uklighthousetour

One crazy lady and a bizarre obsession = an ongoing tour of the best lighthouses the UK has to offer

A fine ‘old lady’ in Happisburgh

I’ve often referred to lighthouses as ‘she’. It just seems right that they are female. I’ve also been known on more than one occasion to sing Isn’t She Lovely by Stevie Wonder during lighthouse visits. Well, I discovered that I am not alone in this during a visit to Happisburgh lighthouse on our way back home from the recent Isle of Wight trip. On my original lighthouse tour I’d obviously driven to Happisburgh and, as with a lot of the lighthouses on that trip, my timing was atrocious and I arrived about half an hour after it had closed. So, I’d not managed to get inside this frankly stunning structure. Well, last year, through the Association of Lighthouse Keepers, I met Joy and Patrick who are part of the team that have taken over the operation and maintenance of the lighthouse at Happisburgh (more on that in a minute). I knew we would be in Norfolk on our way home so got in touch with them and they very kindly agreed to show us around.

Happisburgh

Happisburgh lighthouse

During this tour, which I will describe in a moment, I discovered that Joy too believes that lighthouses are female and very fondly refers to Happisburgh lighthouse as their ‘old lady’. The lighthouse certainly is old, dating back to 1790 when it was built as one of a pair of leading lights, with this one being the high light. Joy informed us that there is very little to see of the old low light now, but occasionally it is possible to spot some small sections of the old curved wall on the beach. Although the remains are now on the beach, the lighthouse itself was located on the cliff. This is evidence of the amount of coastal erosion in the area. It’s frightening when you see how the coastline has changed in recent years.

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The view from the top towards where the low light would have been

The tower, which is now so distinctive with its red bands, used to be white, but when the Low Light was removed the red bands were added to distinguish it from the other nearby white lighthouses in Winterton to the south and Cromer to the north. Although the old low light was demolished, it is great to see a section of the lens from the old tower  in the ground floor exhibition area in the lighthouse – it even lights up! After the lens had been removed from the low light it was used in Southwold, which has since been converted to a different type of light. When the lens was no longer required in Southwold, Happisburgh Lighthouse Trust approached Trinity House and asked if it could be brought back to Happisburgh and they now have this on loan, so part of it did make it back home!

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Part of the old lens from Happisburgh low light

The inside of the tower is actually quite open-plan. As Joy pointed out, it is not until you are almost at the top that you have space/a room to stop and catch your breath! It’s fantastic though, looking down on the main space on the ground floor, which is just full of amazing things to look at. I was so busy chatting I didn’t get a chance to fully take it all in so I’ll just need to go back again some time – and probably end up just chatting some more!

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The view inside the lens

There is one room near the top (aside from the lantern room, of course) which contains information about the history of the lighthouse, as well as a really lovely display of lamps of all shapes and sizes from various lighthouses. There is also information here about the community takeover of the lighthouse. It really is a unique arrangement. In 1987 Trinity House announced that Happisburgh lighthouse was to be discontinued. The community, understandably, fought against this decision and two years later everything was in place for the newly formed Happisburgh Lighthouse Trust to begin leasing the lighthouse and running it themselves. Of course that is an abridged version of events and it was much more involved. It’s a really inspiring story and a perfect example of just how important lighthouses can be to communities.

The Friends of Happisburgh Lighthouse are doing a great job of fundraising to keep the lighthouse going. It looks brilliant both inside and out, especially after the tower was re-painted last year. You can’t really go wrong with red and white stripes on a lighthouse, I don’t think, and Happisburgh is a perfect example of that. It is a fine place to spend some time and even those who aren’t necessarily into lighthouses would find it hard not to enjoy a visit. Joy and Patrick were such wonderful hosts, so a big thank you to them.

When Bob finally managed to drag me away from the lighthouse we continued our journey home – and what a long journey it was this time! Fortunately, we were going up the east coast for a change where it is fairly easy to stop off and see a few lighthouses.

River Nene East End

The River Nene East End lighthouse

Now, back in 2012 I saw the two lighthouses on the banks of the River Nene to the east of Sutton Bridge. I had only walked (still not sure why I walked it from Sutton Bridge, but never mind) to the Guys Head light and seen the East End lighthouse from across the river, so it seemed like a good place to stop as the sun was shining.  There aren’t many lighthouses surrounded by trees, but these two are, which makes it difficult to get pictures of them, but we did our best and our best wasn’t too bad. It’s just about getting the right angle – and at the right time of day too as the sun can really be in the wrong position sometimes!

River Nene Guys Head

River Nene Guys Head lighthouse

It was dark by the time we arrived in Newcastle, not far from our hotel. I’d not seen the old light on the Tyne Swing Bridge before so it seemed like a good opportunity while we were in the area. I wandered along the river bank and up onto the bridge. With the light no longer being operational it’s not so easy to see (or photograph – unless you are capable of fancy camera work). It was nice to see it though and it was a calm evening. I’m not used to being in cities visiting lighthouses, so it made a nice change.

Tyne Swing Bridge

Tyne Swing Bridge and its lighthouse

On the final day of our journey home we happened to be in the North Queensferry area around lunch time so stopped off to see the little lighthouse there. It was a really pleasant day which made for a nice visit, although the tower is currently closed for maintenance (normally you can get inside and sometimes even light the lamp). They are due to open again very soon.

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North Queensferry lighthouse and the Forth Rail Bridge

It was nice to break up what was a really long journey with some lighthouse visits. Time to have a break from lighthouse trips for a month or so now to recharge my batteries ready for the next adventure! 🙂

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A lighthouse morning on the Diamond Isle

Being from the Isle of Wight, I spent many years paying very little attention to the fantastic lighthouses it has to offer. That was, of course, before my bagging days and I try to make up for it now when I do spend time on the island.

