Shortly after the end of the Second World War, a major part of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich was relocated to a site near Herstmonceux Castle. The new observatory, known as the Royal Greenwich Observatory, Herstmonceux, was not completed until 1957 and operated here until 1990 when it relocated to Cambridge.
The complex is now run as the Observatory Science Centre, which is a science museum with a focus on astronomy.
What to see at the Observatory Science Centre
The Observatory Science Centre is a science museum that is run as an educational charity so many of the exhibits and activities are geared towards children but unlike many other science museums, it is not exclusively for children and it has exhibits and activities that appeal to all ages.
The centre has over 100 exhibits including large-scale outdoor exhibits as well as several galleries of indoor exhibition space.
The outdoor exhibits focus on water and sound and also include a Discovery Park with large-scale interactive exhibits that are geared mostly toward younger children. Some of these exhibits are much like playground rides but with an educational perspective. Some of the outdoor exhibits may sometimes be closed during poor weather, particularly outdoor water-based exhibits that may freeze during cold weather.
The permanent indoor exhibits are comprised of the Forces, Earth and Beyond, Light and Colour and Astronomy and Time galleries.
The Forces gallery explores the basic principals of physics including gravity, magnetism, air pressure and electromagnetic forces. The vacuum chair is one of the more popular exhibits in this gallery.
The Earth and Beyond gallery has a focus on phenomena experienced on Earth and how this relates to our position in the solar system. The gallery examines two extremes: the microscopic and macroscopic and includes displays that range from looking at your fingernail through a microscope to exploring concepts such as the role of the Earth’s atmosphere and volcanic and meteorological activity.
The Light and Colour gallery explores various aspects of light and colour and includes displays that show how two-way mirrors work and how high voltage produces light. This gallery also includes an exhibit that explains what spectroscopy is and how it is used to study the universe.
The Astronomy and Time gallery is a major part of the centre and it includes exhibitions about time and space. It features one of the largest working models of the solar system in Europe and the Constellation Quest exhibit that explores various constellations.
The Domes of Discovery exhibition looks into the history of the observatory and the role it has played in both astronomical research and maintaining Greenwich Mean Time.
Although the telescopes at the centre are no longer being used for scientific research purposes, the observatory is open to amateur astronomers on open evenings with one or two open evenings every month. Although not all the historic telescopes are operational, domes A, D and E are usually open to the public on these evenings (although sometimes dome A is replaced by dome C, which has a more modern telescope).
In 1967, the Isaac Newton Telescope was installed at the observatory but it was moved to the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in the Canary Islands in 1979. The Isaac Newton dome building is now empty and is off-limits to the public.
Visiting the Observatory Science Centre
The Observatory Science Centre is located on the Herstmonceux Castle estate but it is not part of the castle and a standard admission ticket to the science centre does not give you entry to the castle; however, there is a joint entry ticket available that gives you entry to both attractions.
If you’re coming for one of the open evenings, the admission charge is the same as the charge to visit during the day; however, you can’t simply come to visit during the day and stay for the evening, although you can have a discounted evening ticket (for £6) if you have visited the centre earlier in the day. If you are planning to visit on an open evening specifically to look through the telescopes, it is recommended that you first check the weather forecast (or just look up at the sky) to ensure that your view is not obstructed by overcast skies. If it is overcast on an open evening, there won’t be much to see through the telescopes and the centre will usually put on some other activity such as a planetarium-style talk. There is minimal lighting around the centre at night and it is a good idea to bring along a torch to help you find your way in the dark. See here for a programme of open evenings at the Observatory Science Centre.
It is a great place to bring kids and the centre runs a programme of daily activities plus children’s workshops during UK school holidays. The workshops have various themes (such as chemistry or astronomy) and are geared towards two different age groups: 6–8 and 9–11. Children’s workshops should be booked in advance by calling 01323 832731.
While some science museums are little more than massive child care centres, this is a great attraction for all ages. There are plenty of interactive exhibits with buttons for children to push but the historic nature of the complex and the way that the attraction has been laid out makes it an interesting place for adults to visit as well.
In addition to children’s activities, the centre also operates a programme of more advanced courses. These range from one-day courses in practical astronomy to a 12-week evening course that is designed to give beginners a solid introduction to the universe.
Free parking is available, which is great as the centre is difficult to reach by public transport.
Despite being located in a historic Grade II* listed building, most areas of the complex are wheelchair accessible. Some exhibits use magnets and static electricity, which may affect pacemakers, cochlear implants and insulin pumps. These exhibits are labelled with warning symbols.
The centre has a gift shop plus its own on-site cafe. The cafe is relatively small but there are not much choice of places to eat as the science centre is located in the countryside. However, during summer it is a nice spot to bring a picnic.
Most visitors combine a visit to the Observatory Science Centre with the nearby Herstmonceux Castle.
If you enjoyed visiting the Observatory Science Centre you may also be interested in visiting the Royal Observatory, Greenwich in London.