gathered from some locals, but these are “being ironed out”.

My second revelation is how loud the countryside can be. I suspect this is because, with less visual distraction, my hearing is sharpened. The stream beside the road sounds like a raging river, a lone evening horse rider sounds like a posse, hooting owls sound eerily close, and a claxon of whirrs and squawks has me leaping into the middle of the road as a single pheasant shoots out of the verge.

“Since they changed the lighting, owls are ten a penny,” observes Paul Smith who lives down the hill from the pub. “I see far more out hunting, and at a lower level, too.” There’s markedly less glow, he adds. “Before, coming off the main road from Helmsley, you’d see the village lighting up the sky. It’s much more discreet now.”

View of the galaxy over Sutton Bank, near Hawnby
View of the galaxy over Sutton Bank, near Hawnby - Russ Norman

But between the lights it is inky-black – my homing beacon for The Owl, where I’m staying, is the red telephone box opposite, which exudes a warm and welcome fireside light. The flip-side, of course, is that the night sky is gloriously uncontaminated. “People forget that ‘artificial’ light is not how it’s meant to be,” says Lee Taylor, general manager of The Owl. “Even if it’s cloudy, the skies are still magical. If I go for a late-night stroll and look up at that incredible sky, it clears the mind. It reminds me how insignificant I am.”

Paul Smith agrees. He and his 14-year-old daughter have now discovered star-gazing. “Before we had no interest but we might invest in a telescope,” he tells me.

I’d been given star-gazing tips by Richard Darn, a Yorkshire-based amateur astronomer who knows the moors well. “Hawnby skies are really, really good,” he enthused. “Just give yourself 20 minutes to adjust.” I walk away from the pub, on the road skirting Hawnby Hill, trying to ignore the skeleton outline of trees, all of which seemed to have grown alarmingly big. “Look south,” he advised, “and you can’t fail to notice Orion. An hour-glass shape with, top left, a distinctively red star – Betelgeuse – and diametrically opposite, bottom right, an incredibly bright blue-white star, Rigel.” I try. But clouds spoil the view.

In clear conditions, Richard assured me, I would see Jupiter high in the south west. And, if it was really clear, and I Iook directly up, “that smeary thing, a sort of hazy glow, is Andromeda, our nearest big galaxy.” It wasn’t to be.

The Milky Way above nearby Helmsley
The Milky Way above nearby Helmsley - Steve Bell

The next morning, I pop into the tiny village shop, run by Sonia Leeman for over 20 years. Though crammed haphazardly with everything from tomatoes to Tunnock cakes, there were no immediate plans to stock telescopes or binoculars. “You don’t need them, it’s so clear,” Sonia says. “Very, very occasionally you can catch the Northern Lights.” She whips out her phone to show me the pictures. With the village’s new-found status, maybe those chances have increased.

Helen Pickles was a guest of The Owl at Hawnby (01439 330180; theowlhawnby.co.uk; B&B doubles from £130) and North York Moors National Park (northyorkmoors.org.uk)

Things to do around Hawnby

North York Moors Dark Skies Festival

Held this year from February 9-25, with family-friendly events including star-gazing sessions, night-photography workshops and night-time adventure walks (darkskiesnationalparks.org.uk).

The Dark Skies Festival over Helmsley, six miles south of Hawnby
The Dark Skies Festival over Helmsley, six miles south of Hawnby - Steve Bell


The North York Moors has some 1,400 miles of footpaths, several of which start from Hawnby. A moderately easy one leads up Hawnby Hill at the top of the village with horizon-stretching views over moorland. Other suggestions from the North York Moors National Park.

Daytime view of the picturesque Hawnby Dale
Daytime view of the picturesque Hawnby Dale - Emma Dodsworth


Seven miles from Hawnby this attractive market town offers a Norman Castle, 18th-century restored walled garden, independent shops, weekly market plus tea-rooms a-plenty.

Helmsley in the North York Moors National Park
Helmsley in the North York Moors National Park

Rievaulx Abbey and Rievaulx Terrace

Romantic 12th-century ruins of one of England’s most powerful Cistercian monasteries (english-heritage.org.uk) with one its most dramatic views from the 18th-century Rievaulx Terrace above (nationaltrust.org.uk).

Rievaulx Abbey near Hawnby
Rievaulx Abbey near Hawnby - Nigel Wallace-Iles/English Heritage Trust

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