Cosmology — fragments

say the world is filled
mainly with emptiness

gaps
between trees

space
between stars and planets
atoms and particles

tiny fragments
of presence
surrounded by absence

sounds break up silence
into song, measured and measurable
ordered on mathematical principles
numbered and arranged
in defiance of zero
of nothing
of space

vain desire that there be
something rather than nothing

lonely beauty of a dying star
on the remote edge
of a galaxy
a billion light years away
spinning and whirling
on the edge of annihilation
dancing and singing
its brief being
into the void

is it just a habit of mind
this conflict between something and nothing?
Manichaean tendency to believe
that everything requires an opposite?
polarizing instinct to divide
rather than blend?

say
we are atoms thrown defiantly together
we are particles cast out from stars
we are energy
time and motion

and when our time is done
cast off again
thrown together again
reused and recycled

old notes for new songs
new arrangements of old harmonies

in the end there is silence

that music had a dying fall
but does nothing follow?

the musicians put away their instruments
the audience departs, the hall is empty

say there will be other songs, other performances
other musicians and audiences

say each performance will be something new
or a remembrance of something that never was
and never will be again

maybe it’s a failure of imagination
that I don’t believe

in angels or gods, or
feel a connection to something beyond

that I don’t fill emptiness with purpose
suppose that planets have plans for me
or that they rest on spheres moved by celestial harmonies

that the inert remembers
the briefly living, that there is justice
more satisfying than dissolution

although I sometimes hope for a thread of memory
stitched into a corner of the fabric of time

I do not know how things begin
or end, or even if

or say
beginning and end are one and the same
seen from different angles

a lone whale sings her grief
to an almost empty ocean

in the middle of Ireland
stones still hold the shape
of an old church
carved and carefully stacked
into walls defying entropy
which has already claimed the roof
ruined the choir
where now even birds are not singing

other stones remember
lives no one recalls
history does not remark

only a fugitive cow grazes in the long grass
honeybees stir the pestles of wildflowers in the shade of a stone wall

and I have stopped to capture a moment in a photograph

how much longer will these stones cling to each other?
to the idea of order that placed them here?
how long can names and dates resist the wind and rain?

one year and eight hours away
I sat on the bench near my father’s stone
having cleared away the encroaching grass
and dirt that filled in the letters
of his name

and I spoke to him as if he were alive
spoke in a way I never did
while he was alive

I spoke as if he could hear me
as if it were a prayer

the wind stirred the leaves in the trees
and brought the rainclouds closer

somewhere a bird sang
a melody I couldn’t follow
and a hare stopped briefly
to consider my presence
then carried on with his day

 

© Mark Milner, Burnaby, BC, July 2019

Backing and forthing

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything on this blog. Being busy isn’t really much of an excuse. It’s not like there haven’t been hours wasted each day that I could have spent doing something productive. If this is, in fact, productive. For the most part, I think of it was talking to myself on (virtual) paper – a way of sorting through the flotsam of my mind, and trying to make some sense of it all. It’s been a strange few months.

A good friend of mine, who I’ve known for more than 30 years, has moved more than 7,000 km further away than he was previously – from Calgary to St. Petersburg, Russia. While I’m excited for him, and support his decision to leap into the unknown, what I feel mainly is loss.

In the past 25 years, since I moved back to the west coast, we’ve really only seen each other two or three times a year, at most, and rarely spoken on the phone more frequently than that. And yet, I’ve always felt a closeness, like kinship, to Scott. He was the best man at my wedding. He’s always been there when I needed him, and I’ve tried to do the same for him.

That he’s no longer an 80 minute flight, or 11 hour drive, away feels strange. To visit him now will not be as simple as booking holiday time and a flight. It will require planning. I’ll need to get a visa, for example, and won’t really be able to book anything until I have one. None of this is insurmountable, of course, and I can’t help feeling I’m being entirely selfish in focusing on this as a problem rather than an opportunity.

And yet, it still feels like loss. Scott was the first of my close friends to ride a motorcycle, and one of the last, too. Most others had given up already. My first long road trip on a bike was with Scott. We rode down the west coast and into the desert. We rode through eight western U.S. states and two provinces in twelve days. By the end of it, motorcycling had become part of my identity.

I’ve done two long trips since then, and numerous shorter rides. One trip, with another friend, who later gave up riding after a crash, expanded on that first adventure. Twelve states in 21 days. And then last year, I rode solo around Ireland and the UK for three weeks.

Since that last trip, though, I’ve barely ridden at all. A handful of short rides last summer and early fall. Nothing really since then. In part, it’s likely to do with not having many people nearby to go out riding with. But mainly, I just haven’t been motivated to do it. Riding in traffic has become a drag, and there just aren’t that many good routes nearby that I haven’t already done, in many cases multiple times. There’s certainly nothing on the level of the roads in Ireland and Scotland. And so, with all that, I’ve put my bike up for sale.

This, too, feels a little bit like loss, although it was entirely my own decision. Seeing my bike in the garage every day, and not really feeling the urge to ride it, was beginning to bother me. Keeping it insured and maintained, but not riding it, seemed like a waste. It’s a great bike. It deserves to be ridden.

I think, more than the annoyances of traffic and the declining number of fellow riders in my circle, my identity began changing last year. I started to think of myself more in terms of playing music than in terms of riding motorcycles.

I’m not very good (yet) at playing music, but I’ve improved quite a bit over the past year. I’ve now got a collection of five instruments – two bass guitars, an electric guitar, an acoustic, and a keyboard synthesizer. Where my YouTube stream used to be filled with motorcycle videos, it’s now full of music-related things.

