I spent the last week of September in Wales with the in-laws. It was fantastic to escape from the pressures of work for a while, and I was also able to make a little bit of progress on my 101 in 1001.
We stayed in Gwbert, a hamlet at the head of the Teifi estuary - the white buildings in the picture above. The nearest town is Cardigan, three miles away, and - as opposed to Woking, where I spend most of my time - there's practically no sky glow. On a clear night the stars are fantastic.
And so, on the last night of our stay, after a few glasses of wine, countertony and I walked up the road away from the street lights and had a look at the stars. I brought my netbook out with me; I have a fantastic program called Stellarium loaded onto it, and so it was basically a portable planetarium. You can tell it where and when you are, and it shows you what the sky looks like, identifying all the objects and putting in things like the constellation lines and names as you choose.
We started with the Big Dipper/Plough/Charles' Wain/Saucepan and Polaris, because they're easy. (The side of the 'pan' opposite the 'handle' points upwards to the Pole star.) I wouldn't be able to identify the rest of either the Great Bear or the Little Bear, though.
Another easy one is Cassiopeia; she looks like a W. Having identified those objects, we were able to work out where other things should be, and to look for them.
What I hadn't fully realised is that not all stars in a constellation are equally bright. One knows what shape it should be, but one can't necessarily see everything in it with the naked eye - or my naked eye, anyway. Once we'd twigged that, we tried it the other way round. We started to look for bright stars, work out from Stellarium which constellation they belonged to, and then search for the rest of the group. We found Boötes from Arcturus. Just by Boötes' right shoulder is the Corona Borealis, and Hercules, a bit further round, looks a bit like a four-legged spider. Then we found Vega, and from it the Lyre.
The only problem was that every time I looked at the netbook screen it killed my night vision, so I had to memorise a few shapes from it and then look away until I could see the fainter stars again. It's much easier than a star chart and a torch, though.
It was, in short, a successful evening's stargazing. While I'm not at all confident that I'd be able to find many of the constellations again without a chart of some kind, I do feel that I've got a much better idea of what I'm actually looking for.