A Brief History of Cymbeline Observatory

Tuesday 21st February, 2017


Our speaker was Chris Longthorn who is an electrical engineer by trade but has had a passion for astronomy ever since he watched the Apollo Moon shots and landings when he was 11 years old. He is Secretary of the Coventry and Warwickshire Astronomical Society as well as being a member of Rugby and District Astronomical Society and the British Astronomical Association.

He began his talk, entitled "A Brief History of Cymbeline Observatory", by saying he built the observatory to replace one that was starting to fall apart. This old observatory resembled a wooden garden shed with a pitched roof. The roof was modified so that it could slide off on runners so that the telescope inside could get a clear view of the night sky. The shed had been up quite a few years and some of the wood was starting to rot and the shed was also home to some field mice. In fact, the roof was difficult to slide off as the mice had started using the runners as somewhere to store their nuts and seeds.

His new observatory was inspired by a dome on Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona that housed the WIYN telescope and the dome that housed the late Sir Patrick Moore's telescope. He began building it in late August 2001 and it was finally finished in early November the same year but it took another 2 months to make it weatherproof.

Apart from a concrete square in the centre where the telescope would sit, the octagonal building was made of wood. The fixed sides were just over 4 feet high and on top of the walls sat a matching octagonal roof that rotates on metal wheels. These wheels are similar to train wheels with a long flange on one side to keep them on a metal circular rail that is fixed to the observatory's walls. Mr Longthorn commented that he had to outsource the metal wheels and ring to a company near Rugby whereas he could call on his electrical expertise and woodworking "O" level for much of the other construction work.

To enter the observatory you need to duck down through the door on one of the lower walls that swings outwards just like the lower half of a traditional stable door. A pair of wooden shutters extended from one side of the upper walls up and over the slightly angled roof. These shutter moved sideways on filing cabinet runners to allow for a gap in the roof to view the night sky.

Mr Longthorn said that this version of the observatory lasted him many years but, sadly, the British weather and gravity took its toll. It gradually became less watertight and his attempt to fix the sagging shutters with sturdier material meant the walls sagged under the extra weight. However, in April 2009 he saw the solution to his problems in an advert in the British Astronomical Association's Journal. Someone was selling a fibreglass dome for £450 in the south of England but the buyer must collect it and transport it home.

He said that, actually, collecting and transporting the dome to his home was not the trickiest part of the job. He had to call on the help of friends to manhandle the new observatory dome over his garage roof into the garden. There was some minor modifications that needed doing and a new support ring needed fabricating but he said he was very pleased with the new fibreglass dome and it will last him for years to come.


This article was written for the club news column of the Stratford Herald. The actual lecture explained the subject at a deeper level.