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Newsletter, July 2008 (Issue 172)

Orwell Park Observatory


On 28th February the large group of members met in the car park and awaited the full complement so that Pete Richards could lead us to the top of the tower, just perceptible in the gloom. In the chill of the car park we waited with squash players as they moved into the gym which was being vacated by the boys after their evening sporting activities. The sky looked cloudy and there was a little disappointment at the prospects for a good viewing. However, our guide was hopeful. Pete led us round the back of the gym and up the numerous steps- a lighthouse-like trail up the tower through the boys' boot-room and past the haunting sounds of a boarding house preparing for showers and lights out.

We were grateful for the Society's offer to show us their telescope and to the Orwell Park School. The school is an educational trust which now owns both the mansion and observatory, and licenses use of the observatory to the Society. We were informed that Orwell Park Observatory dates from the Victorian era. The wealthy Victorian luminary, Colonel George Tomline, purchased the Orwell Park Estate in 1848, and retained ownership until his death in 1889. Tomline entrusted design of the observatory to Wilfrid Airy, civil engineer.

Within the tower, provision was made for private stairs to all levels, Turkish bath chambers, a Belvedere below the equatorial room (dome) for viewing the surrounding countryside and sometime around the mid 1880's, Tomline had a water powered lift installed to all levels of the observatory tower - sadly this was no longer in use.

The Belvedere was our first stop. It was chilly up there but it contained informative displays of society matters and a cosy cubbyhole for the committee. The most impressive part of this space was the three meter high windows overlooking the west and north. The balconies at this level were surrounded by some huge but exquisite stone buttresses, which added to the magnificence of the level. On one of the balconies the Society had placed a small telescope for us to view Saturn. After a briefing there we moved onwards and upwards.

Revealed to us as we reached the top of the stairs was the equatorial room with the dome which housed the telescope itself. The dome and shutter, we were informed, are constructed from wrought iron frames covered in deal; they are copper clad on the exterior, which explained their wonderful green patina. The dome was lined with polished mahogany planking, the appearance was of the interior of a very smart, expensive boat. Our guide suggested that a boat-builder had played a major part in its construction. We were able to see the dome rotating on wheel sets inset within the circular wall of the equatorial room. All of this was mounted in a tower seventy-two feet high to give a clear horizon over surrounding roofs. This was a spectacular sight - especially when the shutter was opened and we could see the night sky. Unfortunately we could also feel the draught!

The mount, an enormous grey metal arm and clamp held the telescope and we were told weighed approximately tons. It is thought to have been cast by Ransomes of Ipswich at their Orwell works. The 26cm refractor (now known as the Tomline Refractor) and 7.5cm transit telescope in were installed 1873. The telescope was supplied by Troughton & Sims of London, the object glass having been obtained from a prestigious firm in Munich.

It was not long before we were able to familiarise ourselves with the Tomline Refractor which was also aligned on Saturn. Despite the distinct chill everyone was able to enjoy the sighting of Saturn through two telescopes and hear a great deal about the history of the observatory and the society.

We must thank Caroline Markham for establishing the link between our societies and arranging the visit. To the Orwell Astronomical Society Ipswich (OASI) we extend our thanks and hope for a repeat visit in the future.

Tony Marsden

    Front cover of issue 172 Cover, issue 172

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