It may be hard to see the stars in the city, but the UK has a wealth of Dark Sky Discovery sites that let you appreciate the night’s beauty.

With the winter solstice comes the longest, darkest night of the year and we all know the role that a certain star played in the Christmas story.

So what better way to take advantage of the prolonged darkness over Christmas and the New Year than by gazing at the wonders of the heavens?

Because darker evenings mean it’s much easier to see the stars earlier – and thanksto campaigning by the Commission for Dark Skies and groupsincluding the Campaign to Protect Rural England, we now have many more placesfrom which we can see them.

In fact, after the USA, the UK has more internationally-recognised Dark Sky Discovery sites – places where you can see the constellation of Orion or the Milky Way (the galaxy which contains our solar system) – than anywhere else in the world.

CfDS spokesman Bob Mizon lives in Bournemouth and is a passionate and lifelong stargazer whose book, Finding a Million-Star Hotel, is about the importance of dark skies. “Surveys have shown that many British children have never seen the Milky Way because the amount of lighting and skyglow has almost permanently obscured it in some urban areas,” he says.

Apart from the aesthetic aspect, constant lighting can be very bad for nocturnal animal life including bats, moths and glow-worms, as well as for humans, says Bob. “In my time I’ve had emailsfrom people contemplating suicide because of harsh lighting shining in their window at night which they can’t control.”

He believes there are sound philosophical reasons for looking at the stars. “Our lives can be so interiorised now, with everything taking place indoors, the stars remind us all that there is something else, that we are part ofsomething bigger,” he says, explaining that humans are actually made from stars. “Apart from the hydrogen, everything in your body, including the iron and calcium, was made from the interior of a star, made from material released during the Big Bang.”

While some countries have legislation to protect the night sky, Bob feels that many places have “occupied the night sky as if it was a country” and this has led to a loss of ability to see the stars and planets. He says the night sky is the only area of the environment which doesn’t have official protection.

The good news, however, is that star spotting couldn’t be easier and as a county, Dorset is luckier than most places. “We have good dark skies at Durleston near Swanage and elsewhere too,” says Bob. There is also a vigorous campaign to get the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty declared an International Dark Sky Reserve.

“Because the sky gets darker much earlier at this time of year you don’t have to stay up late or keep the children up for hours to go star-gazing,” says Bob. “It’s something that can be done in the early evening.” He advises would-be star-gazers to look up, which has a map of official Dark Sky Discovery Sites stretching from the tip of Scotland through to the Scilly Isles.

“It’s also a good idea to listen out on the news for eventssuch as meteorshowers or comets which are wonderful to look at,” he says. “All you need to take is a torch,some binocularsif you have them, and perhaps download one of the stargazing apps to help you understand what you’re looking at.”

Thanks to the gathering interest in star-gazing, many astronomical societies put on events at Dark Sky Discovery Sites which have become increasingly popular.

“We’ve been putting on a public event at Durlston Head in Dorset duringmeteorshowers since the 1980s,” says Bob. “We used to get around 30 people attending. Last summer more than 200 came.”

He hopes that by getting more people to appreciate stars, they will also join the CfDS’s campaign against unnecessary light pollution. “We believe in the right amount of light, when and where it’s needed,” he says, explaining that as light travels in straight lines, avoiding the kind of pollution which obscures the stars couldn’t be simpler.

“Often it’s a case of making sure lights have sensors, point downwards and are not brighter than they need to be,” he says. “If you do all this you may even be able to turn your back garden into a little dark sky space and see the starsfrom there.”