Meet some real-life heroes in my series of special interviews with people who represent the spirit and heart of the North East.
Catherine Johns is currently CEO of Kielder Observatory, a public outreach astronomical facility located in Kielder Forest, Northumberland, under some of the darkest skies in Europe.
It is in the largest Gold Tier International Dark Sky Park in Europe, as designated by the International Dark Skies Association. It is set in the largest man-made forest in Western Europe, and near Kielder Water, the largest man-made reservoir in Europe (where my novel, Dark Skies, is set). The primary function of the observatory is outreach via public events. It hosts upwards of 40 of these events every month. Since opening in 2008, they have played host to tens of thousands of people to observe and engage with the night sky via talks, activities and telescope observing sessions. A clear sky at Kielder is truly special: the air is crisp, the silence is bewitching, the stars are mesmerising. It is a reminder of how lucky we are to be alive on this tiny little planet near one of the billions of stars in one of the billions of galaxies that exist in the known universe. That’s the Kielder moment, and it can transform people’s lives.
Before joining Kielder Observatory, Catherine had a long career in innovation, being instrumental in turning the North East Technology Park from “two buildings in a field” to a £100M pioneering science park. Catherine was Vice-Chair of the United Kingdom Science Park Association, a Board Director of the International Association of Science Parks (IASP), and founded Women in IASP. As Director of the North East Centre of Excellence for Satellite Applications, she also built the fastest growing space cluster in the UK. She has been a trustee of Helix Arts, a Director of Generator North East, and volunteered with Southpaw Dance Company as a business development consultant.
In this interview, Catherine tells us about her connection to the North East, “Kielder moments”, and more…
Catherine, please tell us a bit about you and your connection with the North East.Like many, I’m an adopted North Easterner. I studied at Newcastle University and, as soon as I got off the train at Central Station, I loved the place. It’s home – I lived in Newcastle for many years, and moved to County Durham a few years ago. I love the spirit of the place – we do not suffer fools yet are incredibly welcoming. And the history is something else – fought over for centuries, never really conquered, always a little apart from both England and Scotland.
Tell us about your role as CEO of Kielder Observatory! What do you love most about the work you do?Put simply, it’s a privilege to lead such a talented, creative and inspirational team. We all work hard to provide that very special “Kielder moment” to our visitors, that moment when they feel the universe open up in front of them and are simultaneously awestruck, humbled and yet connected. Our mission is to get that moment to as many people as possible, even if they can’t get to the Observatory itself.
I completely agree, I love visiting the observatory and often recommend it to others. It is a truly magical place.
Which three words best describe the North East to you?
In his book, The Northumbrians, Dan Jackson describes it as ‘a land of blood and iron’. I think that’s a fair summary of its history, its spirit and its industry.
Great summary! Is there one place you always like to visit in the region, that you would recommend to others?Kielder. It’s such a special place. Other than that, I love Walltown park, and also the beach at Seaton Carew – extraordinary natural beauty and wildlife reserves sitting comfortably alongside one of the largest industrial complexes in the UK.
Do you have one favourite shop or business you think everyone should know about?Lots! I love the Lit and Phil and Dance City. Newcastle Cathedral has a hidden gem of a café which is an oasis in a busy city. The café at the Staiths in Dunstan. Browsing in Fenwick. The Side Gallery. But if I had to choose one, it would be The Barre Workout in the Ouseburn – literally life-changing.
What is your favourite North-Eastern slang? What does it mean?Hinny – an affectionate term for a girl.
The North East is packed with history, myths and legends, songs and folklore. Do you have a favourite story or song that you associate with the area?Lots of stories but the Geordie Haka makes me laugh. Every time.
Who is your North East hero?Historically, Thomas Wright, astronomer born in Byers Green in 1711. He was the first to describe the shape of the Milky Way. Present day – Prof John Anstee, former Subwarden of Durham University who has quietly had enormous influence on the innovation infrastructure in the NE, Roy Sandbach for his tireless promotion of innovation as a way to directly improve lives, and Nickie Gott, who has faced the worst and best of life with endless positivity and seeks to make everyone feel better.
Fantastic heroes! Finally, what makes you smile?Mock the Week, the dogs joyfully running around the beach, setting the world to rights over cocktails with friends, Sunday afternoon movies with family, and seeing the look of astonishment and awe on people’s faces as the Kielder team work their magic.
A wonderful way to end our interview! Thank you so much for joining me, Catherine, it’s been fascinating hearing from you.
Special thanks to Kate Baguley, who helped co-ordinate this interview.