“By heavens, Holmes,” I said, half rising, “I believe that they are really after us.”
“No, it’s not quite so bad as that. It is the unofficial force—the Baker Street irregulars.”
Who makes all of this possible? The Baker Street Irregular Astronomers as a society is dependent not only on the enthusiasm of its members, but also the commitment and dedication of its committee. Our common goal is to popularise astronomy in Central London, and we’re always on hand at meetings to offer advice. Be sure to find us and introduce yourself – we’re a really friendly bunch and love meeting new people!
As a schoolboy in the 1950’s, Mike made a small telescope out of cardboard tubes and some lenses loaned from his school physics lab.
G-clamping it to the edge of his parents garage door, allowed it to sweep up and down in altitude, whilst the hinged garage door provided smooth horizontal movement over a reasonable arc of sky.
After several nights struggling to achieve a sharply focussed point of starlight, the most prominent bright star of the evening always refused to be anything but oval. He swapped an eyepiece lens, giving him higher magnification, and with a shock that he remembers to this day, – he realised that the now much larger oval that he was looking at from north London, with his own small home made telescope, was the planet Saturn and its magnificent rings! – “I was awestruck!”
Mike’s been looking at the sky ever since and, despite a career in Architecture, designing the Pompidou centre in Paris, Lloyds of London , the Millennium Dome and Terminal 5 at Heathrow, and many other exciting architectural and urban design projects with his long time colleagues, he still finds the astronomy bug virulent and happily incurable, 32 telescopes and 57 years later!
“For me, the sky is full of magic to share – and on clear nights in Regents Park, a BSIA meet can lift your soul.
A glimpse of Saturn has brought people to tears,. whoops of joy or stunned silence – and mighty Jupiter and its fast moving, easily seen orbiting moons, is always spectacular, cutting through the skyglow, even in the heart of our luminous metropolis. Wildly differently coloured double stars still surprise us all and the Moon is so huge that you can zoom in on a small group of craters crammed with geological detail -you feel as if you are in lunar orbit.”
As long as London’s sky is reasonably clear, there is always something to see, a question to ask or something to chat about with like minded people. The conceptual base and one of the greatest pleasures of the BSIA, and its wide ranging informal membership, from all walks of London life, is the act of coming together, in the heart of town, to look at the sky. It makes us all a little special!
Astronomy started for Eric with Apollo 8 and Patrick Moore.
“Christmas 1968: I, pre-teen, watched the BBC coverage of Apollo 8. On the screen was this strange looking man talking rapidly explaining why the mission was so important. His words, still potent when seen and heard today, helped arouse the child’s interest in space and astronomy. I collected newspaper cuttings of the Apollo missions, glued them into a long-lost scrapbook and devoured all the astronomy books available from my local library, many written by Patrick. I well remember reading his 5th edition of Amateur Astronomy.”
Thankfully his parents encouraged the interest: giving him a Larousse Encyclopaedia of Astronomy for Christmas and, later, a small telescope with a table tripod. Telescope in hand he was able to enjoy for the first time the craters of the Moon; Saturn and its rings; and Jupiter and its moons. Sadly, as the other distractions of life made themselves know, and as the public awareness of the Apollo programme diminished so did his enthusiasm in astronomy.
That was until: “after moving to Marylebone in the late 1990s, I would often walk past a shop off Baker Street, glimpsing telescopes in the window and forming a fancy of buying a ‘scope in the future for the time, if and when, I retired abroad. Little did I know that later in April 2011 a ‘curious incident’ would occur as I walked in Regent’s Park: I spied a poster on a notice-board advertising the Baker Street Irregulars Astronomers …”
“Few people were aware of SOE’s existence. To those who were part of it or liaised with it, it was sometimes referred to as “the Baker Street Irregulars”, after the location of its London headquarters. It was also known as the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”.
Who provides the original brains and brawn behind The Baker Street Irregular Astronomers? The committee are ably assisted by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) who bring unique skills and experiences for us to draw upon. Former committee members, still helping the society, and people with unique and relevant skills sit on the SOE.
Simon’s interest in astronomy began in the summer of 1971 as Apollo 15 reached the Moon, and Mars had a very favourable and close opposition. “That was it, I was hooked!”
He started writing to the inspirational Sir Patrick Moore, and was invited to the first of what would be many visits at his home. As a student, he went to University intending to pursue astronomy, but got sidetracked into the oil industry. His passion for space uninhibited, he would eventually return to the field many years later on the retail side and now runs the astronomy showroom, ‘The Widescreen Centre’ to help people get the best out of the night sky.
“In the interim I was lucky enough to meet David Scott of Apollo 15, which only renewed my determination to bring as many people as possible into the exploration of space.”
Simon is a veteran telescope expert, but his advice may surprise you by its simplicity. “The best telescope is the one that gets used the most, and is easy to travel with – we go to as many Star Parties as we can fit into the calendar.”
He always enjoys a clear view of the Moon and splitting colourful double stars. “Albireo in Cygnus draws me back time after time, and sweeping the Milky Way keeps me busy for hours.”
Police Constable Carl Drake considers himself a novice when it comes to astronomy. “It was an honour to be involved in setting up the BSIA with Simon, and making the wonders of the night sky available to so many people.”
He can’t pick his favourite from the innumerable inspiring sights in the night sky, but Saturn and Orion are memorable and familiar. “I have to admit that my first view of Saturn had me grinning like an idiot for a week and I’m always glad to see the return of Orion each autumn as it generally heralds clear, cold evenings and contains so much to look at that I never get bored of it.”
The ongoing sense of wonder at space rockets and Moon landings that Carl felt as a young child inspired him to get involved with astronomy as a community activity, and his efforts both on and off duty have been instrumental in bringing stargazing to Regents Park. Despite this commitment to the public, he still finds the time to rouse interest at home.
“My proudest moment in astronomy was Christmas 2010, when my son who had just turned three years old came out of a family member’s house, pointed up to the night sky at a bright star and – very correctly – exclaimed, ‘That’s Jupiter!’
I guess that we are never too old or too young to be amazed by all those tiny specks of light!
Jerry, a former committee member now spending much of his time away from London, was instrumental in setting up the BSIA and continues to have a huge influence on the society as we look to re-build an observatory in Regent’s Park – the very site where the original Regent’s Park Observatory allowed star charts to be made, novas to be discovered and confirmation of the discovery of the planet Neptune to be made in the 1840s.
Jerry has procured a fine Cooke refractor telescope of the period for the BSIA and we’re in negotiations to re-build an observatory to restore Regent’s Park’s historical astronomy legacy.