Happy New Year to all our supporters, visitors and subscribers. If you are a newsletter subscriber you would know that we would usually be sending out our January newsletter during the first week of the month. However, we have put together a special edition rounding up all our 2016 stories and we are sending it to our whole contact list. You can read Andrew’s astronomy journey story for 2016 here where he shares his achievements, learnings and insights from a year of Astrofarm astronomy.
Firstly we would like to thank everyone one of you for your support, interest and kindness. This time last year when we started the newsletter we had 24 subscribers and just a year later we have well over 300 signed up to follow our monthly comings and goings. Although we held our official opening in October 2015, we didn’t really open properly for business until January 2016. A year on and we are able to look back at a complete year in business and review the highs and lows, the challenges and successes and our plans for 2017.
Outreach at Rochechouart with the Limoges Astronomy Club
Our online presence
We have received emails, messages and posts from so many of you saying how much you like what we are doing. We have almost 1000 twitter followers (@astrofarmfrance) just on the Astrofarm site and Andrew (@AstrofarmAndrew) has nearly 2000 on his astronomy dedicated twitter. We have just over 700 ‘likes’ on the Astrofarm Facebook and Andrew has 1,600 followers from all over the world. We enjoy lots of interactions and positive feedback and thank you all for the time you take to like, share and comment on our social media postings. All our social media profiles are growing as we become more skilled in posting what you want to see and getting to grips with the best way to use the platforms.
Our website has undergone a serious makeover as we have developed new projects and opened more of the centre. This has been a steep learning curve for Sue as she gets her head around WordPress, SEO and web design. It has been hard work and very frustrating at times but feels good to be in control of the website and to be able to update and change as and when we want.
Visitor comings and goings
In addition to the residential guests, we have had 27 visitors to our evening activities and 44 course participants over the 7 courses we ran at the centre. We are delighted with these figures in our first year of opening especially as we have yet to formally advertise! In June we had all the family for 10 days which included 2 birthdays for grandchildren and huge amounts of cooking and washing up! Lovely time had by all. We closed the whole of Astrofarm whilst they were here – for 2 reasons. Firstly we desperately needed a holiday after 12 months hard slog and because we had the small children, usually forbidden on site! Little ones and late night astronomy don’t work well together and we usually enjoy a child-free centre.
We continued to expand our accommodation during 2016 with 4 more beds in the Dortoir and a double B&B room. First to be completed was the double room which had not been part of our original plan.We had not anticipated the demand from couples wanting a private space and so we donated our spare bedroom in our own living accommodation! Blocking up the internal access and creating a new one into the Hub gave a private room with en-suite shower and country views which has been occupied almost all the time since it was completed.
Next phase was the final 4 beds in the Dortoir creating a wonderful, spacious sleeping area with 2 en-suite shower rooms plus dry changing area.The feedback has been astounding from everyone who has seen and experienced it. The extra wide beds, solidly built structures and space have surprised many who had imagined a 1970’s youth hostel! Now we have a fully kitted out Dortoir with each bed having privacy curtains, double plug socket, shelving, hanging space, storage, reading lamp and a few nice extras – dressing gown, hot water bottle, water, slippers, ear plugs and toiletries.The final main structural work completed for Easter was the Hub – a kitchen, dining, living area for guests. With new patio doors, insulation, fitted kitchen, plastered and painted and new flooring, this space has been in continuous use and not just by the guests. We have used it often when we are quiet to do the ironing, watch a film or work with the music on. It is a great space with multiple uses. To complement the room we completed the outside patio and veranda in time for the hottest part of the year and guests thoroughly enjoyed the shade throughout the heat of the summer.
June found us signing the final papers for AstroGite – the house next door. Definitely not part of our original plan but too good an offer to turn down. The house gives us a two bedroom apartment with masses of storage space below. Desperately needed since we had converted all our barn areas at the main farm. The house was not anything like the amount of work that we had completed on our original project and we had our first guests in by the August bank holiday weekend – albeit by the skin of our teeth! The house has been very popular for both families booking the whole space and couples booking by the room. The finished rooms are so lovely that we are sorely tempted to up sticks and move in ourselves!
Our involvement in the Channel 4 series ‘A New Life in the Sun’ has to have been the most important happening for Astrofarm in 2016. Filmed through the summer and autumn of 2015, the series was aired in early spring. Running over 5 days for 5 weeks, the series followed the lives of Brits moving to France and Spain to set up a business. We were in the final week of the programme and our first part aired on Good Friday and then Monday of the Easter weekend.
