“Welcome to the night,” beamed a right to roam campaigner welcoming a coach load of city dwellers to the pitch dark stillness of remote Northumberland countryside on a chilly September evening.
The passengers had been attracted by a secretive offer spread on Instagram and by old-school posters pinned up in Newcastle.
Did they agree that the night sky belongs to us all? Would they take part in the UK’s first dark skies mass trespass?
About 70 signed up. On Thursday, they arrived at about 8.15pm on land owned by the Duke of Northumberland near Rothbury. Off the bus, they were guided up to Lordenshaws iron age hill fort, where, if it had been light, they would have properly seen some of the UK’s most abundant and wonderful neolithic rock art.
But the main event was upwards. Organisers were one heartbeat away from cancelling because the weather was so horrible. However, by the evening the rain had stopped, the clouds cleared and what seemed like a million stars came out.
Jupiter was glorious. The Summer Triangle stars of Altair, Vega and especially Deneb shone brightly. There were wows at shooting stars and being able to see the distant galaxy of Andromeda, faint but visible.
Organisers had boldly dangled the carrot of being able to see the Milky Way and there it was in all its fuzzy combined-light-of-300bn-stars glory.
Harry Jenkinson, from the Right to Roam campaign, said he had only ever seen the Milky Way from a village on the Solomon Islands, 9,000 miles away.
“It made me realise how much we have lost here in England,” he said. “The night sky is so incredibly beautiful but because of light pollution most of us can’t see the Milky Way. This is a fundamental right that our ancestors had. Before light pollution they would have taken it for granted.”
Jenkinson said the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act opened up only about 8% of England’s land.
Across England, including at Lordenshaws, there are agreements about access between the public and landowners. “But you are not allowed to stray from the footpath which is just ridiculous,” he said.
“We are still fundamentally restricted from 92% of the countryside in England yet over the border in Scotland, which is only 20 miles that way, they have got the right to roam. If you can do that in Scotland, why not here?”
The trespass took place the same day that the Green MP Caroline Lucas introduced her right to roam bill to parliament.
The visitors getting off the bus were told they were on an estate owned by the Duke of Northumberland that was 120,000 acres – “over four times the size of Newcastle”.
Jenkinson said: “We’re not trying to take land away from landowners. Just let us walk. Let us stargaze like the people who made the carvings and built the hill fort would have had the right to do. They wouldn’t have been told to stay on footpaths.”
After the mass trespass event a group spent the night wild camping, also prohibited except in Dartmoor, where campaigners say it is under threat.
The evening included folk music from Jemima Thewes and storytelling from Luke Winter, which included, for reasons difficult to remember, a group rendition of Eminem’s Stan.
There were snacks, vegan hot chocolate and an astronomy talk by Neill Sanders, the creator of the Go Stargazing website, who chose Thursday night because it was moonless and one of the year’s best nights to see the stars.
He said the trespassers were looking at about 2,500 individual stars. If people were looking at the night sky in the city, because of light pollution, they might see a hundred.
Sanders said one of the main menaces when it came to light pollution were the cheap, incredibly bright LED lights people buy for purposes such as home security.
“It’s great to get involved with the right to roam guys and find out what the legalities are, how you can do things legally and safely, raise awareness and make the point that places like this are absolutely fabulous for stargazing. More places like this should be accessible.”
A spokesperson for Northumberland Estates said: “The public has open access to many thousands of acres of land owned and managed by the estate across Northumberland and Scotland.
“We also provide and maintain nearly 300 miles of public rights of way as well as other paths and routes. We are delighted that so many members of the public visit and enjoy this land.
“The dark skies event took place on Northumberland Estates land within the national park which is accessible by public footpaths and most of this land is above the moorland line meaning the public always has access to enjoy it.
“The whole of Northumberland national park and most of Kielder Water & Forest Park became England’s first international dark sky park in 2013 and is the largest gold tier dark sky park area of protected night sky in Europe.
“The official Countryside Code helps to balance the wishes of recreational access with effective land management and gives excellent guidance on how to enjoy access responsibly to protect animals and livestock and prevent damage such as wildfires.”