Hidden among the undergrowth, alongside the winding paths of Museum Gardens, a small, hexagonal, cone-roofed building stands. Most of the time, the building is closed, but every Saturday, (and every second Tuesday), between 11:30 and 14:30, the York Observatory is open to the public.
You can be forgiven for being entirely unaware of the observatory. It is subtly positioned and advertised. It was built in 1832, and remains the oldest working observatory of its kind in Yorkshire. Its construction was the result of a wager. Vice president of the Royal Astronomical Society, Dr. Pearson, promised (at the first annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science), that if the city built a suitable building in York, he would provide the telescope. He made good on his promise, among other instruments, and a rather special new clock.
The original intention for the construction of the observatory was for timekeeping, rather than astronomical, reasons. With railways and the birth of industrialism, the public required a less vague concept of time. The new clock Dr. Pearson provided told the time according to the keen observations of the position of certain stars in the sky, and is still working today (there was a time when it was the most accurate timepiece in the city, and in the mid-seventeenth century people were charged a sixpence to check their watches against it. To this day, it still runs four minutes and twenty seconds behind Greenwich Mean Time.)
Famous astronomers connected with the observatory include Edward Pigott and John Goodricke. The pair were based in York, and together laid the foundations for variable star astronomy. Goodricke now has a college at the University of York named for him, and Pigott was the first English man to discover a comet and have it named after him.
As with most of the buildings in York, the observatory fell into disrepair after WWII, and by the seventies it was fit for demolition. However, a £50,000 public campaign saved the building, and it was restored in 1981.
Today, the observatory hosts open days throughout the year, and entry is completely free.