Oct 15th | Outing to Orwell Park Observatory


Unfortunately for our group of intrepid members, the evening of 15th October was a rather damp and cloudy one. They were on a visit to the Observatory at Orwell Park School, and so were hoping for a clear dry night!

Nevertheless, the trip went ahead, and they bravely climbed the 100 steps to the top of the tower where the telescope is housed.

Obs_Twr_Jul_2010The Orwell Park estate on which the observatory stands has been the home of some influential and flamboyant characters from the 18th and 19th centuries. The first of these was Admiral Vernon, who built the original mansion in 1725.

The second was Colonel George Tomline. He was educated at Eton and had several scholarly friends; amongst them Gladstone, Disraeli and Peel. He bought the Orwell Park Estate in 1848, adding 20,000 acres of land to it, and rebuilt the mansion in Victorian red brick. He also built the Ipswich to Felixstowe railway, and began work on the site of the present Felixstowe Docks. He was a keen amateur astronomer and commissioned Wilfrid Airy, son of the then astronomer Royal, to design and build the Observatory. The ornate brick tower is topped by a copper dome lined on the inside with mahogany. The building was completed in 1874.

Tomline engaged the services of a full-time professional astronomer named Isaac Plummer in February 1874, and his observations and publication of results gained the observatory a worldwide reputation for astronomical study at that time.

The telescope has a 10 inch object glass made by Mertz of Germany, and sits on a 55 foot supporting pillar, 8 feet in diameter. It is thought that the local firm of Ransomes was employed in installing this equipment, a complex task of precision engineering. The original clockwork mechanism for turning the telescope still works, although today it is powered by electricity. When the tower was first built there was a four-stage water-powered lift for easy access, but this had to be dismantled in later years due to its deteriorated state.

Our gallant group of ladies, having made it up the 100 steps of the spiral staircase, listened to a very informative talk by Paul Wilding, the Visitors’ co-ordinator, and then took turns to look at the images that could be seen on what was a rather cloudy night. As the sky was not visible the telescope was turned on the surrounding area and it was possible to pick out the River Orwell, Pin Mill and the Butt & Oyster inn. Shame about the weather, but still a very interesting and informative evening.

The telescope is now used regularly by the pupils at Orwell Park School, and by the Ipswich Astronomical Society, who keep both it and the dome in good working order.

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