The Visit of Members from
Vlasim Astronomical Society, (Czech Republic)
September 13th – 18th 2000
Some 50 solar observers send their findings to the Solar Section of the BAA. About one third of the reports are from abroad. In 1991 I noticed that one contribution came from Jan Urban from the then Czechoslovakia. I got in touch with Bruce Hardie,the late director of the BAA Solar Section and he gave me Jan’s address. I found that Vlasim lies some 100 km SE of Prague and only a few km from a cottage owned by my cousin’s daughter who worked in Prague. I mentioned this in one of my letters to Jan and he promptly invited me to visit the Vlasim Observatory.
At our next visit to my old country in May 1991, we went to the cottage and I was taken to the Vlasim Observatory. I was given a great welcome by Jan and some 6 members of the Society. I was greatly impressed by the observatory and by the keenness of those present. I was shown the magnificent 5 m dome which contained the forkmounted 300mm f/5.3 Newtonian with a 150mm f/15 Zeiss Refractor and also the 80mm Solar Refractor fitted with a Herschel Wedge. There was a special Radio-Astronomy Section, a meteorological station. In the lecture room was an ancient Orrery. I ‘happened’ to have some slides and a video on me and I was able to give them a short talk on eclipses and solar observations in H-alpha.
I was told that the Vlasim Astronomical Society (VAS) originated from a circle of workers in the nearby armament factory in 1953. Five years later building started and in 1961 the observatory was inaugurated. Under the leadership of Jan Zajic, the veteran of the VAS, it gained recognition at home and abroad, particularly in the realm of solar physics and radio-astronomy.
I paid a second visit in 1992 and on that occasion Jan also arranged a tour of the prime professional observatory in Cecho-slovakia in Ondrejov. There we were shown round by Pavel Kotrc. I noticed that Jan was preoccupied on this occasion and only later did I get to know that he was battling with various authorities about the ownership of the observatory. Then disaster struck in 1992: The ground was leased to a private timber merchant and the observatory was closed. The ground was badly damaged and part of the buildings suffered from neglect and structural damage.
For some reason I lost contact with Jan. Later I learned that Jan had been involved in protracted negotiations but after 4 years he managed to persuade the town of Vlasim to buy the observatory and lease it to the VAS for a peppercorn rent. After the winter of 1996/97 intensive reconstruction work was started. It was done almost entirely by the members and finally the rebirth of the observatory was celebrated. Out of the blue, a letter came from Jan, full of enthusiasm about the new achievement, and explaining his 4-years’ silence.
Twinning and Planning
I gave a short report to the LAS and suggested twinning of the LAS with the VAS. This was unanimously approved and thoughts were given to a close cooperation in observing and exchange of ideas. More recently, a visit of some LAS members to Vlasim was planned but the idea faltered for various reasons. At a council meeting it was decided to invite some members of the VAS to visit us in order to keep up our friendly relations and cooperation. The date of the visit was fixed for around the time of the Presidential Address and Cheese & Wine Reception of the 15th September 2000. Jan informed us that no more than eight VAS members would visit us. Then he asked us whether he could ask Pavel Kotrc to come with them, he is a professional astronomer from Ondrejov. Of course, we approved. He sent us a list of names of the 8 participants (including Pavel’s) and indicated their knowledge of English. We offered them hospitality in our homes as they just could not afford hotels, mainly because of the most unfavourable exchange rate Those with no knowledge of English would stay with us. Other LAS members offered hospitality, notably Gerard and Carol Gilligan, Murad and Ann Ghorbal, David and Pam Forshaw and Dot Maline as well as Ron Kelly. The exact date of arrival was difficult to obtain as their travel plans changed almost from day to day; they were also occupied by arranging their annual convention of the 9th September when the VAS hosted many other Astronomical Societies. On that occasion 300 visitors came to the Vlasim observatory.
Many last minute changes occurred, two of their members had to cancel the trip due to urgent work commitments and another for health reasons. Fortunately, one member (Milan) stepped in, making the total number of visitors six. Four came by car and two by ‘bus from Prague. We guessed that they would arrive on Tuesday the 12th September.
