Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich)

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A Visit To Patrick Moore, Father of Modern British Amateur Astronomy, 14 June 1978


There is much talk in late 1997 about the Grand Tour of the great man of British astronomy, Patrick Moore OBE, DSc, FRAS[1]. Many members of OASI attended his most interesting lecture in Ipswich on 28 October of the year. But, what many perhaps did not realise, is that this was not his first visit to the region in connection with his favourite subject - space. His first visit was on 19 December 1973, when he attended Felixstowe Pier Pavilion with the BBC as part of the live coverage of the Apollo 17 splashdown[2]. Two years later, on 07 December 1974, he lectured ebulliently and enthusiastically on Space to a large, paying audience in the hall at Copleston School, Ipswich. Afterwards, he answered questions and signed autographs for interested members of OASI and the general public[3]. On leaving Copleston, members of OASI and Patrick retired to a local restaurant where a good repast was enjoyed by all. During the meal, Patrick mentioned that many amateur astronomers had made the "pilgrimage" to his home in Selsey, near Chichester, and that he greets each and every one of his visiting "fans" with a great deal of pleasure and would warmly welcome any members of OASI should they care to visit.

Some years later I found myself in Selsey (it was during a family holiday with my young child, wife and her parents at a Pontin's Holiday Camp). Remembering Patrick's invitation to visit, I proceeded to contact his home by phone. It turned out to be much easier than I anticipated, as his number was listed in the local telephone directory. After several telephone calls to his ansaphone, I finally took the plunge and knocked on his door. Patrick's housekeeper, "Woody", answered the door and explained that he had gone out briefly, and suggested that I return later that evening when she was sure that he would welcome me.

Upon my return later in the evening, Patrick himself met me at the door and after brief introductions ushered me into his study, which I instantly recognised from the BBC Sky at Night programmes. This was the room in which a few short months previously he had hosted a program alongside Michael Bentine, who just happens to be another of my all time heroes, so as you can imagine, dear reader, at this time I was in seventh heaven! During a brief conversation we discussed the merits of refracting telescopes and reflecting telescopes; this was rather one-sided due to my limited knowledge at the time of the latter, but I put forward a good argument in favour of our own 26 cm refracting telescope at Orwell Park.

We then ventured outside to inspect Patrick's magnificent telescopes and observing sites dotted around his garden. The first was a 38 cm reflector which was housed inside an observatory which had been constructed by a local blacksmith. The dome of the observatory was operated by hand, and this was simplicity itself compared to the method of opening and closing the dome at Orwell Park! Patrick used the instrument mainly for lunar work, and had used it create many of the maps of the Moon that he produced. Space planners in the USSR had requested Patrick provide sketches of craters and maria on the lunar limb; he, of course, obliged, and they made use of his work when planning landing sites on the far side of the Moon.

Next we moved on to the 25 cm reflector which was housed in an observatory built mainly from corrugated perspex. This observatory benefited from a rather ingenious system of moving the roof on and off using bicycle chains connected to a bicycle sprocket. I questioned Patrick about this and he replied that it provided an ideal method of moving the roof on this type of observatory and was cheap and easy to construct with the minimum of time and effort.

Next we visited Patrick's 30 cm reflector, housed in a rather ordinary-looking garden shed and, last but not least, finally we examined his 32 cm reflector mounted in a run-off shed. The latter instrument in fact was the first telescope of his collection.

Alongside all the telescopes there were other instruments dotted around the garden. These included a very interesting, unusual and indefinable Sun clock: I could not begin to provide a description that would do it justice, so will say no more about it! Other objects included a rain level indicator and his "Trade Union Sun clock", so called because it was situated in an area of the garden where it was only in sunshine for six months of the year, being effectively on strike for the remainder. Patrick said that he was Selsey's unofficial weather bureau!

After the tour of Patrick's garden we returned to his house and in particular to his lounge, which was a large room surrounded by oak panelling making it rather dark and foreboding, at least this is how it first appeared to me. Later I became aware of the sheer amount of furniture and other items contained within the room. This included a large concert-style xylophone, upon which Patrick demonstrated his prowess as he began to play some of his many compositions, including The Penguin, a military march composed for a British Regiment and a wedding march for one of his friends' children. In spite of Patrick's size, he moved about the instrument with a great deal of grace. I was able to recognise some of the tunes that he played but others I could not identify. A well-known record label had approached Patrick in all seriousness to release one of his compositions as a single, but he told me "I had laughed this off as I had no desire to appear on Top of the Pops". It was then my turn to be royally treated to tea and scones by Woody and I managed nearly to hold my own in conversation with Patrick and one of his house guests, a former British table tennis champion.

We later adjourned to Patrick's study for further conversation on all manner of astronomical subjects. The study was surrounded on three sides by large floor-to-ceiling bookshelves which contained all of his astronomical papers and a large number of novels. My first surprise of the evening was when Patrick said that he wished to be remembered as an author of science fiction novels who became an amateur astronomer. It was extremely humbling to be seated in a chair which had in the past been occupied by many distinguished members of the scientific community and other well known luminaries, not forgetting the many appearances that it had made on TV, for many of the Sky at Night programs had been filmed from his study. So there I sat, surrounded by his many souvenirs of the USSR and USA space programs, including those presented to him by NASA and their USSR counterparts for his unstinting cooperation in their past endeavours.

Alas, how quickly my visit passed as I luxuriated in the company of a man possessed of such wealth of astronomical experience, and all too soon it was time to leave. Sadly, I bade my farewells and made ready to return to my own world. It was then that I received the second surprise of the evening, as Patrick presented me with a signed copy of The Guide to Mars (US edition) which together with my previous copy of The Guide to Mars, already signed by him, are my treasured possessions to this very day.

Prior to my departure, Patrick told that if any other member of OASI happened to be in the Selsey area they were always welcome to visit him. It was an endearing sign of Patrick's generosity. Thus ended my visit with the great man.



Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore CBE, FRS, FRAS (04 March 1923 - 09 December 2012) did more than any other individual to advance amateur astronomy in the UK. He is fondly remembered by many.


The OASI Newsletter for January 1973 carried the following report of the event.

Patrick Moore At Felixstowe

On the evening of Tuesday, 19 December 1973, Patrick Moore OBE, FRAS, came to Felixstowe Pier Pavilion with a unit from the BBC for live coverage of the Apollo 17 Splashdown. (Unfortunately news of the event reached my ears too late to include in the December OASI Newsletter.) When Patrick had finished the coverage and recorded a radio programme, he, Royston Cheeseman, David Bearcroft, Phil Lucas and I engaged in a very interesting half-hour conversation, which Phil tape-recorded. Patrick expressed interest in our observatory but, unfortunately, although he wanted to visit it, was many miles from home and did not have time.

The recording of the conversation will be played at the AGM.


The OASI Newsletter for January 1975 carried a report of the meeting.

Nigel Gage