Why things are looking up for fans of stargazing
THE last light has been switched off inside. There's the sound of silence. But no slumber for me, though.
It's 10pm and I'm sitting on a deckchair on a patio laid for sunbathing, staring at the sky.
The lure of constellation-spotting is pulling in more people than ever keen to seek out that scattering of glinting nocturnal diamonds.
Brian Stokes can well remember when his fascination with all things skywards began.
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"How did I get interested in astronomy? The wow factor I had at 15 when I discovered it," he says.
That has not dimmed over the decades and now his enthusiasm is likely to be shared by a whole new audience as the subject opens up in South West Wales like never before.
The Brecon Beacons National Park has just become Wales's first and only the fifth destination in the world to be granted the status of an international dark sky reserve.
Last October, Glyncorrwg Ponds in the Afan Valley was one of 18 new sites added to the Dark Sky Discovery list of ideal stargazing locations.
And Brian, who chairs Swansea Astronomical Society — the oldest in Wales — could not be happier.
He thinks it will further boost interest in the hobby he holds close to his heart.
His predecessor Brian Spinks agrees and hopes the society will run some of its popular Star Parties in these new areas of excellence.
"It is excellent news," he says. "It shows that people are taking notice of dark skies. I live in Sketty and I could look at the sky and may see 30 stars.
"I could go somewhere quieter and see 300 stars and I could go to the end of Gower and see 3,000 stars."
The society was formed in 1948, so it has a bit of backbone and certainly enough to get over a potential threat to its existence which came to a head on October 30, 2009. That's when its base, the Marina Towers Observatory, closed.
Well-wishers came out in force to bid farewell to the seafront venue at a star party and an online campaign to save it showed the strength of feeling.
Visitors on the night included the grandson of one of the society's own stars, the late Fred Jenkins, who built the observatory' ssolar telescope in his garage.
During its 17-year run from opening in 1992 more than 15,000 schoolchildren visited the feature.
Increased costs, including council rent, signalled the society's departure. But while an application to turn it into a cafe/bar and holiday let apartment goes before councillors next month, the society has continued to go about its stargazing business.
With aims "to further the knowledge of and to simulate public interest in the science of astronomy, also to promote and conduct research into problems related thereto", the society has moved on.
Its 90-odd members meet twice a month at Swansea University from October through to May.
Out in the field, the action switches on suitable Friday nights to the university playing fields at Fairwood, where an observatory, complete with a 12in Meade Schmidt Cassegrain catadioptric telescope, makes its contribution to the society's quest for knowledge.
"We are very busy in all aspects of astronomy," says Mr Stokes. "The society purchased an observatory with telescope in 1949. Its location became eventually light polluted and was subsequently repositioned with the agreement of Swansea University to the playing fields in 1978.
"We also issue a free invitation to the public to join us at our star parties.
"This season we have been exceptionally busy, with six held to date, the last at Oystermouth Castle on February 8.
"We have plans for another two, one at the Botanic Garden in Llanarthne on Friday, then the final one at Swansea Airport on March 22.
"I have only one regret at our loss of the Marina Tower Observatory. It's for children, who will never have the opportunity to visit and be entranced by the journeys they undertook with us through the solar system.
"In part to replace this loss, I visit primary schools in the Swansea and Neath at no charge and I do live broadcasts on Radio Mumbles on the first Monday night in the month."
So there is more going on on the ground in relation to what is above it.
Mr Spinks agrees: "There is a revival of interest and maybe children who are not aware of the stars may soon be.
"Since the observatory closed we are more active then ever. We had a committee of 10 and six of us were involved in running Marina Towers and three or four others the rest of the activities.
"Now there are far more parties and public events, and members have increased."
Chairman of the Brecon Beacons Park Society Jim Wilson says the new status award from the International Dark-Sky Association is a major boost.
"It recognises the park as one of the best places in Europe to see truly dark skies ,'' he adds. "It is a tribute to the work that has been done by the park society and National Park Authority partnership to protect this wonderful sight for future generations.''
Me? I'm still staring up at the sky over Swansea.
And yes, on a cold and by now very dark night, it really is something else.