On Thursday morning in Newport it looked like the sun was trying to break through the clouds and there might be a blue sky opportunity at St Catherine’s Oratory, which I had not been to for a while. As we approached the car park in Blackgang it became clear that not only were blue skies unlikely, but we may struggle to find the Oratory in the heavy fog that had nestled happily over the highest points of the island. At the gate we met a lady and her son who were just returning to the car park after an unsuccessful attempt at reaching the Oratory. We told them that’s where we were heading and they could follow us, which they did. Unfortunately I’d left Bob’s GPS device at the hotel so we couldn’t use that method, but on the plus side we had my dad who is an Oratory regular and knew that we needed to find the hedgerow and then the gate. From there we had no trouble and arrived at the Pepperpot, as it is known locally, shortly after.

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St Catherine’s Oratory

Seeing the Oratory in the mist perfectly illustrates why it just wasn’t a particularly good location for an aid to navigation. As soon as that mist comes down there’s no chance of seeing a light. Standing inside the Oratory and looking up you could see the moisture moving about in the air. It’s a great place to stand, even though there is very little to see. The Oratory is incredibly old, dating back to 1328 when Walter de Godeton was ordered by the church to build a beacon after he’d been caught stealing wine from a ship wrecked in the area. There is, of course, doubt over the use of the tower all those centuries ago and in the centuries that followed and whether or not they recognised the problems caused by the fog at times. If they had then the message clearly was not passed on as work on a new lighthouse, the Salt Pot, a short distance away began in 1785. Realising that it was perhaps not the best location, the tower was never finished. Leaving the others at the Oratory for a bit, I took a stroll with my dad to see the unfinished lighthouse.

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The unfinished Salt Pot

We made it back down to the car park with no trouble, which is not to say that the mist had cleared as it certainly hadn’t. While down that way we decided to pay a brief visit to St Catherine’s lighthouse. We’d not been there since our wedding in 2013 so it was nice to take the kids down and let them see it. In complete contrast to the fog we’d encountered up on the hill, it was beautiful and clear there. Obviously the perfect location for a lighthouse! Well, maybe not quite as even this tower was shortened in 1875, less than 40 years after it was built, due to problems with fog.

St Catherine's

St Catherine’s lighthouse

St Catherine’s lighthouse is stunning and a wonderfully unique shape. There’s a lot of detail to it. Sadly, I have heard that they will be removing the lens from the tower next year, which will be such a great loss. Seeing it slowly revolving all day every day as it does is so special. Hopefully the visitor centre will be able to keep hold of at least some of it so it is still around to be gazed at for years to come.

So, that was our St Catherine’s experience. Very varied, but definitely an enjoyable morning returning to a couple of old haunts 🙂

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The distinctive lights of South East England

My regular readers will know that I am in the final stages of pulling together the content for my book, The British Lighthouse Trail: A Regional Guide which is due for release in July. As part of this process, the text has recently been shared with my good friend John who has also visited a significant number of lighthouses in the UK and has experienced both the pleasure and perils of doing so. I met John through the Association of Lighthouse Keepers and he shares my appreciation of smaller lighthouses (particularly the flat pack Ikea boxes in Scotland), which is pretty rare. I had asked him to review the notes I had made about accessing each light to ensure that valuable information and alternative options were not missed, which he has very kindly done. We had discussed the Isle of Grain light and, as neither of us had been there, I felt uneasy about it. So, there was only one solution and that was to pay it a visit. I asked John if he would like to join me to see it.

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Gravesend Town Pier light

Along came Wednesday and, after a very early start, I met John in Southampton and we set off for Gravesend. What is rather amusing is that, having not been to Gravesend for years, John went there in December last year to take a closer look at the two lights on the Town Pier and Royal Terrace Pier to help me out with the book. He’d perhaps not expected to be back there again quite so soon! It was a good opportunity for me to see the lights in person though as we went for a stroll along the river. The little white tower on the Town Pier sticks up out of the roof of a fairly fancy looking restaurant, but you can get a fairly good view of it by walking along the pier towards the pontoon for the ferry across to Tilbury. During his investigative visit, John spoke to a member of staff at the restaurant who said that there is a hatch that leads under the pier, which would have allowed access to steps etc. under the pier in the past. It is no longer possible to use the hatch and part of the steps have been removed so there is no longer access to the light. It’s still nice to see though and a dainty little thing.

Further along the river bank at St Andrew’s Quay is Light Vessel 21, which was built for Trinity House in 1963. LV21 was in use mostly on the Varne and East Goodwin Sands. In 1981 it was involved in a particularly bad collision at Varne, but lived to tell the tale. In 2008 it was decommissioned and moored in Swansea. The following year it was sold and is now used by the LV21 Making More Group, a group of local art and crafty types.

A little further along from the light vessel is Gravesend Royal Terrace Pier with its lighthouse. Again this one sticks out of the roof of the building on the pier, but there is no way of getting closer to this one as the pier is closed to the public. Detective John found out some of the history on this light following his visit last year. He managed to make contact with a man from Port of London Authority who believed the light was used to mark the end of the pier before the pontoon was added at which point it became surplus to requirement – I imagine this was also the case with the light on the Town Pier. Port of London Authority took over control of the pier in 2004 by which time the light had not been well-maintained and was very difficult to see. They decided to maintain the light even though it was not needed, which is very lovely of them. Access to the light is quite interesting involving hatches downriver and a bridge! It was really interesting to find out more about these two lights as, if I’d seen them like any other, I would probably not have thought of these details, so thank you John!

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Gravesend Royal Terrace Pier light

Isle of Grain beckoned, so we set off, spying the modern Shornemead tower as we drove along the main road to the east of Gravesend. Isle of Grain is never somewhere I had thought about going before and, had it not been for the light there, I probably never would have done. That is one of the joys of this lighthouse bagging business. The area surrounding the light is fairly industrial and we spotted a security van a short distance from the light. From afar the tower just looks like a metal framework affair, but it’s really quite unique with its little hut on stilts. It’s not actually as little as I expected. Both the hut and stilts are constructed of stone which I’d not expected, and the hut has a full-sized door opening, which helped to settle my concern about whether or not it was big enough to qualify for inclusion in my book. From the top of the bank next to the light you could look across to the Isle of Sheppey and the mouth of the Thames as well as Grain Tower Battery, which looks fantastic. The Battery, which was built in the 1850s to defend the area from an attack from France, is accessible at low tide, which it certainly wasn’t when we were there. It’s certainly not your average lighthouse location, but well worth a visit.

