And We’re Off!

First Steps to First Light…

After almost 11 years work, it has been emotional, this week, to see the construction team arriving here on site at Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, to begin work on our new First Light Pavilion.

Cabins for the construction workers are going up, and diggers are being unloaded – and there is a real air of excitement around the place (or is that just us….?).

In the new building, we will tell the story of the founding of Jodrell Bank Observatory, by Sir Bernard Lovell and many (many) others; the emergence of the new science of Radio Astronomy, and the creation of the iconic Lovell Telescope, the jewel in the crown of the Cheshire countryside.

The timing (deliberately, of course….) is perfect, as Jodrell Bank Observatory was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2019, in recognition of the importance of the heritage this site to future generations of people – and to date, we haven’t had a gallery in which people can find out about this and how it all happened.

Our new gallery will sit in the Jodrell Bank Gardens, just outside the boundary of the World Heritage Site itself, and will house a new permanent exhibition, a new immersive projection space, a temporary exhibition space and a new Café.

Designed to look like a ‘hill’, which has the same diameter as the dish of the Lovell Telescope itself (76metres), it will have a green roof and lots of environmentally sustainable features. It will be surrounded by trees and landscaping created by Sir Bernard (who was a keen ‘tree person’) in the 1970s and will really blend into the countryside around it.

One of the most exciting things about the building itself is located in the front façade of the building, which is a curved vertical wall, cut into the ‘hill’ shape.

In the centre of the wall, facing due south, is a narrow vertical window that runs the height of the structure, aligned (after many careful calculations by Tim…) so that the midday sun on midsummer’s day streams through the window (weather permitting) to fall precisely on a line set in the floor of the welcome foyer inside.

This idea (known as a ‘meridian line’) was common across Europe from medieval times, and examples of this can be found in places like the ‘noonline’ in the cloisters of Durham Cathedral, the Basilica of Saint Mary and the Angels in Rome and the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. The idea also echoes some earlier structures, such as the neolithic winter solstice alignments at Newgrange and Maeshowe.

We had wanted the building to include this idea and be ‘connected to the sky’ right from the start of the project. (Tim wrote a blog about the ideas for this here and it was a core part of the original funding bid for the project to the National Lottery Heritage Fund…), so are looking forward very much to seeing how it is going to work in practice.

In the meantime, there will be lots of digging, lots of mud, lots of construction work, and the building will slowly appear in the gardens. And our team here at the Discovery Centre will be working on the new exhibition, our new education programme, new volunteer activities and a whole new way of looking at the stories we tell of how the site came to be and how it contributed to world events and scientific revolutions. It’s an opportunity to think about the new stories we will all create together in the future – we hope you will join us on the journey!

Prof Teresa Anderson
Prof Tim O’Brien