We have driven past the observatory at Orwell Park School countless times and always glanced wistfully at the observatory wondering what it was like inside. Thanks to the Ipswich Society evening meeting on Thursday, 30 September, we now know. And we were certainly not disappointed!
The meeting was hosted by Peter and Nicky Richards and two other members of the Orwell Astronomical Society with 25 Ipswich Society members present. Peter first gave an account of Colonel Tomline (who owned the Orwell Park estate and built the observatory) in the Belvedere Room and showed some of the amateur telescopes, including one made by members of the Society. He then led us up to the main observatory floor to see the telescope itself, and gave us an account of its construction and operation. Built in 1875, it was at that time' state of the art', with Ransomes building the equatorial mount. Originally powered by clockwork, tracking is now done by electric motor - this and a camera mount are the only concessions to more modern times. Otherwise the telescope is still in its original state. Amazing fact: the light collected by the telescope makes objects appear c.2,000 times brighter than they do to the naked eye! The dome was no less impressive, with the interior lining of mahogany, possibly fitted out by a local ship builder. The dome is rotated manually and the viewing aperture opened by means of pulleys.
The highlight of the evening, despite earlier thin high cloud, was viewing Jupiter and its four moons, crystal clear and shining bright - the first time we had ever seen the moons. Jupiter was the closest to earth it has been since 1963, about 370 million miles away. Apparently, for demonstration purposes on cloudy nights, the telescope is focussed on to the Butt and Oyster pub at Pin Mill!
The Society must be congratulated on all the restoration work done since it started using the premises - a major contribution to historical astronomy. Unhappily, structural repairs to the building need to be undertaken, and we do hope the talks in partnership with the school are satisfactorily concluded.
Peter started astronomy at an early age, saving from his paper round to buy his first telescope, and has been active at Orwell Park for some 25 years. He was an eloquent, stimulating and most knowledgeable speaker and guide - and this was a fascinating meeting. He certainly deserved his round of applause at the end
Roger Dixon and Rosemary Gwyn-Thomas