Meantime, we, in Liverpool, made detailed plans for them, working out a programme and also arranging hospitality. In the week prior to their arrival the petrol crisis was looming and it was feared that it might spread from the continent to Britain. By the 9th September France had settled the dispute but here it became worse and I managed to e-mail them the advice to fill the tank in Calais before embarking.. I also sent them maps and precise instructions how to get to our home where we hoped to welcome the 6 visitors. But it was not to be so simple.
We were most worried about those coming by car. But then a phone call came on Tuesday afternoon – they were already in Stonehenge!. They intended to do some more sight-seeing before arriving in Liverpool on Wednesday in the late afternoon. They stayed overnight in Canterbury and on their way to Liverpool they were lucky to find a functioning filling station. They filled the tank and a reserve tank around Birmingham so they had enough petrol for the return journey to France.
Meeting Our Guests
They were in contact by mobile phones with Jan Urban and Jaromir Branis and learned that the bus from Prague has been greatly delayed as a result of the petrol dispute in Belgium. Instead of arriving in London on Wednesday at noon, they reached London at 9 p.m. and missed the connection to Liverpool. They managed to get on the night bus to Liverpool and arrived here at 6 a.m. on Thursday. In spite of it all, they were in good spirits, especially after a shower which rejuvenated them. After all, they had been on the journey for 40 hours!.
We fed them and showed them our programme and without hesitation they insisted on taking part to the full. All six met outside the Anglican Cathedral with their respective hosts (Gerard, Murad and David F.). So, at long last, all six visitors had arrived after an eventful journey. They were:-
Also known as ‘Honza’, the President of the VAS. A very lively fellow, full of fun and typical Czech humour. He is deeply involved in Ecology, as well as in astronomy. He took the visit seriously, made notes for his diary and intends to write up the experience of the first visit of the VAS to Liverpool
Petr is a bright young man, his special interest seems to be optics. He works for a well known Mobile Phone Firm whose name was widely displayed on the car with which they came.
Helena is Petr’s partner, a medical student at Prague University. She took many photographs and spoke quite good English.
A tall athletic man, he is skilled in plaster work. He describes himself not so much as an Astronomer but as a Gastronomer in the VAS where he is in charge of catering! He is very much a family man, Margaret had to help him choose home-coming presents.
Jaromir, known as ‘Mir’, is a pleasant man. He describes himself as a labourer. When once interviewed with other members by the Czech TV, he said that he digs holes. They would not believe him until he showed them that he dug out some soil for the erection of an instrument. He has two dogs, one of them is a member of the VAS!
Pavel is not a member of the VAS but a friend and professional astronomer from the Ondrejov observatory. An extremely pleasant and knowledgeable but modest man devoted to his solar work as well to his family.
All were very impressed by the Anglican Cathedral; one of the largest in the world. They went up the tower and the view of Liverpool was stunning; in spite of the overcast sky. When one of the attendants learned that they were Czech, he presented them with leaflets printed in Czech.
The Metropolitan Cathedral was a surprise to them due to the modern architecture and lay out. They were impressed by the serenity and dignity of the place and the colourful light shining through the windows.
We offered them lunch, consisting of Fish and Chips at Harry Ramsden’s and they seemed to have enjoyed this typically English dish.
According to the programme, we should have spent the afternoon in Jodrell Bank as arranged by Chris Banks. However, Chris got a last minute message that the visitors’ centre had to be closed: due to the petrol crisis as only three visitors came on the previous day, and the staff already had difficulty travelling.
Instead of this, the afternoon was spent at Pex Hill and after looking round we settled in the lecture room and Pavel showed us excellent photographs made by a colleague in Ondrejov.
The group photograph above shows members of Vlasim Astronomical Society and Liverpool Astronomical Society at Pex Hill.
From Left-to-Right: Jaromir Branis VAS, Milan Kovalsky VAS, Vlasim AS President Jan Urban, Murad Ghorbal LAS, Petr Pivonka VAS, Helena Neprosova VAS, Dr Pavel Kotrc – Ondrejov Observatory, David Forshaw LAS, and LAS President Gerard Gilligan.
In the evening we went to a local restaurant and had a very pleasant convivial get-together and the opportunity to get to know each other and to forge friendships.
