Our Society was founded in the autumn of 1980 - shortly before the Voyager 1 probe first reached Saturn.
Just think how much has happened in the world of astronomy over the following decades!

1980s: making the local news and going underground

Back in September 1980, a brief note in the Bolton Evening News promoted an inaugural meeting for those interested in astronomy, to be held in the Aquarium (in the basement beneath the Central Library and Museum).

At one of these early meetings when the sky was clear, we all went up to the moors above Smithills and set up a couple of telescopes. Apparently a local resident noticed our gathering and phoned the police, who arrived to check what was going on.

In November 1985, the Society organised a series of public viewing events at Heaton Cricket Club, to look for Halley’s Comet. The skies were clear that week, so many locals got to see that once-in-a-lifetime object for themselves.

In 1986, the Committee tried to get permission for the Society to use the old observatory (with a rooftop dome) at the Institute for Higher Education, but were told that it was being used as a store-room and part of it had even been converted to ladies toilets!

That Library basement was far from an ideal venue for astronomy, but at least it was central. In 1988 we moved to a more rural setting: an old sports pavilion in Barlow Park, where it was usually freezing cold at the back of the room but roasting hot near the fire. Happily it was more comfortable over the summer months, when we sometimes held a combined barbecue and star-party.

1990s: out and about and a move across town

By 1993 we had relocated to a much more comfortable venue at the Ladybridge Community Centre.

We organised a group outing to Bradford Museum of Photography (now the National Science and Media Museum), which had the UK’s first IMAX cinema, where we watched a film about the NASA Apollo missions.

Then in 1994, the Society took part in a weekend amateur astronomy exhibition at Jodrell Bank Observatory. There we showed off a pair of Gerald’s big binoculars, but were upstaged by an adjacent display: a talking robotic Isaac Newton!

We also paid a visit to Stonyhurst College, home of an impressive historical observatory, where a group of BAS members helped the College’s Fintan O’Reilly with the restoration of the original mount for their 15-inch refractor.

Later, Peter organised another trip to Jodrell Bank when a BBC programme was being broadcast from there and Richard remembers speaking with the late Sir Patrick Moore at the event.

From the 1990s through into the early years of this century, Society members made a number of weekend trips up to the village of Haverthwaite: a dark site at the southern end of Lake Windermere. These were not often blessed with clear skies, but included “indoor camping” overnight stays in the local village hall.

2000s: Solar activity and a move to the Centre

Whilst we were still at Ladybridge, the nearby Deane School provided the venue for viewing the 2004 Transit of Venus and our picture of this event made the front page of the Bolton Evening News.

The following year we won National Lottery funding to buy a pair of Coronado solar ‘scopes to help support our outreach events. These ‘scopes are still in use to this day.

In 2005 we were on the move again: this time to the shiny new Technical Innovation Centre in Farnworth, where we held our meetings until its demise in 2010. Their facilities were superb, including a large lecture theatre auditorium with 3D stereo projectors.

In March 2006 we set up our new Coronado solar-scopes to observe the Partial Solar Eclipse, showing the spectacle to the students. The TIC had laid on a big event, with bus-loads of pupils coming in from other schools for the day. We managed to project a live video-stream from our solar ‘scope onto their big screen and then they linked in a web-cast of the Total phase of the eclipse live from Turkey.

The TIC also hosted a visit by Professor Colin Pillinger, who spoke about his career in astronomy and particularly his travails to get approval and funding for the Beagle 2 Mars lander project to go on the ESA Mars Express mission in 2003.

2010s: return to Ladybridge and the Big Bolton Telescope

In 2010 we were back at our former base at Ladybridge and have been meeting there ever since. Around 2012, thanks to the BBC Stargazing Live (and Prof. Brian Cox!) boom, our membership grew to over 80 at one point, and we had problems fitting everyone into the room during some of our meetings! But now we’re back to around 40 members, so things are more comfortable again.

In 2012, we applied for and received a generous grant award from Bolton Council’s Big Bolton Fund to purchase a 16-inch Dobsonian reflector for use at our outreach events. We christened this The Big Bolton Telescope and it was certainly a large and impressive beast - but we also had to buy a step-ladder so that users could reach its eyepiece!

It gave impressive views of targets such as Jupiter and its moons (which were much higher in the sky at that time) and the Double Cluster. We took the BBT out to a number of outreach events over a few years, but eventually its storage and transport (and the time taken to set it up) became too onerous, so we eventually sold it and got a much more portable 6-inch SCT GoTo system instead.

Over this time we also put on a stall at the Moses Gate Country Fair each August. At this well-attended public event we set up a stand and our two Coronado solar ‘scopes, so we were able to show off sunspots and prominences to the visiting multitudes (we were closer to the peak of Solar Cycle 24 then, so there was often something to see!).

And over a number of years, a large party of our members (sometimes a dozen or more) made a pilgrimage each September to the Equinox Star-Camp held at Kelling Heath campsite in rural Norfolk. This event is a popular get-together for astronomers from all over the country, and was often blessed with a few clear nights during the course of our visits.

There is also a convenient field behind the Ladybridge Centre, which we’ve made use of for some of our observing sessions and even as a launch-site for the water-powered rockets with which we commemorated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in July 2019.

Outreach and links with local schools

In 2012 we met with Gary Talbot, a science teacher at Sharples School and helped them to choose equipment to support their new GCSE Astronomy course. We have been back there many times over the subsequent years for star-party evenings and other similar events.

We also met the then Deputy Head Mukesh Singadia and gave advice on his plans to build an observatory. The School was very successful in raising the funding and we were delighted to attend the opening party for the Singadia Observatory in December 2015.

Sharples School has hosted some of our indoor meetings too, including a very well-attended event when Doctor Chris North (then one of the regular presenters of the BBC Sky At Night) came along in September 2013 to give a talk. On the day there was some concern that he would get there in time, as he was coming straight from Manchester Airport, after flying in from a conference in Berlin!

We were also invited to Bolton School for the Partial Solar Eclipse in 2015 and the Transit of Mercury in 2016. The latter was blessed with clear skies, so we could set up a number of instruments to show the event to pupils from both the Boys’ and Girls’ Divisions.

We have also run numerous other outreach events, including at the Sacred Heart School in Westhoughton, Blackrod Primary School, Balshaw Lane School in Euxton, Hindley Junior & Infant School, the Egerton Brownies, Haigh Hall, Lancashire Wildlife Trust and even Turton Golf Club.

Exhibitions and distinguished guests

Over the years we have been fortunate to attract some excellent guest speakers to come and address our meetings. These include Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society Allan Chapman and Martin Lunn, particle physicist Professor Jeff Forshaw, and a number distinguished researchers from Jodrell Bank, including Professors Tim O’Brien and Ian Morison.

For Ian Morison’s visit, we hired the function suite at the nearby Deane Golf Club in order to accommodate a larger audience more comfortably.

In recent years we produced a set of high-quality posters featuring members’ astro-images for mounting exhibitions at venues such as the Mesnes Park Pavilion in Wigan and the Waterstones bookshop on Deansgate in Bolton.

These posters have also been used at some of our recent outreach events, and should be in action again on our stand at the forthcoming North West Astronomy Festival.

Compiled from a 40th anniversary feature published in the September 2020 edition of our magazine The Bolton Astronomer