Star light, star bright

With little light pollution and wide vistas, Le Perche in Normandy is an ideal spot for stargazing. Deborah Nash visits the area known as the cradle of French astronomy

With little light pollution and wide vistas, Le Perche in Normandy is an ideal spot for stargazing. Deborah Nash visits the area known as the cradle of French astronomyLivelier than Sir Patrick Moore, tall, dashing and passionate – about stars – the youthful director of Perche Astronomie, and mayor of Bellou-le-Trichard, might have stepped from the pages of a romantic novel. Crossing a meadow of buttercups to reach my tree house, Micha�l Leblanc arrived for our date. We were going stargazing. High up in the boughs of my 200-year-old chestnut tree I’d already had a different perspective of the land. I had found in Le Perche a scattering of small farms, manor houses, priories and a national park, all timeless and unspoilt; the perfect place for looking at stars.Local astronomer Fr�d�ric Delbord, who runs the telescope shop in Saint-Germain-de-la-Coudre, had told me earlier: “Light pollution is zero here. Some nights there are so many stars and they seem so close, I can almost feel them brush against my skin.” Showing me his range of telescopes, he concluded: “The ancients must have had beautiful skies. Their telescopes were less powerful but they saw things we’d have difficulty finding today.” I could appreciate the sentiment. My visit coincided with the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud that had reduced aeroplane vapour trails to nil; the sky was an untrammelled blue – I hadn’t seen this since childhood. Two hundred years ago, and 60 kilometres away, an explosion and a downpour of stones occurred over the town of L’Aigle. No one knew the cause and a physician from Paris, Jean-Baptiste Biot, was sent to investigate. He was able to prove that the debris came not from a volcano, but from a fallen meteorite from outer space. It was the beginning of the area’s interest in the cosmos. “Le Perche is the cradle of astronomy in France,” Fr�d�ric told me.At the HQ of Perche Astronomie, a disused school room of green plastic chairs and chalky blackboard, Micha�l Leblanc poured me a glass of apple juice (brewed from his own orchard) and described his move from the suburbs of Paris to his present home in Bellou-le-Trichard. “When I moved I immediately had different friends and a different rhythm of life: no television, but plenty of trees and stars. If you live in the city, you might see 40 at night, but here at Bellou-le-Trichard, you’ll see thousands – it’s like the Sahara!” The village is a station de nuit, a classification issued by the Association Fran�aise d’Astronomie for areas with a beau ciel. At Perche Astronomie, local enthusiasts such as Fr�d�ric and Micha�l collaborate with the Parc Naturel R�gional du Perche to organise evening walks, lectures and courses for children and adults about all aspects of astronomy.What really seemed to interest Micha�l, making him bound from his chair and reach for a map of France, was again the subject of light pollution. “You wouldn’t leave a tap running all night,” he said. “So why keep a street light on?” I looked at the map and saw large areas marked by flashes of artificial light hot spots, broken sporadically by oases of blue. Artificial light sterilises the surrounding area, decimating insect populations on which bats and birdlife depend. There are fewer road accidents when street lighting is reduced, Micha�l argued, and though security in cities might be compromised, much can be done in lighting design to reduce its damaging effects. The point made, we left the school room to explore the night.It was by now past 10 o’clock; with a gibbous moon and a cloudless horizon, Venus had already made an appearance and the first stars were emerging. Micha�l rolled back the roof of one observation shed, then directed his telescope northwards. The adjustments made, he started by giving me an eye test. Pointing to the Plough above, he asked: “Can you see the double star, the middle one of the handle?” I looked up, and there was the constellation, distinct, laid out like a piece of jewellery on a dark velvet mount. As I scrutinised it I could distinguish a wobble of dim light, Alcor, the twin of the brighter star, Mizar. “Then you’ve passed the ancients’ eye test,” Micha�l told me. “Now we’re going to dive down into moon craters and climb their mountains. Are you ready?”I had never looked through a telescope before. I’ve peered through opera glasses and binoculars but I’ve never seen anything at great distance. My experience at Le Perche blew me away. Exploring infinity through a pin hole plays all sorts of tricks on the brain. What I saw were monstrous details; I skimmed across craters hundreds of miles wide and focused on far-off planets and stars, existing way back in time, captured in the tiny petri dish of my lens. It was as if I had caught and held them in the palm of my hand.The tour continued, like a first reading lesson of the cosmos: I counted Hercules, Draco (the dragon), Sirius and Cassiopeia. Through the telescope, a neighbouring galaxy floated to the right of my vision, like a crackled parchment, shiny from use, creased and folded. More stars kept appearing, like late guests to a party, it was as if the act of looking gave birth to more. I asked Fr�d�ric, casually: “Do you think there’s life out there?” “Forc�ment!” came the emphatic reply. “Given the number of stars there are in the universe, we cannot be alone, even if it’s very rare and the probabilities very slight, there are so many suns like our own, so many planets that orbit those suns.”Mars was distant that night, a bruised red, as if brooding. “Ten years ago a mother came to Perche Astronomie with her daughter. The mother was 100 years old and the daughter was 80,” Micha�l recounted. “The mother said that she had never seen Mars in all her life and now she wanted to see it. So I showed her Mars. She saw its colour, she saw its valleys and its pole caps, and she cried.” Looking at the universe brings out deep emotions, the poetry of being human. The air was very still in the purplish valley; the leaves on the trees did not stir and the hoots of owls carried clearly across the fields. All the crickets were chirruping and I could imagine that if stars could chatter, this might be the sound they would make. It’s busy up in heaven. Not only are colossal galaxies such as Andromeda consuming smaller ones over a millennium, satellites are circling; we saw one, manned by six cosmonauts, orbiting earth every hour. By now Micha�l was quieter, as if absorbing the silence of space. We watched the tiny burst of a meteorite sputtering in the distance then decided to return to the car. Rattling back to my tree house we talked moon talk. Suddenly, a hare leapt across the road, the orbs of its eyes caught in the headlights. It prompted a conversation about a Chinese myth I knew: a hare lives on the moon, pounding the elixir of life. “You can see the hare-shaped shadow when the moon is full,” I said. But from now on, I would be looking out for more: I would be watching for the Plough, the pole star, Venus, Hercules, Draco, Sirius, Cassiopeia…STARGAZING: OUT AND ABOUTFind out more about astronomy in France with our nationwide round-up of where to learn about the stars.La F�te du Ciel is a local festival in Le Perche. Up to 5,000 people attend an evening of events in July which includes observation through the telescope, image screens of the galaxies, dancing and fireworks. http://percheastronomie.frLa Cit� de l’Espace in Toulouse has a full-screen Imax cinema featuring both a specialist planetarium and stellarium with regular educational workshops designed to both instruct and entertain. www.cite-espace.comLa F�te des �toiles is a national festival in France for astronomers and astronomy clubs. It takes place over three days in July/August with talks and practical observation sessions, workshops and courses. www.cieletespace.fr La Ferme des �toiles  in the Midi-Pyr�n�es town of Fleurance prides itself on its superb location. Try the workshops or night-time courses, or take part in the renowned Festival d’Astronomie de Fleurance from 6 to 12 August . www.fermedesetoiles.comLe Festival d’Astronomie de Haute-Maurienne takes place in August in the quiet Rh�ne-Alpes village of Val Cenis, far away from the problem of modern city light pollution. Try your hand at workshops and viewings. www.valcenis.com/astroL’Observatoire de la C�te d’Azur in Nice is an elegant building designed by the same architect who created the Paris Op�ra Garnier. Open for guided visits on Sunday afternoons. www.oca.euFRANCOFILEGETTING THEREBy road: Bellou-le-Trichard is about four hours from the northern ferry ports.By rail: For information on travel from London to La Fert�-Bernard, tel: 0844 848 4070 or visit www.raileurope.co.uk