We enjoyed the filming, our camera crew became great friends and we quickly forgot about being filmed and relaxed into just getting on with the work. We had such wonderful feedback from both the UK and France when the programme went out and so many good wishes for our success. We were really moved by the kindness and comments. We were so surprised that we became instantly recognisable around town and maybe a little startled to be stopped whilst shopping or out and about by people keen to meet us. We certainly hadn’t anticipated minor celebrity status and still unsure now how tongue in cheek the requests for selfies with us and even autographs were!
One of the unexpected consequences of the Channel 4 programme was discovering a local audience of Brits in France who were really keen to learn about the night sky. Having moved from towns and cities in the UK to the stunning skies in the rural South West of France, people were really excited by the night sky and desperate to understand what they were seeing.We were asked over and over for opportunities to come to Astrofarm to learn about the night sky but without the accommodation. We offered a trial ‘Beginner Astronomy’ course which sold out immediately and by the end of the year we had run 7 courses. We supplemented the beginner course with an astrophotography course and telescope workshop – all well received!
In addition, we had a number of open days and evenings throughout the summer which were well attended. As a result of the popularity of these events and pressure (:-)) from local people, we eventually gave in and agreed to opening Astrofarm to the public for evening guided stargazing. Limited to 10 people per night (including those in residence) we opened our gates on the 1st of December and enjoyed lots of people taking advantage of our fabulous winter skies, especially over the holiday period when they had family staying. We do enjoy sharing the enthusiasm and excitement of our guests and we get real pleasure from the visitors seeing wonderful sky objects for the first time!
Andrew has become an established figure in town with a wide range of folk. We have been approached by the Maire directly, the tourist board, the papers, the officer for arts and culture and found ourselves involved in many town activities. We are now part of a team of people working hard to promote activities and events in Confolens and helping to develop the website and publicise our wonderful hometown. This is an exciting new initiative and brings us together with a great range of people who are committed to improving the town for everyone.
Further afield Andrew has developed a partnership with a fishing centre, perfect for an extra activity for our guests and also for astrophotography on the water. He has also shared events with the Limoges Astronomy Club and was invited to do outreach with them in the summer. They were very pleased to have an English speaker. Many visits with our guests to Rochechouart Meteorite museum has resulted in a free pass for Andrew and a 20% discount for any of our guests! We have both signed up for a choir and an Irish group – more of that to follow in the spring but you should get a chance to see us perform later this year at one or two of the town events.
We have lots of exciting plans for the coming year here at Astrofarm.
Our first big change over the next few weeks is the rebranding of The Knowledge Observatory to everything Astrofarm. When we were in the UK our company was called The Knowledge Observatory and this is how we were known in the astro world. It was the name we intended to keep here in France but a jokey comment when we were designing the new website for France coined the name ‘Astrofarm’. This has stuck and largely due to the programme on Channel 4 it is what our new audience knows us as. We will be relaunching the website as astrofarmfrance.com and gradually changing all our email, social media accounts etc (not all that easy!) and so may hit a few snags along the way. Should you discover a non-working link please do let us know. The TKO website and emails will still link to our new domain and we hope that it will be much easier for people to find us on Google.
Big jobs this year is the building of observatory 2 – already here in flat pack, we have the foundations dug and filled with hardcore and next step is concreting. The observatory will have 3 piers in front and we will also create an additional viewing platform across the front of observatory 1.
Another development is the conversion of part of the sous-sol (ground floor of Astrogite) to make a visitors centre, classroom and library space so we can give the Hub back to our residential visitors! This will allow us to increase courses and activities for the public and to have a dedicated office. We are looking at delivering the content for the GCSE Astronomy programme with facilities for groups from the UK to come and complete their projects. We will expand our course programme and deliver a wider range of activities. With the business moved out to the visitor’s centre we can reclaim our sitting room, finish our bathroom and decorate our own house throughout!
We will also complete Astrocafe, the outdoor toilet, lighting and landscaping for the astronomy centre. If we have time we would also like to complete the boules court, wildflower meadow and seating.
North West Astro Fest 2017 is 6 months away and we are progressing with the programme as behind the scenes plans are continuing. The festival is the first weekend in July in Runcorn Cheshire and can be followed on the web, by newsletter, Facebook and Twitter for updates. We will also report updates in our monthly newsletter throughout the year.
We look forward to welcoming you to our little piece of astronomical paradise this year and hope to see you soon.
All the very best for 2017
Sue and Andrew Davies