Les Marsden has always been fascinated by the stars.
“It started when I was growing up in Rotherham, during the Second World War,” recalls the 76-year-old.
“There were no street lights and all my friends had to go in when it was dark, but I liked to hang around a bit - I was only four or five - and I’d lay in the field near my home in Hoober and look up at the stars.
“There was no way to know back then that it was the start of a lifelong fascination.”
Over 30 years later, still living in Hoober, Les became one of five founding members of the Mexborough and Swinton Astronomical Society - a society that is still going strong today and which Les is now the chairman of.
“It started in 1978, a handful of friends with a shared passion,” explains Les, who now lives in Swinton.
“We each had a small telescope and we built a little observatory out of wood - it cost just £30 to make - that we could move around from garden to garden, depending on whose house we were at.”
Today the society has 57 members and, in 1991, the group built its own observatory - The J.A Jones Observatory - in Hoober which houses two enormous telescopes. The group meets every week for lectures and talks by visiting speakers, as well as training sessions, and has an extensive library of reference material, astronomical literature and historical books. They also own a number of telescopes, including a solar scope that members can borrow, and a Skylark research rocket.
“The society is a charity, committed to encouraging an interest in astronomy among the general public,” says committee member Phil Muffett, who joined the society as an 18-year-old in 1982.
“Its stated aim is ‘the advancement of education for the public benefit in astronomy and its associated sciences.’ The public are welcome at our observatory, as well as our weekly meetings, and we hold regular presentations and planeterium shows, as well as open days at locations like Boston Castle, in Rotherham, where people can come and learn about what we do and take a look through the lens for themselves.
“We have a number of families in the society - our youngest member is five and our eldest 90 - and we’re always amazed by the number of families that turn out to our open days. I think everybody is a little fascinated by what’s out there so it’s a great family activity. Last year alone we welcomed 1.036 members of the public to the observatory.
“Smart phones and camera technology being what it is now, the images we’re able to get these days are what the big observatories were taking ten years ago, it’s quite incredible.”
And the society is always looking to welcome new members.
Phil, aged 52, of Mexborough, adds: “People tend to come once and get hooked, it has that effect on you.
“There’s so much to see in the sky at this time of year. Mars looks great right now, really nice and bright, and there’s Uranus and Neptune, and the moon of course, plus lots of constellations and stars and – last month – the incredible Perseid meteor shower.”
Phil remembers when he himself was bitten by the bug: “My grandad has always talked to me about the stars, showing me the pole star and ursa major and minor when I was tiny. My parents bought me a little handheld telescope and it was the day I first found Jupiter, when I was 12, that I knew I needed to see more. I couldn’t get enough.”
Les agrees: “I’ve been looking at the stars for 70 years and I’m still in awe of what I see.”
The group meets every Thursday at 7.30pm at Swinton WMC. Visit Mexborough & Swinton Astronomical Society for details.