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Isle of Grain

On the way back we took a slight detour, although I’m not sure slight is the right word when you take into account the traffic in the south! I had a little lighthouse tidying to do along the south coast with the first being Hastings. Visiting these places has been a very helpful way of testing how useful my access notes and grid references for finding the lighthouses are. The Hastings West Hill tower is really straightforward to find. It’s another one that is unique in style and it has some really interesting little details – I will let the picture speak for itself. This lighthouse actually replaced one that was previously on Hill Street, marking the upper of two lighthouses. The Lower Light can still be seen opposite the boating lake, although it is no longer in use as a lighthouse. From West Hill you have some wonderful views down to the beach which is lined with boats. I’d not seen that anywhere before.

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Hastings West Hill

On the way back towards Southampton we thought it would be rude not to stop off and see the tower at the end of the west pier in Brighton. We weren’t able to get very close to it as the pier is only open at certain times to permit-holding anglers. We did try calling the number on the sign to see if it would be possible to get beyond the locked gate, but to not avail. There’s not a huge amount to say about this one really, but again it was nice to visit a part of Brighton I’d not been to before. Leaving the pier, we set off in the car again for the slow journey along the seafront towards Shoreham. Funnily enough we spent a long time on the coastal road and happened to turn off just before the lighthouse in Shoreham, but we gave it a quick wave as we turned the corner – well I did anyway!

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The light on Brighton West Pier

It became a bit of a race against time/sunset at that point as we had one more stop before our bagging day was done: Littlehampton. To be honest I think we were glad that we were cutting it fine in the end though as the light was on, which always makes for great pictures and is an added bonus in my eyes. It had been a great day, weather-wise, and it was a calm evening. You can’t really beat lingering around on a beach and lighthouse at sunset in these conditions, I don’t think. This is yet another unique structure which was actually built in 1948 after the Second World War and replaced one of the previously demolished towers, so it looks more modern than it actually is – having said that, in lighthouse terms the 1940s is fairly recent! We noticed that access to the light inside would be through a rather small hatch underneath the top section of the tower. Might be a bit of a squeeze getting in there!

littlehampton

Littlehampton

Littlehampton was a lovely way to finish a fun lighthouse-filled day. Having John on the journey made it even more enjoyable and I foresee more lighthouse adventures ahead with him too! 🙂

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Fraserburgh: where the lights are kept alive

This afternoon a slight detour on the way home took us to Fraserburgh for another trip to the fantastic Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. I first visited the museum on my original tour in 2012 and then again in January 2014. Five years and countless new lighthouses later I knew it was time for a return and that I would appreciate it so much more than I ever had before. Hence why it is getting its own blog post this time.

For anyone into lighthouses it’s a gem of a place. Not only is it home to the old Kinnaird Head lighthouse (the first to be built and lit by the Commissioners of Northern Lights (now the Northern Lighthouse Board), but its modern replacement as well as the former towers from Suther Ness in Shetland and Hoxa Head in Orkney.

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The old Suther Ness lighthouse from Shetland

As soon as you step inside the door you know you’re in a very special place. The staff, for a start are so welcoming, and as soon as you enter the exhibition you are greeted by the most beautiful display of lighthouses lenses. The first room is home to 10 stunning pieces originally from the likes of Dunnet Head, Turnberry, Fair Isle South and Neist Point.

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The wonderful display of lighthouse lenses. Pictures here are those from Fair Isle South, Chanonry, Dunnet Head, Neist Point and Turnberry

We didn’t have time to catch the film this time, but we enjoyed the other exhibition rooms, including one I couldn’t recall seeing before, oddly. That’s the one featuring the old Hoxa Head lighthouse. You can walk inside and read the information on display – or just treat it like a fun little house to walk into and out of repeatedly as the kids did. There are far too many artefacts in the room, and all of the rooms for that matter, to even consider mentioning them all. Definitely worthy of mention though is the lantern and lens from the former Roseness lighthouse in Orkney as well as the lenses and light mechanisms from both Ailsa Craig and Langness. The award for most impressive lens and mechanism combination goes to Sanda though, which is so huge it needs two storeys to show off its full glory. The mechanism itself is visible at the entrance to the exhibition while the optic appears on the upper floor. Truly amazing.

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The old Sanda lens

It was approaching 3pm and we set off back down to the museum entrance for the guided tour. I’d been in contact with Michael Strachan, Collections Manager at the museum, prior to this visit in relation to a couple of questions I had for my book. Fortunately, it was Michael who was our tour guide today, which was a good opportunity to put a face to a name and thank him for his help.

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The modern and old lighthouses at Kinnaird Head

Due to the chilly breeze at Kinnaird Head, which Michael informed us is always windy, we went straight to the old foghorn engine room to start the tour. I imagine that even hundreds of years down the line, the smell of these rooms will not have changed. As if they were only used yesterday. Every time I am in one now I will remember watching Brian at Sumburgh Head starting the machines up with such meticulousness.

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The foghorn engine room at Kinnaird Head

From here we went to the old castle through which the lighthouse was built. There is nothing now to indicate how the building was used before the lighthouse was constructed. The tower is still as it was when the lighthouse was manned though. The wonderful paraffin smell is very much present and I always enjoy seeing an old television with buttons on it such as the one in the old occasional lighthouse keeper’s room. There is a distinct lack of buttons these days!

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At the top of the tower

The original lens still sits proudly in position at the top of the tower. Always a great room to spend some time and then we had a brief wander around on the balcony. After leaving the tower, we had a chance to quickly look around the Principle Keepers’ accommodation, which is full of information about the life of lighthouse keepers.

