There’s no way of getting away from it – Wycombe Astronomical Society had a very sticky start.
In 1981 Shaun Taylor placed an advertisement in the local newspaper calling for anyone with an interest in astronomy to meet up. Only one person responded! Undeterred, a second advertisement was posted and this time thirty people replied and from that second meeting, (actually held on the day of the Summer Solstice, 21st June 1981) Wycombe Astronomical Society formally came into existence.
Soon a permanent meeting place was found, easy for everyone to get to – this was the Friends Meeting House, a short walk from High Wycombe town centre. No early records exist about the activities of the Society at this time. However, it is known that in 1986 with Halley’s Comet appearing in the skies, the existing members decided to promote astronomy and the Society to the general public and held a display in one of the shops of the town which sold telescopes and binoculars. Combined with media and TV coverage of astronomy in general, and the comet in particular, membership of Wycombe Astronomical Society grew rapidly. In 1987, the Society became a Registered Educational Charity.
In 1988 it became clear that the current meeting room was no longer adequate, and a new meeting venue was sought with the possibility of building an observatory for the members. Shaun Taylor was then approached by Roy Hickman, the Warden of Woodrow High House near Amersham, who offered not just a meeting room to accommodate the membership, but also a plot of ground to erect an observatory. The Society accepted this offer and moved to Woodrow High House in the spring of that year. The new room offered for meetings was much more than expected. The prestigious room housed not just the Coat of Arms for the Goldsmiths of London, but two almost full-sized figure portraits of Sir Thomas Stanhope and a lady in a green dress – known as the “Green Lady”. (Thomas Stanhope led part of the Royalist army which was billeted at Woodrow High House during the English Civil War – he was hunted down and killed by Cromwell’s army in the caves near Wycombe. It is rumored he had a mistress who killed herself at this news, the Green Lady, and allegedly her ghost has appeared on more than one occasion over the years, though not to any member of the Society so far!)
The next task was to raise funds for the construction of an observatory. Over time the membership raised the necessary money and, after a little wrangle with Chiltern Council, the observatory at Woodrow High House was built and formally opened in May 1997 by Dr Heather Couper, the President of the Society at that time. The original telescope at the observatory was a Newtonian telescope but it was rather large and not everyone found it easy to use. As a result, the Society applied for a grant from the National Lottery to obtain a better instrument which all members could manage easily. The application was successful and a Meade 11-inch reflector telescope was installed along with a 10 foot dome. The telescope was permanently mounted on a concrete pier and equatorial Mega Wedge. The observatory had a computer, which was used to drive the telescope and the fully motorised dome. The facility was equipped with a large number of accessories to aid observers. In September 2010 the Meade telescope was upgraded to a Celestron CPC 11-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector.
With these prestigious facilities, once again the meeting room became inadequate for the burgeoning membership, and meetings were thereafter held in the Sports Hall at Woodrow High House or in the smaller Frankie Vaughan Studio. (Subsequent to this, the Society has moved its meeting place once again – we now meet at Coleshill Village Hall, about two miles from Woodrow).
The Society held predominantly two types of meeting. The first were monthly lectures delivered by established astronomers, and these continue to the present time. The lectures are usually of a high standard, often of academic standard, and the lecturers are of excellent calibre or reputation.
The other type of activity relates to practical astronomy by the members. In the 1990s only a few members had their own telescopes and, with a few notable exceptions, the level of technical competence amongst the Membership was relatively unsophisticated. Out of this, in 2003, Practical Sessions emerged to teach people about the practical aspects of astronomy, with the Society’s Observatory enjoying widespread use, becoming a focal point for regular star gazing gatherings. Observing projects were devised (measuring -Cephei’s brightness periodicity for example), and three self-teaching programs were developed: WAS-50 and the smaller WAS-20, both for telescope users, and WAS-25 for binocular observers and beginners.
Over the years, the Membership has increased and become more knowledgeable and sophisticated. Further, the technology has advanced making astronomical equipment and techniques more accessible, affordable and easy-to-use. Today many of the Membership have their own equipment and are adept at observing and astro-imaging – the level of knowledge and expertise within the Society is now formidable. The Society has been approached by other organisations asking for help in promoting astronomy to the public – most notable are our outreach events at Waddesdon Manor near Aylesbury where the Society provides a lecture to attending visitors and the opportunity afterwards to view the skies using members’ telescopes.
In 2021, our former Vice-President, Professor Bob Lambourne was appointed as President of the Society. During his 30 years at the Open University, he taught on a wide range of modules in physics, astronomy and applied mathematics, and brings this expertise each time he lectures to the Society. Also in 2021, Paul Hill was appointed Vice-President. A fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and co-presenter and writer of the popular Awesome Astronomy podcast, he has appeared on BBC News and Radio to discuss a range of astronomy and space issues. He is also a Space Ambassador for the European Space Education Resource Office (ESERO) working with the European Space Agency and UK Space Agency on space related education programs in schools.
2021 was a special year for Wycombe Astronomical Society. It was our 40th Anniversary! So it was fitting that we therefore yet again upgraded our telescope to an even more modern instrument that is easier to use by a wide variety of users, from experts to beginners. The Society has installed a Celestron 11" Edge HD telescope, an Aplanatic Schmidt telescope designed to produce aberration-free images across a wide visual and photographic field of view. It is mounted on a CGX-L heavy duty mount, Celestron’s latest addition to their fully computerized equatorial mount series.
Public interest in astronomy shows no sign of fading and (despite our sticky start!) we are now very well-established. Wycombe Astronomical Society is well placed to play an important role in fostering and developing local interest and expertise in this fascinating subject.