HCO is a Public Understanding of Science (PUST) initiative for the promotion of astronomy and astrophysics appreciation, and sometimes education, primarily by free public stargazing evenings at our permanent open-air site in north Oxfordshire and elsewhere in the region. It is being set up and will be run entirely by a group of volunteers, currently about a dozen strong. This group is doing all the day-to-day work but the project also has formal links with the Department for Continuing Education of Oxford University (OUDCE) and with the British Astronomical Association. From its inception with a Royal Society Millennium Award for this purpose in 1999, HCO's aim has been genuinely public outreach in astronomy: not only, or even primarily, for the benefit of visitors who are already amateur astronomers, nor even for that of school groups or other students in formal education but, rather, to provide for the needs of these users within a much wider programme which strongly seeks, also, to attract the general public of whatever age who may never previously have seen a celestial body in a serious telescope.
As most habitual telescope-users know, one of the deepest rewards of possessing a decent astronomical instrument is the delight and wonder inspired in many such 'first timers' by its views of the craters of the Moon or the rings of Saturn, and it is HCO's mission to share that powerful experience with the widest possible public. Certainly, few, if any, other experiences are so potent in raising the mind of the beholder far above the narrow 'realities' of modern life and providing a change of perspective. Setting aside more overtly educational objectives which the project also encompasses, it is our fundamental belief that no world-view which ignores everything beyond this one small planet can in any sense be regarded as complete or realistic, nor can anyone holding such a view be considered truly cultured or as possessing a genuine appreciation of the natural world to which we all owe our existence. As we enter a new century whose history will unquestionably be dominated by environmental issues, this last point is surely of particularly contemporary importance. In short, astronomy is cultural, environmental, powerfully aesthetic, and a natural invitation to philosophical and spiritual reflection (whether of a conventionally religious form or otherwise). Astronomy is not only for scientists, still less exclusively for 'anoraks'!