Back in the shop, the kids received their certificates for climbing the tower, although now I think of it, I don’t know that I have one myself yet!

Michael has very kindly provided me with information about the lenses the museum own as well as others he is aware of. I spoke to him about the old lens from Sule Skerry, which I’d attempted to visit yesterday at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. He’d had the same experience recently and had found out through social media just yesterday that it is indeed in storage there. Let’s hope it becomes more visible to the public soon. It’s a shame to let these things sit in storage with no one able to enjoy them. I’m obviously biased though and think that every museum should have at least one lighthouse exhibition!

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The old Hoxa Head lighthouse from Orkney

I thoroughly enjoyed returning to the museum again and will make more of an effort to ensure it’s not another 5 years before I am back there again. It sounds like there are exciting plans for introducing the old Fair Isle North lens, among others, to the collection. Something to look forward to seeing next time hopefully! 🙂

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Back to the Bass!

My last post mentioned that I was banned from lighthouse trips and probably wouldn’t do another for at least six weeks or something. Well, as usual, I was wrong…

Last month I joined a chartered boat to take a trip out to Bass Rock with the intention of landing. You can read about it here but, put simply, I didn’t land and as a result it remained on the “to do” list.

The ever-persistent Alan, who has organised a number of boat trips including the Bass Rock trips, maintained his regular contact with Dougie who operates Braveheart out of North Berwick. He’d said that this weekend was the next potential date but being in January, which is often the stormiest month in Scotland, I wasn’t hopeful. However, I was very glad to be proven wrong when Alan got in touch on Thursday to say the trip may go ahead and then confirmed that it would later on that evening. This time Bob wanted to come too, to make sure I landed this time. There was also another trip straight afterwards to Craigleith, so he would have the opportunity for a new island too. My ever-willing mother-in-law came across to look after the kids, and didn’t seem to mind the short notice!

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“The view” of Bass Rock

We took the scenic route into North Berwick today, which meant we got “the view” of Bass Rock. In my opinion the best view you can get of it from the mainland is near Tantallon Castle. Being fairly early it was still flashing away at us, although not quite as magnificently as it would have been before the new light was installed. I’d planned to pay a visit to the Coastal Communities museum in North Berwick after the trip as the old optic is now on display there, but shortly after finding out that the optic was there, I discovered the museum doesn’t open until Easter. A reason to go back to North Berwick, which is never a bad thing.

Off we went on the boat and the sea seemed to be similar to last time, so I was prepared to be scared all over again. It was actually a lot better than before, really nothing to worry about. I didn’t even need that much help! I was absolutely delighted as soon as I set foot on the island. The lovely Jane, who was “catching” us as we landed, celebrated briefly with me. She understood my fear, even if she was quite comfortable getting onto and off of the boat herself. There I was, on the Bass!

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The view from the landing area

As soon as you arrive you have a wonderful view looking up at the lighthouse. In fact, you have amazing views all around. A fascinating island, with so many steps! Everything is covered in guano, but that pales into insignificance with the enjoyment of being on the island. Just above the landing area is the helipad for the lighthouse and slightly further up you can walk along to the alternative landing point (the skipper chose the best place to land us, for sure). The concrete path and steps take you past all of the highlights of the island. My priority was obviously the lighthouse, which is where I, Bob and our friend Adrian went first. As I told Bob on the way back, it was best to go there first to get pictures without lots of people there, and also if the trip had been cut short for whatever reason, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the lighthouse.

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The approach to the lighthouse

It was a really good feeling to finally reach the lighthouse I’d seen so close before. The island really does add to the beauty of the lighthouse. The giant cliffs that sit behind the tower and its associated buildings, while being the source of some of the major landslips (or mudslides) in the area are the perfect backdrop. When I’d been on the trip in December, Dougie had told the group to take care near the lighthouse as there was deep mud from a recent landslip, which resulted in a lot of mud gathering near the lighthouse. It is clear that this has fairly recently been shifted as the area surrounding the lighthouse is now clear and actually very tidy. There are warning signs on the approach to the lighthouse about mud, but it certainly wasn’t an issue today.

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Bass Rock lighthouse

What a place that must have been to serve as a keeper. So close to the mainland and yet so disconnected. It is a massive shame to see the state of the cottages, which have been long neglected since the light was automated. This became even more evident as we climbed higher and higher above the lighthouse on the main path. The light continued to flash away (or turn on and off as the modern LEDs do) as we continued on up the path. It’s not often you get higher than a lighthouse at such a close range.

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The view from above the buildings

 

There is evidence of mud sliding in other areas on the island. In some areas, the steps are buried, probably not helped by the number of birds that choose to reside there in the spring and summer. The presence of birds on the island cannot be forgotten when you visit. Every now and then, while on the path, you will spot the remains of a number of gannets in particular. There is a gannet who clearly met a very grisly end involving a metal stake in the old chapel. It is positioned almost halfway along, opposite the main entrance doorway and, as such, gives the impression of being almost a prized display. It was odd and obviously not a great way for the gannet to go (I don’t often sympathise with gannets).

Very handily, the path has a handrail all of the way long, and the path takes you to the north of the island where there is a little foghorn sitting, ironically, in perfect peace and quiet. The weather was by no means wild today, but the calmest place on the whole island seemed to be at exactly the point where the foghorn once operated. The old equipment, or at least some of it, is still inside the little building. The foghorn faces the Isle of May, which was visible today from the foghorn. The views, in general, are fantastic from Bass Rock. The further you move up the island, the more visible the coastline to the south becomes.

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Bass Rock foghorn

Bass Rock was an incredible place to visit. I am so glad I went back and finally got onto the island. For such a small space, there is something that would be of interest to anyone I should imagine. Our group consisted of those who wanted to get to the island high point, but also the lighthouse, the foghorn, to take pictures, or just generally to get to the island. It is one of those islands that seems so close and yet incredibly inaccessible. That certainly adds to its appeal.

