He was a science-loving boffin at a rural Cheshire outpost. His team arrived with only crude military equipment and a keen sense of curiosity. And he started recording cosmic phenomena while sitting in a deckchair surrounded by Cheshire gooseberries. But Sir Bernard Lovell went on to become the father of modern cosmology — long before Professor Brian Cox began pondering the wonders of the universe. Sir Bernard founded what we now know as the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre in 1945 as a base for his pioneering work on post-war radar. The observatory and science park, set amid rural farmsteads, has added a frisson of science fiction to the Cheshire countryside ever since.

By the late 1940s, his team had detected radio waves beyond our own galaxy — the nebula in Andromeda. Then, as the space race intensified, the landmark Lovell Telescope, today Grade I-listed, was used to track the progress of the Russians. The centre went on to play a pivotal role during the Sixties as the UK’s early-warning system for missile attacks against the backdrop of Cold War intrigue. The scientific, heritage and cultural importance of Jodrell Bank was fully recognised in 2019 when it was awarded Unesco World Heritage status.

Great British Life: Sir Bernard Lovell, father of modern cosmology. Sir Bernard Lovell, father of modern cosmology. (Image: Archant)

Cheshire Life first explored the site with a Message from the Stars (April 1955) and celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Lovell Telescope with Out of this World (October 2017), learning how it was being used to verify suspected extra-terrestrial signals (Is There Anybody Out There? May 2002). Andrew Hobbs, a former associate editor, even found the radio telescope also made an appearance in the film of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (Vogons Destroy Jodrell Bank, June 2005), assuring readers: 'Don’t panic.' Or, as the book’s author, Douglas Adams, once put it: 'Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.'

Astronomy, the scientific study of the universe, was nothing new. The Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, first hypothesised the Earth must be a sphere, given its shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse, in the Sixth Century BC. Chinese astronomers recorded the earliest known sightings of Halley’s Comet in 240 BC and Galileo Galilei first declared the Earth orbited the Sun back in 1610. By the time Sir Isaac Newton described astronomy in 1676 as '… standing on the shoulders of giants,' he had already nailed the law of gravity, namely any particle of matter in the universe attracts any other.

Great British Life:  Professor Bernard Lovell (right) with Mr HC Husband, the consulting engineer who designed and constructed the Lovell Radio Telescope at the Jodrell Bank observatory in 1957. Professor Bernard Lovell (right) with Mr HC Husband, the consulting engineer who designed and constructed the Lovell Radio Telescope at the Jodrell Bank observatory in 1957. (Image: PA)

But Sir Bernard was the unlikely hero of the 1940s new world order. Born in 1913, he did a Ph.D. at the University of Bristol and became part of the cosmic-ray research team at the University of Manchester, publishing his first book, Science and Civilization, just before World War II. He was named an OBE in 1946 for his work for the wartime Air Ministry yet he was also smart enough to seize the day. The 1940s had come in guns literally blazing with the Battle of Britain in July 1940 and led, via the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and the D-Day Landings in 1944, to the German surrender of May 1945, with the founding of the United Nations a few months later. Lovell moved his post-war research to a permanent site in Cheshire, which already belonged to the university’s botany department, and quietly went about dragging science into the mainstream.

Around him, post-war Britain was changing, too. It’s hard for us to imagine now that, against the backdrop of war, others were busily pioneering other, less military-based, innovations, such as the ball-point pen in 1944, the bikini in 1946 and the Polaroid Camera in 1947. It’s hard to imagine, too, that the decade blighted by war could also give birth to great works of art, such as David Lean directing Brief Encounter in 1946, Jackson Pollock’s Full Fathom Five drip paintings in 1947 and French author Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist polemic The Second Sex in 1949.

Great British Life: Sir Bernard Lovell visits Jodrell Bank in 1964.Sir Bernard Lovell visits Jodrell Bank in 1964. (Image: PA)

Across Cheshire, meanwhile, 1940s life was evolving, too. Local companies such as Brookhurst, which employed more than 2,000 people and made aircraft parts during WWII, returned to its regular contracts and the evacuees returned to Liverpool and other cities. Chester had been largely spared intense bombing, except for a November 1940 bomb that blew out the Great West Window of Chester Cathedral (hence the modern stained glass of the Northern Saints today). Indeed, Cheshire Fire Services recently commemorated young Cyril George Dutton, who lost his life attending to bomb damage with a plaque on Chester’s Foregate Street. German prisoners of war had been set to work, meanwhile, preparing the new suburb of Blacon for local authority housing estates and Professor Robert Newstead of the Grosvenor Museum, who has pioneered the excavations of Chester’s Roman amphitheatre, died in 1947. His work would lay foundations for the heritage city we know today.

Back at Jodrell Bank, I remember a preview of the then-new First Light Pavilion, which sits within the arboretum designed by Lovell himself. I explored the permanent exhibition, The Story of Jodrell Bank, featuring archive material and personal memorabilia from the Lovell family. Huge, recycled panels from the underside of the Lovell Telescope, replaced during careful renovations, formed the backdrop to the projected animations and hands-on exhibits. I also loved the section devoted to Jodrell Bank’s role in popular culture, including some vintage Dr Who location footage of Tom Baker — my favourite Doctor, of course — and The Master, then played by Anthony Ainley.

But what moved me most was a solitary standard lamp next to a portrait of Lovell with an audio diary in which the founding director describes how he devoted his life to science. Professor Teresa Anderson, Jodrell Bank director, later told me: 'Sir Bernard Lovell always celebrated the beauty of science. He understood that science is an integral part of our heritage and culture.'

Great British Life: Sir Bernard Lovell, inventor of the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank in 2003.Sir Bernard Lovell, inventor of the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank in 2003. (Image: Phil Noble/PA .)

Today, Jodrell Bank, born out of the post-war boom and forged in the white heat of technology, has come a long way since its post-war origins, hosting the Bluedot Festival of electronic music each summer. I caught The Flaming Lips at an early incarnation and clearly had something in my eye while I watched Elbow against the backdrop of the all-seeing-eye telescope and a mid-summer Cheshire night sky.

Lovell may have been a self-confessed astronomer by chance, but he went on to become the father of modern cosmology and his Cold War intelligence work still feels strangely prescient today. As someone who made science accessible, the BBC invited him to give a series of radio talks, the Reith Lectures, in 1958. He served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 1969 to 1971 and died August in 2012 in Swettenham.

The 1940s feels like distant history in the modern age but the place of scientific study he created remains true to Sir Bernard’s founding vision: a place of ideas and collaboration. The real wonders of the universe were, it seems, to be found in Cheshire all along.

David Atkinson is a freelance writer, Green Badge Tourist Guide to Chester and member of the Guild of Chester Tour Guides. He leads the Dark Chester tour, nominated for the Marketing Cheshire Awards Tourism Experience of the Year 2024. atkinsondavid.com.