Exploring the Universe at Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre

Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, Image: Sophie Brown
Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, Image: Sophie Brown

This summer, the Jodrell Bank Observatory was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in recognition of “its internationally significant heritage, science, and cultural impact.” Constructed in 1957, the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank outside Manchester, UK, has played a large role in space exploration for over 60 years and, today, the site is home to the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, a family-friendly science center aimed at teaching kids (and adults) about our universe and the location’s history. My family was invited along for the day to see what Jodrell Bank has to offer.

Jodrell Bank Ticket Costs and Parking

Admission costs to the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre are very reasonable. Standard day tickets (with Gift Aid) cost £8.50 for adults, £6.50 for children, and £7.50 for concessions. Children aged under four visit for free. Family passes are available as well and offer further discounts.

If you feel that you will visit the center often, annual passes are available and also include free parking. The parking charge is £4 per vehicle.

The Planet Pavilion, Image: Sophie Brown

Planet Pavilion

On arrival at the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, you’ll first need to switch off your phones and any electronic devices that emit a signal because these will interfere with the telescope. Phones can be set to airplane mode if you want to use it for photos but the entire site is wi-fi and mobile data-free, so you’ll need to hang on and post your selfies once you leave.

You’ll arrive first at the Planet Pavilion, which is home to Reception along with a cafe, gift shop, and the first interactive exhibition space. After receiving our wristbands, we headed to the first exhibition space, a small room showcasing “Our Place in the Universe.” The highlight of this room was a mechanical model of the solar system on the ceiling which was operated by a crank. Turning this crank made the model spin around at to-scale speeds which really helped impress upon us how slowly the outer planets orbit compared to the inner ones.

Cranking the Solar System Model, Image: Sophie Brown
Cranking the Solar System Model, Image: Sophie Brown

Also in this room were various touch screens where we could learn more about things like Kepler’s Laws and samples of meteorites, and the walls were covered in images of objects including the Carina Nebula and a spiral galaxy.

We returned to the Planet Pavilion later in our day for lunch at the cafe. While not especially cheap, I was very impressed by the food here which included hot meals, jacket potatoes, and sandwiches, while the kid’s menu featured basic options including sausages, chips, and baked beans. There was also a wide selection of delicious looking cakes and pastries, and a good variety of hot and cold drinks.

Desserts at the Planet Pavilion Cafe, Image: Sophie Brown
Desserts at the Planet Pavilion Cafe, Image: Sophie Brown

Because it was a wet day, the outside seating area was damp which kept all but the bravest diners inside. This made the cafe very cramped and we felt lucky to find a table. The queue was also awkward because the lack of space meant it extended out along the narrow corridor leading to the cafe where the bathrooms are located. This made it very difficult for wheelchair users and those with prams to get in and out of the room. I’d love to see the cafe area expanded, something which should be happening as part of the First Light Project which I’ll discuss more later on.

The final area of the Planet Pavilion is the gift shop. This is quite a small area (so again, access is limited) but is well stocked with space-themed toys and homewares including several items unique to Jodrell Bank. I have been looking for a new mousemat for my office and was delighted to pick up a Jodrell Bank design featuring an illustration by local artist Stephen Millership.

Inside the Space Pavilion, Image: Sophie Brown
Inside the Space Pavilion, Image: Sophie Brown

Space Pavilion

The second main building at Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre is the Space Pavilion. This is split into two rooms with a second permanent exhibition space to the left and an event space to the right, separated by bathrooms.

We headed first into the event space which was taken up by the Rocket Lab on the day of our visit as part of the center’s Apollo 11 50th anniversary summer program. In this room, tables were set up with supplies to allow kids (and adults) to build and decorate paper rockets. Once you had completed your rocket, you could take it over to a row of stomp launchers and attempt to hit an image of the moon being projected onto the far wall. My nine-year-old son loved this room; in fact, I’d say it was his favorite part of the whole day. He and his dad built several rockets while my mother and I attended a talk about the history of the site. Finally, there was a lunar landscape backdrop where you could have your photo taken with a full-size cardboard cut out of Buzz Aldrin.

Launching a Paper Rocket, Image: Sophie Brown
Launching a Paper Rocket, Image: Sophie Brown

Across the hall in the permanent exhibition space were the majority of the center’s interactive activities. Here you could send planets spinning around a black hole by rolling balls across a dish, listen to the sound of the Big Bang, get hands-on with a plasma ball, and learn about the jobs people do at the center on touch screens—I was especially amused by the gentleman whose job it is to clear the Lovell Telescope of snow by tipping it over and causing a small avalanche! This was the room where we spent the most time and was also the busiest area of the center other than the cafe, although I’d be interested to know if it is less crowded on a dry day. There is a lot to do here and kids will enjoy running from one exhibit to the next while parents can read some of the more in-depth explanations behind the science if they wish.

As I’m sure you can imagine, this building gets very noisy, which is why I was delighted to spot Tranquility Base, a quiet room intended for “tiny astronauts” where they can relax and read some space-themed books. Filled with chairs, this peaceful area is ideal for breastfeeding mothers and would also be great for those with sensory issues who need a quiet area to wind down for a time before entering back into the fray.