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One of my favourite views on the island, of which there are plenty

Once back on dry land I began my journey to Edinburgh to meet the others while Bob continued his boat trip. My destination was the National Museum of Scotland. While being the place that I would meet up with the kids and Bob’s mum, it is also home to a small number of lighthouse-related exhibits. The key exhibit is definitely the old optic and mechanism from the Inchkeith lighthouse, which stands proudly in the Grand Gallery. Jane had described the old Bass Rock optic in the museum in North Berwick as almost a piece of art. Well, that’s what they are really. Absolutely beautiful, while also completely functional. Jane had said that the light from Bass Rock used to be visible for miles. I won’t say I got annoyed with people being in my pictures of the optic at the museum – although that would be a lie. I wouldn’t have minded so much if they were also appreciating it, but they just weren’t.

There was a small area in the museum dedicated to lighthouses, which featured a model of the Eddystone lighthouse, a modern LED light, a section of the old hyper-radiant lens from South Foreland lighthouse, a RACON (radar beacon), an electric arc lamp, an oil lamp and reflector, and an electric filament bulb as well as a Fresnel lens. Considering it is only small display it the museum, it’s quite a nice collection. The old Sule Skerry optic also now calls the museum its home, although I believe it is currently in storage. The old Eilean Glas optic, now on display in the Science Museum in London, is also officially owned by and on loan from the museum.

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The old optic and mechanism from Inchkeith

Overall, it’s been a great day. To have successfully landed and enjoyed Bass Rock was a big achievement for me. Maybe in summer it would have been easier to get onto the lighthouse, but there would have been birds to contend with. Today it felt like it was our place to enjoy and we just had to share it with each other. Luckily the others didn’t get in the way of my pictures! 🙂

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A short walk at beautiful Gairlochy

Continuing my gentle re-introduction to normality, having seen two lighthouses yesterday, I simply had to see one today. I’d had a distant view of the lighthouse at Gairlochy on the banks of the Caledonian Canal a few years ago, but time limitations meant I’d not been able to walk to it at that time. This morning was the perfect opportunity though while travelling between Fort William and Inverness.

It’s a great little walk and considering it was a Sunday morning it was surprisingly quiet. I passed one person just as I set off, but that was it. There was rain in the air and maybe that had put people off, but otherwise it was a nice morning. The water was as calm as it could possibly be. The banks of the canal are lined with trees of varying shapes and sizes, which looked fantastic today with the reflections in the water. With low cloud added into the mix, it was all very atmospheric. The positioning of the lighthouse in relation to the surrounding land meant I couldn’t see a reflection of the tower itself in the canal, but as I’ve said a lot recently, you can’t have everything.

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Gairlochy lighthouse and the Caledonian Canal

The tower is very similar in style to others dotted along the canal, namely Fort Augustus and Corpach. I think they’re a likeable sort of tower, very understated, they just get on and do their job, but in such beautiful locations. There are a couple of nice little touches on the Gairlochy light that make it stand out a little, such as the small porch area leading to the curved door (it’s not often you see a curved door). The lighthouse also features the year it was built, 1932, a tiny hint at a celebration of its own existence. Otherwise, it seems to happily sit there minding it’s own business

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Gairlochy lighthouse

You can always tell that a lighthouse is easy to get to and frequently visited when it has a bench next to it! A nice little spot to relax and clear your mind – if you can spare the time for such luxuries. Today was not a day for that as I had to get back to Bob and the kids, and continue the journey home. Back I went along the towpath, a walk I would be more than happy to do time and time again. One day I will sit on that bench and enjoy the beauty of it all. I may even have a little chat to the lighthouse too – or would that be taking things too far?! Probably.

I have a feeling that this will indeed be my last blog post for a little while – maybe six whole weeks in fact. In the meantime I shall be busily working away on the book whenever I possibly can 🙂

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Minor lights of major importance

After such a fantastic couple of lighthouse days – or do I mean weeks, or maybe even months?! – I needed to gently be brought back down to normality. Today has been the day for that with a short boat trip to see a couple of minor lighthouses at the north end of the Sound of Jura.

Craignish Cruises were the boat operator of choice for today’s trip from Ardfern. Originally it was just going to be me on the boat while Bob manhandled the kids. Having seen details of the boat (a heated cabin!) online last night we asked Lindsay, who owns the boat, if he would be happy for the kids to go too. He was fine with that, so off we set.

It’s not quite so easy bagging with young children and the constant demands, but it helps towards my plot to turn them into the next generation of lighthouse baggers. The bagging is definitely strong in the eldest. The younger one still needs some work!

The tide was against us on the way out, but it wasn’t too long until we arrived at the tiny island of Ruadh Sgeir. It was interesting hearing the opinions of both Lindsay and Don who was helping him out on the trip. Lindsay has always thought the light was quite sweet (he seems quite fond of lighthouses, even the small ones, from the point of view of someone who uses them for their intended purpose – aiding navigation). Don, on the other hand, said he thought it was just a light on a rock. I think it deserves more credit and, I’m sure, by the end of the trip he was beginning to see the beauty of lighthouses, even the small ones. It’s quite common for boatmen to say that they have travelled along a stretch of coastline frequently and never noticed the lighthouse. They just need to be enlightened (no pun intended), that’s all.

ruadh sgeir

Read Sgeir lighthouse

I really like the Ruadh Sgeir light. I’m a fan of this type, and I always think there is a lot more to them, in terms of design, than they get credit for. It’s not just a small white tower that’s been dropped on a rock.

Our second stop was Reisa an t-Sruith. Lindsay told me this translates as ‘island in the strong tidal current’. There is certainly a lot of movement in the area, in terms of tides. It looked a lot choppier than it felt. Like Ruadh Sgeir, Reisa an t-Sruith is just a small island, a slightly bigger small island than Ruadh Sgeir. The lighthouse is a standard Northern Lighthouse Board flat-pack. Not much more to say about it other than that. It replaced a light designed by David A and Charles Stevenson. The island itself is home to some goats who watched us from afar, probably wondering what on earth we were up to. I’m assuming they don’t think much of the lighthouse!

reisa an t-sruith

Reisa an t-Sruith

As well as the goats, our wildlife tally increased again today with a brief appearance of a pod of 4 to 6 bottlenose dolphins.

