From the BT Tower, key to worldwide broadcasting and communications, to Jodrell Bank, the world-renowned centre for astronomical research, and the Kielder Observatory, which communicates the science of astronomy, we connect New Astra with a galaxy far, far away
People love to keep connected, and that’s why Vauxhall has pulled out all the stops when it comes to technology in the all-new Astra. You can have a Wi-Fi hotspot to connect gadgets to the internet, touchscreen infotainment that effortlessly pairs with your smartphone and supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and Vauxhall OnStar that automatically calls the emergency services should you have an accident.
But don’t panic if you don’t know your iPhone from your elbow: the new Astra is as intuitive to drive as ever, and packed with innovative engineering, too. Over the next few days, we’ll be getting to know this seventh-generation Astra, travelling from London to the Scottish borders as we criss-cross congested cities, cruise motorways and tackle challenging B-roads. Along the way, we’ll be visiting British landmarks that connect us not only to each other through technology, but also to the wonders of the universe, too.
Our journey begins in bustling London traffic in our New Astra 1.4 Turbo SRi Nav. We’re on our way to see the BT Tower, the nerve centre of a vast communications and broadcasting network.
The hatchback’s light steering, excellent visibility and flexible performance make it a great city companion, and with 150PS and 51.4mpg on the combined cycle, the all-aluminium 1.4-litre engine delivers the best of both worlds: nippy when you squeeze the throttle, but easy on the pocket, too.
We see the BT Tower on the 3D sat-nav before it’s visible, a huge sceptre-like structure; it looks like a huge magnet that’s been sucking in space junk. While once its exterior was covered in satellite dishes, modern technology means that they have now been removed.
Our car is equipped with the optional Advanced Park Assist system, which automatically steers the Astra into parking spaces. Just press the button and sensors scan the roadside for Astra-sized spots; once it identifies a space, a message pings up in the instrument binnacle. Select reverse and you do the pedals, it does the steering. Job done!
At 189 metres to the tip of its aerial, the BT Tower is an imposing structure. Today, the BT Tower is key to worldwide broadcasting and communications, its reach extending across North and South America, Asia, Africa and Europe. If you’re watching TV in the UK, the tower probably helped beam those pictures to your living room: 95 per cent of all UK TV content relies on the BT Tower in some way.
We make our getaway from the centre of London before rush hour strikes, programming the sat-nav for our next destination: Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, the world-renowned centre for astronomical research that played a significant role at the dawn of the space age.
The New Astra might be a compact 4370mm long, but it’s on the M6, at a 70mph cruise, that its big-car manners come to the fore: the engine is a barely-audible whisper, road and wind noise is well contained, and the suspension smothers bumps. The 180 miles to Cheshire ease away, and the huge Lovell Telescope soon looms in the distance. The Lovell Telescope was completed in 1957, a huge 76-metre dish that rotates on circular railway tracks and can be seen from Snowdonia on a clear day, some 100 or so miles away. It remains one of the biggest and most powerful radio telescopes in the world, and is now a Grade 1-listed structure, so significant is its history. Soon after the Lovell Telescope was completed, it tracked Sputnik 1, earth’s first artificial satellite.
Today, Jodrell Bank continues to play an important part in our understanding of the universe: members of the Jodrell Bank astrophysics team are part of the Dark Energy Survey, which investigates the unexplained acceleration of the universe.
We overnight nearby, then head north the next day, traffic thinning after we skirt around Manchester, and the M6 cutting through the most gorgeous scenery as we enter Cumbria. We take the A7 near Carlisle then onto the deserted B-roads that’ll take us briefly into Scotland, before heading back down towards Kielder Forest. It’s here that the New Astra’s dynamics really shine. The road bucks and weaves, twists and turns, faster sections tucking up into knots and curls that provide the ultimate test for the Astra’s chassis and brakes.
The turbo engine ensures effortless flexibility and eager performance, the steering flicks rapidly from corner to corner, and the brakes quickly wipe off speed when the road unexpectedly tightens. The suspension really impresses, too. Specially tuned by Vauxhall engineers for challenging roads just like these, it combines supple comfort with excellent control.
To get the most from the SRi, it’s best to press the Sport button. The shift in character is instantly noticeable: the throttle responds much more keenly, and the steering becomes firmer. It gives the all-new Astra a feeling of extra energy, and you gain more confidence to lean on the front tyres as you carve through corners.
As the sun drops towards the horizon, so the road threads between the vast evergreens of Kielder Forest. With land leased from the Forestry Commission and £450,000 of funding, the Kielder Observatory was built in 2008, a Grand Designs-like structure that looks both strikingly modern and completely in keeping with its rugged surroundings.
Our guide is 24-year-old Daniel Monk, who began volunteering two years ago, and now works here full time. “There are a lot of observatories around for research, but not many places where members of the public can use a telescope and get involved,” he explains. “Kielder’s really helped put star-gazing on the map. People come from all over the world.”
As daytime cedes to darkness, the transformation is astonishing. Night covers
us like a thick blanket, and the light-show in the sky begins. We sit out on the wooden deck, wrapped up warm with a cup of tea and enveloped in total silence. Stars ping out of the sky crisply, and Daniel points out various constellations.
You need to book in advance at kielderobservatory.org to attend one of the events, and soon enough the next eager participants begin to arrive, ready to gaze at the stars and learn of far-off planets and galaxies.
We leave Daniel to it, and begin our epic journey home, in our own star, New Astra.