The 2 meter Liverpool Telescope
Friday started with a visit to the Liverpool Telescope Factory, arranged by Alan Scott. We drove through the Wallasey Tunnel to the Twelve Quays and assembled outside the Astrophysics Research Institute (ARI) of the John Moore University. Alan took us to the nearby Telescope Factory and introduced our guests to Chris Moss who took us round, To the astonishment of all, the great hall contained three giant robotic telescopes in various stages of construction. The mirrors are of 2m diameter, the glass coming from Russia, the figuring done by Zeiss. The Liverpool Telescope, designed and built by Telescope Technologies Ltd, has reached the finishing stage and will be the largest robotic telescope in the world. It will be operational in La Palma. The second will be placed in Hawaii and will have mainly educational functions. The third has been ordered by India. Dr Chris Moss was overwhelmed with questions by our visitors and proved to be an excellent and very knowledgeable guide.
A further informal session was at the ARI. Short talks were given by Dr Iain Steele, Scientist of the New Generation Astronomical Telescopes Project (NGAT), by Alan Scott, (Starlink Computer Manager) and Dr Andrew Newsam (Research and Education Fellow). There followed many questions and everybody was so interested that we almost forgot that it was past lunchtime. Fortunately, Alan advised us to go across the bridge to ‘The Old Colonial’ Pub. It was quite a novel experience for our visitors but the beef stew and chips were excellent and the surroundings evocative of marine life.
In the afternoon we went to the Liverpool Conservation Centre and saw the reconstructed Lassell Telescope. This generated a great deal of interest and Gerard was able to enlarge on the History of the Telescope and on the life of Lassell. After a little shopping in town, all were taken to their respective homes in readiness for the evening session.
The Presidential Address and Cheese and Wine Reception was held in the crypt of the Metropolitan Cathedral. In spite of the petrol shortage, there was a good attendance. Gerard Gilligan, our President, officially welcomed our guests and presented Jan Urban with a framed colour LAS Logo with the words:
Presented to the Vlasim Astronomical Society to commemorate the visit to Liverpool – England. September 2000.
Jan, in turn, produced a bottle of pear liqueur, all home made, even the pears had been picked by the members in Vlasim. But the main present was a hand-made plaque representing Moses carrying the Tablets of the Ten Commandments as well as the Staff which Jan described as a telescope. The inscription reads:
Observatory Vlasim 2000
I then introduced the individual Czech guests and translated Jan’s short address.
Gerard gave his presidential address, entitled the Gmunden Observatory, part of his Austrian experience during this trip to see the total Eclipse. It was illustrated with superb slides of the Alpine scene.
Pavel Kotrcfollowed on with an excellent account of the History of Astronomy in the Czech Republic, illustrated with most excellent slides. It generated great interest and many questions from the audience.
Their Last Full Day In Liverpool
Saturday morning was spent sight seeing. David Galvin led the visitors to the Albert Dock and the Beatles Museum, to the City centre, including Matthew Street. They had a relaxing Mersey River tour on a Ferry boat where they ate the packed lunch provided by their hosts.
In the afternoon we assembled in the lecture room at Pex Hill, more photographs were shown by Pavel who followed on with an informal lecture on his solar work, prominences and flares. We marvelled not only at his knowledge but also at his command of English.
There was a grand finale to the visit in form of a celebration dinner at Chung Ku Chinese restaurant at the riverside. The venue was excellent, as was the food, the drink and, most of all, the company. There were only a few short Good Bye speeches.
On Sunday morning the hosts brought their guests to our home, the Sun made one of its rare appearances and most proceeded to our back garden and made a fleeting solar observation before the general leave taking. Photos were taken and five of our guests crammed into Petr’s car with Helena in the driving seat.
Jan stayed behind, he had an extra day as he planned to go to Glasgow on Monday morning. He had a relaxing day in town, went to the Anglican Cathedral with his sketchpad. He spent the rest of the day with Gerard, Carol and their children. In the evening Gerard brought him to my home as Jan wanted me to translate a great many questions, mainly about the organisation of our Society, its activities, membership, etc. He jotted everything down for future reference.
Jan went to Glasgow on Monday morning to join other Czech Ecologists for a further week. All our visitors returned safely without any problems.
Article ©2000 Liverpool Astronomical Society and Eric H. Strach