Exploring a Plasma Ball at Jodrell Bank, Image: Sophie Brown
Exploring a Plasma Ball at Jodrell Bank, Image: Sophie Brown

Star Pavilion

The third public building at the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre is the Star Pavilion. This building contains the Wolfson Auditorium and is generally only used for schools and special events; however, my mother and I ended up visiting it when the telescope walking tour we wanted to take was called off due to heavy rain. Instead, the tour took place inside the mercifully dry auditorium in the form of a projected presentation.

Waiting for a Talk in the Star Pavilion, Image: Sophie Brown
Waiting for a Talk in the Star Pavilion, Image: Sophie Brown

The presentation lasted around 45 minutes and covered the history of the site, how the Lovell Telescope came to be built, the important work and discoveries it has contributed to over the years, and what the future holds. While kids will probably find it rather dull (the standard outdoor walking tour would probably be more suitable), I highly recommend taking time out of your day to attend one of these presentations if you have an interest in the history of space exploration and research.

The Star Pavilion was also hosting a science show titled “Mission to the Moon!” several times daily. This show is aimed at kids aged 7+ and is included with the cost of admission, however, you will need to pick up a colored token from Reception in order to attend as there is limited space in the auditorium.

Outside by the Lovell Telescope During a Break in the Rain, Image: Sophie Brown
Outside by the Lovell Telescope During a Break in the Rain, Image: Sophie Brown

Outside and the Jodrell Bank Gardens

Due to its location in the countryside, a large amount of the things to do at Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre are outside which makes it fairly unique for a UK science center. Between the Planet and Space Pavilions (and close to the base of the Lovell Telescope) are telescope viewing points, more interactive experiments, the Lunar Sandpit, and the Whispering Dishes. The Whispering Dishes are two parabolic reflectors positioned at a distance opposite one another and by standing and whispering into one of them, you will be clearly heard over at the other dish (or along the path between them which really messes with your senses if walking around nearby!).

My Mother and Son Test the Whispering Dishes, Images: Sophie Brown
My Mother and Son Test the Whispering Dishes, Images: Sophie Brown

At the other end of the site are the Gardens. Here you will find a playground, covered picnic areas, and large amounts of wooded space laced with trails you can explore. Despite the wet weather and our highly impractical footwear (I would suggest wearing sturdy walking shoes to visit), my mother and I set off into the woods to see what we could find.

During our walk along clearly marked but often tricky to navigate paths (mostly due to the mud), we found Jodrell Bank’s bees at their apiary, a bird hide, many signposted collections of plant and tree species, and the Meteorite—a concrete sculpture hidden away deep in the woods. Although we enjoyed looking around the woods, the weather really put a dampener on the experience and we both agreed that we needed to come back on a dry day to explore further.

The Meteorite in Jodrell Bank Gardens, Image: Sophie Brown
The Meteorite in Jodrell Bank Gardens, Image: Sophie Brown

The First Light Project

The future is currently very bright for Jodrell Bank thanks to the First Light Project. This National Lottery-funded project will “conserve and restore the heritage of Jodrell Bank and create a spectacular new interpretation space in which visitors can engage with and learn about the site’s fantastic stories, amazing feats of post-war engineering, and the creation of the Grade-1 listed Lovell telescope.”

The core of the First Light Project is the First Light Pavilion which will contain a new exhibition space, 130 seat auditorium, immersive projection space, education hub, and a new cafe too. The building will be designed to blend into the environment, helping expand the site without compromising its green spaces too much.

Artists' Impression of the First Light Pavilion, Image: Jodrell Bank
Artists’ Impression of the First Light Pavilion, Image: Jodrell Bank

Construction is just beginning on First Light and the team hopes to see it completed over the next three years.

Our Opinions of Jodrell Bank

We all enjoyed our day at Jodrell Bank but found ourselves surprised at how small the site is. With only two permanent exhibition rooms indoors, we got through everything much quicker than expected and were heading home by around 3 pm having seen and done all we wanted to. While the two interactive exhibition spaces are filled with fun things to do, the fact remains that they simply aren’t very big and families expecting an experience on a par with the Science Museum in London or the National Space Centre in Leicester may be in for a letdown.

Hanging Out with Buzz on the Moon, Image: Sophie Brown
Hanging Out with Buzz on the Moon, Image: Sophie Brown

A big draw of Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre is the outdoor spaces, and these are great for kids to run around and explore, although there is a road running through the center of the site close to the Lovell Telescope so parents will need to exercise caution. Naturally, the wet weather kept us from spending too much time outdoors and, on a nice day, we could have spent much longer exploring the grounds, so I would advise checking the forecast and visiting on a dry day if at all possible in order to open up more possibilities. The site is a really unique setting and you often find yourself standing in woodland while looking at both a world-class telescope array and a herd of grazing cows—an experience you’d be hard pushed to find anywhere else!

Telescopes, Trees, and Cows at Jodrell Bank, Image: Sophie Brown
Telescopes, Trees, and Cows at Jodrell Bank, Image: Sophie Brown

I’m very excited by the potential of the First Light Project and definitely want to visit the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre again once it is open to see how much the site will be improved by the investment and expansion. For the time being, this is an interesting, if limited, day out that combines exploring the outdoors with exploring the universe, but I feel it is about to become so much more and I can’t wait to see the First Light Project inspire a whole new generation once it opens its doors.

GeekMom received a family pass to Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre for review purposes.

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