A short, but important trip. It marks a first round completion of the wonderful lights of the Islay and Jura area. In such a short space of time, it’s been quite full-on, but not rushed. I definitely want a closer look at the Rinns of Islay at some point, but for now I’m satisfied – and of equal importance, I got those much-needed pictures for my book.

This afternoon we paid an enjoyable visit to Ian who served on Skerryvore lighthouse and who visited that very lighthouse with us last year (see this post for more on Ian). He and Doreen are wonderful hosts and it was lovely to catch up with them.

Now back to reality. I always put a smiley face at the end of these posts and I’m going to do the same for this one as it’s been a good day and I’m hopeful that it won’t be long until my next post. There certainly is plenty of lighthouse fun lined up for the year 🙂

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The incredible lights of Islay and Jura

What a day! In this lighthouse bagging game you experience some days where, at the end, all you can do is throw yourself onto the sofa and say “wow, did that really happen?”. Today was definitely one of those days.

It’s our final day on Islay and Bob had been in touch with Gus and Rebecca from Islay Sea Adventures in the lead up to our visit to Islay to sort out a trip taking in some of the lighthouses in the Sounds of Jura and Islay. Gus had said that Friday looked to be the best day for it, so this morning we arrived at Port Ellen and spent a while throwing on even more layers in preparation for a RIB trip in January (mental!). You can’t imagine my delight at seeing a beautiful covered RIB gliding into port. Covered RIBs are my favourite!

carraig fhada

Port Ellen/Carraig Fhada lighthouse

Before we’d even got on the boat, Gus offered us a cup of tea and we chatted to Gregor who was helping him out on the boat while Gus went for the hot drinks. A short time later, and with tea firmly in hand, we set off and Gus offered to sail around the Carraig Fhada/Port Ellen lighthouse on the way out. It was great to see a bit more detail from the sides you can’t see from the land. We asked Gus if the walkway is covered at high tide and he said that it can be, and that a man and his son were washed away trying to reach the lighthouse about 100 years ago. Regardless of that, it really is a lovely tower, and the sentiment behind its history is wonderful (more details of this can be found on the Canmore website). I would be quite happy to have a lighthouse built for me (preferably while I’m still alive). With the cost of the recent trips though, I don’t think Bob would be very willing to oblige!

Back on the waves, or lack of I should say, off we went again. A short time later we passed a few small islands and spotted a couple of sea eagles closer than I’ve ever seen them before. They are very impressive, but I wouldn’t want to be get too close!

Eilean a Chuirn was destination number 1. I really like this kind of lighthouse, although I’m not entirely sure why it needs so many doors – perhaps so they can access it in high winds and which door they use depends on the wind direction. That sounds like the only plausible reasoning and would be my guess anyway. It’s a lot like the Waternish light on Skye. Gus explained that the large concrete block next to the lighthouse was part of the pulley system used for moving supplies from the landing point to the lighthouse.

eilean a chuirn

Eilean a Chuirn lighthouse

After a quick wave to McArthur’s Head, more on that one to follow, we went onwards to Na Cuiltean, which I’d seen from a distance from the ferry on Wednesday. It’s basically a solid platform with one level of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s flat pack arrangement on top. The base of the structure clearly takes a bit of a battering at times. One side of the base is almost completely covered in a layer of green algae and birds are obviously very fond of the rock it sits on!

na cuiltean

Na Cuiltean lighthouse

I was very excited about the next one. Skervuile isn’t really that far from land, but the land it is close to is very remote and fairly inaccessible, which makes seeing this one a bit of a challenge. I’d seen it as a small white pencil of a thing in the distance from the ferry. As we approached it was getting bigger and bigger and yet there still seemed to be some distance to go. It reminded me of a term I’d heard from Christian Nock who walked around the coastline of mainland UK: “lighthouse syndrome”. Anyone who has ever walked any distance to a lighthouse will know the feeling. You see the lighthouse and think “Great, I’m nearly there” and an hour later you are still walking towards it. Well, the approach to Skervuile was a little like that, except it wasn’t an hour. We did eventually get there though and I was very surprised to see the rock below it exposed. All of the pictures I’d remembered of it were at high tide where the sea completely surrounds the base of the tower. With the tide fairly low, the small landing platforms were also exposed. As with all rock lighthouses, I stood staring at it thinking “wow, I have no idea how they built that, but I’m so glad they did”!

skervuile

Skervuile lighthouse

Eilean nan Gabhar was next on the agenda as we sailed back down the Sound of Jura. This one is a fairly standard flat pack, except it’s a flat pack with those Paps in the background from certain angles! I’ve become a little obsessed with getting pictures of lighthouses with the Paps of Jura in the background. The joy of it being that it is very easily done in the Islay/Jura area. I believe the term “commanding the landscape” is very apt as that is exactly what the Paps do – well, until you stick a lighthouse in front of them, of course!

eilean nan gabhar

Eilean nan Gabhar lighthouse

Another wave to McArthur’s Head as we entered the Sound of Islay. The ferry had given us a very good view of Carraig Mhor, to the south of Port Askaig, on Wednesday, but this was an opportunity to get even closer. Not landing close (although that would have been possible, but was not a priority for today). With the reduced elevation compared to the ferry, and the calm sea conditions it was also a good chance to catch some nice reflection shots. Love a reflection! It still looked from our closer angle like it would be quite difficult to access by land.

carraig mhor

Carraig Mhor lighthouse

From the ferry on Wednesday, I’d quickly caught the little lighthouse, Carragh an t-Sruith on the west coast of Jura. Very similar in appearance to Eilean a Chuirn, this one looks to be a nice little walk from the landing point for the ferry across the short stretch from Islay. Must put that on my “to do” list.

