Against a darkness so dense it seemed to have weight, shooting stars crossed the night sky of Sark. I counted four in 30 minutes. Only a distant cock’s crow, followed by bells tolling from an invisible church, broke the deep silence, reminding me of the coming dawn. I returned to bed with my head full of wonder.
The Channel Island of Sark is a British Crown dependency with around 600 inhabitants – but no cars or street lights. Lesser known than its neighbour of Guernsey, seven miles east, it measures only two square miles. Its claim to fame, though, came in 2011: the International Dark-Sky Association, which encourages global efforts to counteract light pollution, named Sark the world's first Dark Sky Island. While some places that receive Dark Sky status are barely inhabited and all but impossible to get to, Sark – located just 25 miles west of France’s Normandy coast – earned the award not only for its skies, but for its community’s efforts to preserve their darkness and share it with others.
And Sark now has another draw for hopeful star gazers: its own observatory, which opened in October 2015. But forget images of hi-tech, white-domed wonders gazing up from Hawaiian mountain-tops or Chilean deserts. In keeping with the island’s modest dimensions, Sark's observatory is a newly-built wooden shed in the corner of a farmer's field – its tiny size a perfect foil to the extravagance of the Sark night sky.
Now, the smell of fresh timber hit me as Annie Dachinger, chair of the Sark Astronomy Society, unlocked the observatory. In just two strides, we were before the Society's pride-and-joy telescope, set on a plinth in a cosy space big enough for maybe half a dozen folk to take turns peering heavenward through a simple, sliding roof.
In true small community fashion, money to buy the second-hand telescope – a Meade LX-200 10-inch reflector now nicknamed “Endeavour” – was raised by donations from islanders plus old-fashioned fund-raising from yard sales. The whole operation exemplifies low-tech charm at its best.
“I was always interested as a child in the stars and science fiction, and it's never left me. And seeing the stars here is absolutely inspirational,” Dachinger told me. “But it was put to us after our Dark Sky assessment that we really needed to form an astronomy society to develop Sark's potential.” Started by some 50 enthusiastic amateur stargazers in early 2011, the aim of the society, called SastroS for short, is sharing the wonders of the island's night skies with each other – and with the growing number of star-gazing visitors.
I asked Dachinger what I should look out for when the sun set – the forecast that night was for clear skies. “You need a really dark sky to see Mars. It wouldn't be visible in a city, swamped by polluting light,” she replied. “We can also see Orion in its full magnificence, while the Milky Way is now west to east above the island. Betelgeuse and Rigel are brilliant – as are the Pleiades and Cassiopeia.”
As well as its magnificent night skies, Sark is distinctive in other ways, too, idiosyncratic enough even to have its own United Nations country code (680). The ban on street lights means that any night-time walks are generally led by torchlight, while the lack of cars means people get around by foot, bicycle or horse-drawn carriage. Tiny tractors haul visitors and goods up from the ferry quay.
Until the European Union forced pro-democracy changes in 2008, Sark also was also Europe's last feudal state. It was ruled by a single hereditary figure, the Seigneur, who oversaw a parliament made up solely from descendants of 40 families who settled Sark in 1565. Queen Elizabeth I offered the island to the settlers, who came from the Channel Island of Jersey, in return for them to kick out the pirates operating from Sark's rocky coves. Until recently, Sark's old laws demanded that many landowners keep a musket handy – just in case of any battles that needed fighting.
Leaving the observatory behind to walk along the island’s dirt lanes, I admired Sark's array of wonderful old buildings – from grand 16th-century manors to brightly-coloured cottages and shops with corrugated iron roofs jokingly known as “Sark thatch”. I paused to peer into the former home of English fantasy writer Mervyn Peake, who wrote sections of his 1950 epic novel trilogy Gormenghast here, as well as his 1953 novel Mr Pye.
And incidentally, Peake isn’t the only writer to have been taken with Sark. On 20 November 2015, shortly after my visit, the Irish singer-songwriter and musician Enya put a new album inspired by Sark.
I made a beeline too for the walled La Seigneurie Gardens, a glorious collision of orchards, mazes and formal plantings. It sits beside the grand Gothic manor that remains home to the Seigneur – who remains still a key figure, even without absolute power.
Later, I climbed aboard a horse-drawn carriage to head to La Coupee: another Sark natural wonder in the form of a narrow ridge that forms an umbilical cord between Sark ’s main island and its wilder offshoot Little Sark. Until handrails were built by German prisoners of war in 1945 following the island's liberation from Nazi rule, people crossed La Coupee on hands and knees, due to the risk of winds blowing them over the 500ft drop into the sea on the other side. From here, the view along the coast was almost as cosmic as the night sky.
On my final night, after a grand dinner at the historic Stocks Hotel, I experienced one of Sark's most characterful traditions. Veilles – an old French term for ‘vigils’ – have been held for centuries, bringing islanders together on cold nights to share the warmth of a fire while swapping stories and other entertainments. Cutting through pitch-black fields and woods by torchlight, I reached the old stone cider-making barn by the Visitor Centre, where a dozen locals were laughing around a blazing wood burner – a relaxed mood aided by the mulled cider thrust into my hand as I arrived.
Appropriately, stars were the night's theme (the previous vigil had delved into autumn songs), and I sipped cider while listening to writings and reflections on all things celestial. There was the true story of a giant telescope built in 19th-century rural Ireland – “so there's hope for us”, one woman joked – plus evocative readings of works by writers as different as Byron, Alan Ahlberg and George Meredith, whose 1883 poem Lucifer In Starlight offers a wonderful image of the stars as “the brain of heaven”.
Suddenly I received a text from Dachinger: the clouds that had blanketed the sky for my first two nights had parted, and the stars had begun to put on their show. I rose and thanked my hosts before heading out into a magical darkness filled with light.
This story is a part of BBC Britain – a new series focused on exploring this extraordinary island, one story at a time. Readers outside of the UK can see every BBC Britain story by heading to the Britain homepage; you also can see our latest stories by following us on Facebook and Twitter.