PLACES TO STAYChez Claire Strickland and Ivan PayonneLa Renardi�re61130 Bellou-le-TrichardTel: (Fr) 2 33 25 57 96 or visitwww.perchedansleperche.com

PLACES TO EAT AND DRINKMarais Caf�5 Place Carnot72400 La Fert�-BernardTel: (Fr) 2 43 71 73 16www.lemaraiscafe.com

WHAT TO DOL’Atelier du Moulin de Bland�61130 Saint-Germain-de-la-CoudreTel: (Fr) 2 33 83 77 29http://web.mac.com/moulinblande/moulinblande/Bienvenue.htmlFr�d�ric Delbord runs this astronomy shop.

Perche AstronomieLe Clos61130 Bellou-le-TrichardTel: (Fr) 2 33 25 55 10www.percheastronomie.frContact Micha�l Leblanc.

Parc Naturel R�gional du PercheMaison du Parc61340 Noc�Tel: (Fr) 2 33 85 36 36www.parc-naturel-perche.fr

TOURIST OFFICEOffice de Tourisme de La Fert�-Bernard15 Place de la Lice72400 La Fert�-Bernard Tel: (Fr) 2 43 71 21 21www.tourisme-lafertebernard.fr

Comit� D�partemental du Tourisme de l’Orne86 Rue Saint-BlaiseBP 5061002 Alen�onTel: (Fr) 2 33 28 88 71 www.ornetourisme.com