carragh an t-sruith

Carragh an t-Sruith lighthouse

Ruvaal hadn’t been part of the original plan, but I asked Bob this morning if we would be going that far. I think he sensed from my tone that I wanted to go there. We asked Gus nicely and he was more than happy to add it on. On the way there he told us about the couple who own the lighthouse and how they manage being such a long way from a road. The majority of their journeys to Port Askaig are done by small boat. They do have a quad bike to drive across the difficult terrain, but Gus explained that the land they cross is mostly mud. He had once driven up there on the quad once with a passenger and saw a big puddle, which he thought he could get through. As it turned out, a pole had blown down in the wind and had been removed along with its base, leaving a gaping chasm (my words, not his). So, Gus ended up stuck in this gaping chasm with water almost up the seating level in the quad. Fortunately he was able to get them out and back on the track. The challenges they must face seem endless to me and it would take a certain type of person to be able to live (or enjoy life) there. As much as I love lighthouses, I would need to draw the line when it comes to choosing which one to live in, and Ruvaal falls below this line! Having said that, the lighthouse is beautiful. Incredibly slender! If I were a lighthouse, I would want to look like Ruvaal. It was lovely to sail around it and see the side with the windows too. Maybe I could live there – perhaps – just for a few days.

ruvaal

Ruvaal lighthouse

mcarthur's head1

McArthur’s Head lighthouse

We had purposely saved McArthur’s Head for the way back. We’d rather cheekily asked Gus if he thought it might be possible for us to go ashore there and climb those glorious steps. He explained that it is not possible to land at low tide, he’d once been stranded in a nearby cave due to the tide going down. To maximise our chances of landing, he suggested saving it until the end of our trip when the tide would be in. He wasn’t wrong and I may have squealed a little (just a little) when he said that he’d get us in! We hopped ashore and made for the steps. I approached the steps thinking that there weren’t that many and it would be easy enough. About 10 or so steps from the top I changed my mind. It’s a long way up! But it was so worth it. The lighthouse, while not unlike a number of others in the area, was stunning and the extra effort you put into getting to it adds to the enjoyment. My favourite views though were from the end of the path beyond the lighthouse looking back at it with Jura in the background. Just beautiful. Gus told us that the lighthouse was painted last year and they flew in 2.5 tonnes of paint for the job. I imagine at least half of this paint was used on the wall rather than the tower itself. The wall is so long that I didn’t even realise we were inside it! McArthur’s Head now holds the record for the most number of hugs it has had from me (3). I even enjoyed walking back down the steps. I can’t decide though whether the lighthouse looks better from the land or from the sea. It is just an all-round wonderful lighthouse and I want to go back already!

mcarthur's head2

McArthur’s Head from the sea

Heading back to Port Ellen, the sea eagles were out in force again, being wound up by some gulls. Gus had told us about a group of stags he’d seen swimming between islands near Eilean a Chuirn the other day. By some wonderful chance, we spotted one in the water as we passed. Gus did a very quick and very sharp turn in the RIB to enable us to see the deer swimming at close range. After it arrived on the island it looked back at us briefly before wandering off onto the island.

A wonderful and very successful day. Certainly one never to be forgotten. 🙂

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Islay, where it’s all about the location

For a change, today has been a shorter day. In a recent post I mentioned the benefits of winter: being able to catch lighthouses at sunrise and the lights in action. The downside, though, is the later starts and earlier finishes. It’s still been a productive day though.

Two lighthouses beckoned this morning, and when they call one must go! The first was the Rinns (or Rhinns) of Islay, which resides majestically on the island of Orsay off of Port Wemyss. On the way there we passed what was to be our second stop of the day, Loch Indaal at Port Charlotte, and had a quick look at how we might be able to get access to it. While the field to the north of Loch Indaal House (which is available as a holiday let – the views of the lighthouse at night would be wonderful from there, I imagine) was home to a few young Highland cows, the field to the south looked a lot more inviting with just a few sheep roaming around. Back to that one shortly.

rinns of islay2

Rinns of Islay lighthouse on Orsay

As we approached the small but very picturesque village of Port Wemyss the Rinns of Islay lighthouse just appeared out of nowhere, considerable bigger than I expected it to be. While I knew it wasn’t a huge stretch of water between Port Wemyss and Orsay, I hadn’t expected it to be so close. One of the first views we had of the lighthouse was fantastic. Heading straight for the coast with houses on either side of the road, the lighthouse was perfectly positioned at the end of the road, looking almost like you could drive right up to it. There are some wonderful spots to get views across to the island and lighthouse from the coastal road. A perfectly positioned picnic bench is just up the hill slightly from the slipway. A wonderful spot to spend some time “lighthouse gazing” and enjoying the moment. One day I hope to make it across to the island, but it’s not on the plan for this week. Something to look forward to another time.

loch indaal2

Loch Indaal lighthouse

Returning to Port Charlotte, we parked up in the village and wandered along the road until we reached Loch Indaal House. I asked my usual “are you sure we’re allowed to go through this field?” and Bob reassured me for the 500th time that it was absolutely fine – we are in Scotland and there is “right to roam”! Onwards we went. I’d already said that I wanted to get a picture of the lighthouse with the Paps of Jura in the background, so we walked slightly further south before heading to the lighthouse. The best place to get this picture is actually from the road where the Paps still manage to look about the same height as the lighthouse! Where yesterday the Paps made Na Cuiltean lighthouse appear so small and insignificant, Loch Indaal light won this time, but only once we’d made it to the bottom of the field! It did make for a lovely view. No blue skies today, but also no rain and very little wind. It’s a nice rocky area to wander around and we slowly made our way towards the lighthouse. The tower is a fairly straightforward affair and reminded me a lot of the tower at Corran. It’s no wonder really as they were both the brainchild of the wonderful Stevenson team that was David and Thomas, with Loch Indaal first lit just 9 years after its twin on the mainland at Corran. I mean, why reinvent the wheel?! Interestingly, the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) face plate next to the door says “Loch Indaall”, but most spellings appear to only have the one ‘l’ on the end – even in places on the NLB website. It’s not the most astounding of lighthouses, but it’s really easy to get to and in a lovely location.

