It has been an extraordinary journey from bricklayer to the man whose vision has made the North East an internationally recognised centre for astronomy.
Gary Fildes caught the astronomy bug age only nine, playing with his older brother’s telescope in the back garden of their home in Grindon, Sunderland, on Christmas Day 1974. This lifelong passion became the driving force behind the eventual creation of the world-renowned Kielder Observatory.
Now Gary, the observatory's director, has been rewarded for his outstanding contribution to making astronomy and space science accessible to a wider audience, with an Honorary Fellowship of the University of Sunderland yesterday (Thursday, July 13) awarded in a ceremony at the city's football stadium.
He said: “It’s an honour to be recognised by my hometown university, and to be in the Stadium of Light makes the occasion even more special for me. I’m not religious, but this is my church where I come to worship every other Saturday!
“The most important part of today for me was seeing all those graduates and their happy faces beaming from the stands. They’ve worked so hard to get here and now they’re off into the world to do their own thing.
“I think it’s important to understand that the world can be what you want it to be and it starts with change in yourself. That’s why I dedicated my life to science, it revolutionised the way I thought, and I would advise any graduate to keep your chin up and always just do your best in life.”
After his early encounters with stargazing, Gary went on to bring up his own family and turned to a more practical career, bricklaying, but he never lost his passion for the stars, and in 2002 joined the SAS – the Sunderland Astronomy Society. Armed with enthusiasm and practical skills, and their motto Who Stares Win, they built a small observatory in the Washington Wetlands Centre.
Almost immediately, spurred on by the enthusiasm of Kielder Forest Park authorities, Gary began fundraising for a new observatory. His dream was realised in 2008 and now Kielder Observatory welcomes 20,000 visitors a year, making it one of Northumberland’s top tourist attractions.
* The University of Sunderland’s graduation ceremonies are estimated to bring £1million to the region annually and are attended by more than 11,000 students, family, friends and supporters.