Last edited 29 Oct 2023

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Jodrell Bank

When Jodrell Bank became a world heritage site in 2019, it was a world’s first for an observatory dedicated to astronomy and astrophysics research.

Jodrell bank.jpg
The Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank (Photo: University of Manchester).



At the time of writing (March 2023), the Unesco World Heritage List includes 1,157 sites, 33 of which are in the UK. Globally, sites fall into two main categories: natural sites, which are ‘characterized by their natural beauty or outstanding biodiversity, ecosystem and geological values’ and cultural sites, which include historical towns, significant archaeological sites and works of monumental sculpture. Some sites combine these qualities and are known as mixed sites.

In the UK, the majority of world heritage sites are cultural. They include places such as the Tower of London, Durham Cathedral and Castle, and Edinburgh New Town. The UK has a rigorous process for sites that are put forward to Unesco for inclusion on the world heritage list. For Jodrell Bank Observatory, it took almost a decade of work.

Astronomy heritage

Across the world, there are many world heritage sites that have elements that relate to the heritage of astronomy. UK examples include Maritime Greenwich and Stonehenge. Further afield, sites such as ‘Memphis and its Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur’ in Egypt and Jantar Mantar in India include elements that express humanity’s exploration of the universe around us.

However, it was long recognised that the world heritage list had a gap when it came to the inclusion of astronomy sites. In order to address this, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS, specialist and scientific advisor to Unesco on all matters of heritage) commissioned two thematic studies on astronomy, in partnership with the International Astronomical Union (IAU, which brings together all the learned societies globally).

The two studies were both titled ‘Heritage Sites of Astronomy and Archaeoastronomy in the context of the World Heritage Convention’. The first study was published in June 2010 and the second in June 2012. Both thematic studies underpinned the work on the Jodrell Bank main nomination document and management plan, which were submitted to Unesco, along with the rest of the required documents in the nomination dossier, in 2018.

The story of Jodrell Bank

Jodrell Bank Observatory is a world heritage site, which means that elements of the place itself, its layout and its fabric, tell a story that, in the words of Unesco, is deemed to be of outstanding universal value. In practice, this means that the site stands for and expresses ideas, narrative and developments that are of value to all humanity.

The story of the observatory itself has modest beginnings. Bernard Lovell returned from the second world war to his job as a lecturer and researcher in the department of physics at the University of Manchester. His wartime work had included the development of radar, so instead of reverting to his original work on cloud chambers, he began to use radar techniques to try to detect cosmic rays.

Having acquired some army surplus radar equipment, of which there was a huge amount at the end of the war, he tried to set it up in the quad outside the physics department near the centre of Manchester. He soon discovered that sparks from the trams that passed on the main road outside were causing interference with his readings, so asked around the university to see if there was land further away from the city centre. The university registrar and Lovell’s head of department, Patrick Blackett, gave him permission to decamp to the university’s then botany testing grounds near the hamlet of Jodrell Bank for two weeks. He never left.

As the weeks stretched into months, Lovell’s research moved from cosmic rays to meteors and then out into the solar system and wider universe. Scientists joined him gradually, some of them with their own areas of investigation. The botany grounds no longer provided sufficient space, so the equipment spilled out into nearby fields (not always with permission of the landowner). By the late 1940s, the work at Jodrell Bank (which local villagers dubbed ‘The Fairground’ because of the random assembly of equipment that was springing up) began to yield ground-breaking results.

In 1951, Bernard Lovell was made the world’s first professor of radio astronomy, a sure sign that using radio waves to examine the universe around us was finally recognised as a bona fide area of science in its own right. Lovell and his team celebrated with a group photograph in front of a radio telescope they had made from poles attached to the mount of a wartime searchlight they had repurposed.

In 1952, tiring of the recycling approach to equipment that had driven the early research at Jodrell Bank, Bernard Lovell managed to persuade the government’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to fund the construction of a new radio telescope with a diameter of 250 feet (at the time) that could be steered to point at any position on the sky. Construction took longer than expected, and costs overran when new scientific discoveries meant that the telescope’s design had to be changed, even as the build proceeded.

Eventually money ran out and the workers downed tools when there were insufficient funds to pay them. Lovell was in trouble with the PAC. He was warned by colleagues that he might face jail, and that the university would not take responsibility for his actions. In 1957, he was recorded as saying: ‘We need a miracle to save us.’

In October that year, the miracle appeared with the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union (USSR). The satellite itself was of no concern. However, the rocket that carried it into space was an intercontinental ballistic missile. At the time of launch, Jodrell Bank was the only facility on earth able to track it. Lovell called the workers back on to site and they finished the work in record time. On 11 October, the new telescope tracked the carrier rocket as it sped high above the English Lake District, and the future of Jodrell Bank was secured by its success.

Today, Jodrell Bank Observatory is still part of the University of Manchester’s department of physics and astronomy. The research group attached to it numbers around 200 staff and post-graduate students, including engineers and support staff of all types, as well as the research scientists themselves. The Lovell Telescope is in operation both in its own right and as part of the ‘E-MERLIN’ array of telescopes, which together constitute the UK’s National Radio Astronomy Facility, hosted by Jodrell Bank.

Jodrell Bank is now also home to the headquarters of the Square Kilometre Array Observatory, a transnational collaboration spanning many countries, which aims to combine arrays of telescopes so vast that they operate as if they were a telescope the size of our planet.

Science in heritage and culture

Jodrell Bank now has its own Centre for Engagement, which not only welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors to the site, but also manages the elements relating to the Unesco World Heritage Site inscription. As well as its galleries and gardens, the centre runs a well-regarded schools programme. This hosts 200-300 school pupils per day during term time, and a host of public lectures and events such as stargazing nights. It explores the role of science in culture, and the ways in which people interact and engage with science.

In order to bring new audiences to engage with the narrative of the site, the team set up a series of music/culture/science events, including launching the award-winning bluedot festival in 2016. This brings together musicians, scientists and artists, with up to 25,000 people at a camping festival weekend each July.

In 2022, a new £21 million gallery, the First Light Pavilion, opened to the public, telling the story of Jodrell Bank and its place in humanity’s relationship with the sky. The architecture of the gallery itself aligns with the sky in ways that echo structures of the past. The sun creates a meridian line (and internal sundial) within the building during the day. At night the North Star sits directly above the centre of the gallery’s facade, indicating our own place in the universe.

This article originally appeared as ‘The view from Jodrell Bank’ in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 176, published in June 2023. It was written by Teresa Anderson , director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Engagement, University of Manchester.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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