carraig fhada2

Port Ellen/Carraig Fhada lighthouse

After a lunch break, we hit the road again with Bob shuttling us all (the four of us and his mum) to Port Ellen in two runs. I was dropped off first which gave me the chance to go on ahead to the Port Ellen lighthouse, which in these parts is more commonly referred to as Carraig Fhada. It’s a nice little walk around the coast and the lighthouse is visible pretty much all of the way along. It doesn’t resemble a lighthouse in the traditional sense, but it looks wonderful and you just can’t help but take numerous pictures on the approach. Well, I would have done just that had a couple and their two dogs not entirely ruined my view by walking out to the lighthouse at completely the wrong time. I can’t complain about them too much though as the man pointed out a heron on the rocks on the way out, so I managed to get some decent pictures of a heron (not really my sort of thing, but good to have to share with my birdwatcher dad). The best pictures and views though, in my opinion, are to be had near the entrance to the narrow walkway that leads out to the lighthouse. When you see a little walkway like that there is nothing for it, you just need to walk it. It could be pretty hairy at times I imagine and completely unwise to walk out in rough sea conditions, maybe even verging on impossible without getting washed away. I was splashed a little once on the way out and today has been really quite calm. It’s a great little wander. There’s not a lot to see once you are at the lighthouse. It’s a relatively small rock that it sits on, so you can’t get any decent pictures of the tower. Crossing back over the walkway I made my way back towards the cemetery where I’d been dropped off and met the others on their way to the lighthouse. We all bagged the lighthouse and had a walk along to the Singing Sands, which didn’t appear to be singing today (apparently the wind was coming from the wrong direction). On the way back to the car, I managed to get those pictures I’d missed out on due to “that couple” with the dogs. All was well in the end.

I should add that, as we arrived in Port Ellen this afternoon, I spotted a few flashes straight ahead. Considering it was still daylight at this point, I was quite amazed, and intrigued. Looking at the map, I wondered if it might be one of the lights on Rathlin Island off of the north coast of Northern Ireland, most likely Altacarry Head. Bob wasn’t sure. Having looked into it a little more though, I am very pleased to have been proven right. Altacarry Head, or Rathlin East, lighthouse does indeed flash 4 times every 20 seconds as we had seen and, very interestingly, does so 24 hours a day! This has been the case since November 1995 and was introduced to “improve the daytime conspicuity of the station”, as stated on the Commissioners of Irish Lights website. That explained everything.

That’s all for today. More to come tomorrow (she says, with crossed fingers)! 🙂

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Getting serious with some January bagging

Happy New Year to you! I’m not sure I’ve managed to say that in a blog post before with the key reason being that bagging season for me doesn’t usually start until at least March. Winter isn’t always conducive to enjoyable lighthouse visits, although last weekend’s trip to Northern Ireland is evidence that it’s not necessarily the case.

Feeling the need to continue the brilliance of last year, and fill some gaps in pictures required for my book (see this earlier post for details of this), a little time in the Islay and Jura area was required. It’s very much been uncharted territory for me so far.  It’s also not the easiest area for visiting lighthouses as some of the lights aren’t so easy to access, being either on rocks in the middle of the water or involving a long distance walk on very rough or boggy terrain.

Ardrishaig

Ardrishaig lighthouse

There is a plan to address this later in the week – more on that in a couple of days, all being well. Before that though, today has been a day of “glimpsing” the lights, almost in preparation.

Travelling from Ayrshire to Kennacraig to catch the ferry, we stopped on the west bank of Loch Fyne at Minard. From here the black and white Sgeir an Eirionnaich (or Paddy Rock) light can be spotted. From such a distance there’s not a lot to say about it, except that one day I hope to get a little closer! Continuing the journey south, we gave the lighthouse in Ardrishaig a quick wave as we passed.

McArthur's Head

McArthur’s Head lighthouse

We weren’t sure what it would be possible to see from the ferry between Kennacraig and Port Askaig, more specifically the section to the south of the Sound of Jura. I braved the elements and stepped outside with the zoom lens in tow. At first I spotted a white tower in the distance and, checking the map, established that it must have been Skervuile. I was actually on the look out for the Na Cuiltean light at the time, not expecting to see Skervuile, so that was a bonus. I’m really looking forward to seeing Skervuile close up (fingers crossed it will happen this week). Scanning the coast, I finally caught sight of the Na Cuiltean lighthouse, another one to get closer to. It’s not a huge tower anyway, but even if it had been it would have been dwarfed by the incredible Paps of Jura in the background. What an island Jura looks to be from the sea!

I’d had my eye on McArthur’s Head between views of the two lighthouses to the north. I had a few minutes to go back inside and warm up a bit, before it was time to head out again on the approach to the Sound of Islay. Although I’d never seen it in person before, the lighthouse and its surrounding wall at McArthur’s Head are very recognisable. It was wonderful to pass it and see it from a number of different angles with more detail of the landscape emerging with every moment.

Carraig Mhor

Carraig Mhor lighthouse

The final lighthouse of the journey was Carraig Mhor just to the south of Port Asking. There was no need for a zoom lens for this one. The small, but perfectly formed tower would not even be worth attempting to visit from the island itself, but the very surroundings that make it so inaccessible from land is exactly what makes it such a picturesque view from the sea. The lighthouse is nestled there quite happily with its own jetty.

I’d just started to make my way back inside again when I remembered there was one left to see – Carragh an t-Sruith on Jura. We weren’t particularly close to it, but it was visible and yet another one for later in the week – hopefully. As I said, it’s been a glimpsing day with hopefully better views and clearer pictures to come. 🙂

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