Are my motorcycling days done forever? I don’t know. It’s entirely possible that I’ll want to do more long trips in the future. Or that a period away from it will reignite the passion I used to feel. We’ll see. For now, though, I’m indulging other interests.

And of course, Adele and I are preparing for our pilgrimage. Dates in calendar are often closer than they appear. We’re just over two months from flying off to Portugal, and then walking to Spain. If I weren’t me, I’d be jealous.

I expect a lot will happen between now and then. Locally, Bard on the Beach has begun it’s 2019 season. We’ve seen Taming of the Shrew (which was brilliant!) and have two more plays coming up this month, and one in August. We’ve also recently seen the Claypool Lennon Delirium – one of the best rock shows I’ve experienced – and have tickets coming up for The Raconteurs, ZZ Top and Iron Maiden (although Adele has already said I should find someone else for that one). Add to that the walking we need to keep doing, the songs I want to learn, the books to read… And… and… and….

Well, this has been a bit of a pointless ramble. My apologies if I’ve wasted your time. But it was your decision, as much as mine, to keep going. If you expected there to be a point to all this, whose fault was that? But I’ll tell you what: I’ll try to do better next time.

Pilgrimage

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a religious person. I don’t believe in gods or spirits that are disconnected from bodies, or souls that survive after a person dies. I believe we are physical beings, with an all too finite span of existence, and that what many people call a soul is really just a part of mind or personality. Of course, I could easily be wrong about this, as is the case with any belief, but I haven’t seen any evidence or argument that has convinced me that I’m in error.

And so it may seem strange that I will be making a pilgrimage this year. Not just a journey that has personal meaning, but an actual pilgrimage. Later this year my wife and I will walk one of the several official pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela – known at one time as a ‘way of St. James’, as people once believed (and some may still) that the remains of St. James were located in Santiago. Leaving aside the vast amount of historical fraud associated with so-called relics, pilgrimages of this sort have been popular in Europe since the Middle Ages, and many people of more religious bent still embark on such journeys – and the Camino, in particular – for religious or ‘spiritual’ reasons. For me, however, this will be a very long walk through places I have yet to visit, where I hope to meet many people, encounter new foods and wines, new music and art, expand slightly my meagre linguistic capabilities, and learn more about myself.

I have long been of the opinion that walking has benefits that other forms of mobility do not. The physical benefits are obvious and well known – and something I can use more of in my far too sedentary lifestyle. In addition to those, walking (if done right) helps to clear the mind and improve our ability to attend to the world around us, in a manner that other, faster forms of travel preclude. The faster you move, the less you take in, and the less time you have to think about and absorb the information around you. If you really want to know a place, you need to walk it.

Before we travel to the start of our journey, we’ll spend more time walking in our own, more familiar environment. We need to get used to walking more than 10 km – usually 15 to 20 – every day, if we expect to be able to walk the 240 km route we have planned in two weeks. So, over the course of the spring and summer, we’ll begin walking more, building up to the distances we need to able to cover. In doing so, not only will our physical health likely improve (did I mention I spend far too much time sitting?), but I expect we will come to know our home town, and ourselves, in new ways.

If anyone has done a similar journey, please let me know about it in the comments. And if you’ve blogged about it, send me link.

Stones

In the middle of the city
a field of carefully arranged stones
is calling out.

One stone in particular
calls to me, calls
acoss mountains, calls quietly
as a whisper of wind in short prairie grasses
or snow leaning gently against fenceposts.

There are few of us here
tending to the stones, clearing
the snow and dead
overgrown grasses and cold
dirt from their faces.

Even though I have memorized the place
it still takes a few tries to locate the right one.
And then it is there.
My father’s name emerging, and the dates,

always surprising me
with how many years it’s been now.

The quiet of this place,
this field of stones, where names and dates
drift out of memory. How many years before this is all that is left of us?
Who will visit on a winter’s day
to brush the obscuring snow from our names?

We turn away from the thought.
I say goodbye to the stone.
I promise to return.

© Mark Milner, 2018, Vancouver

Loss in the supermarket

This poem grew out of a story my cousin-in-law (that’s a thing, right?) posted on Facebook. It stuck in my mind, as some things do, where it got reshaped (not to say warped) as everything tends to. This is for her, and her son.

Loss In The Supermarket

a woman and her young son
are in the supermarket
looking at steaks when the boy asks
are those dead cows?
and the woman answers, yes
and the boy asks
why are they dead?

before she can answer
a man nearby says, because they’re delicious

she doesn’t tell the boy this is wrong
or at least, not entirely right
she doesn’t tell him that everything dies
and some things that die are eaten
she doesn’t say that the cows were always
going to be food (and shoes and jackets and
baseball gloves) and that some people think that’s wrong and others think it’s delicious

she doesn’t say the cows
(and pigs and chickens)
only exist to be cut up and shrink
wrapped on styrofoam trays

she doesn’t say that someday she
will fade and fall like the leaves that litter
the lawns on their street, and that
so will he and so will his older brother
and their father, too

and everyone they know
who doesn’t come
to a more unseasonable end

she doesn’t talk about
the hospital where she works
about the overflowing cancer ward
that his grandfather has survived
twice now

she doesn’t say there is really no surviving
but only temporary reprieves

she hopes he will not learn this too soon

she chooses her steaks and smiles to him
should we buy ice cream for dessert?

© Mark Milner, 2018, Vancouver

The Ends of the Earth

“Borrowed time and borrowed world
and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

– Cormac McCarthy

1

Asphyxia. Choking on smog, like soldiers in a forgotten war,
Fatal crack in the glass lens of the gas mask
After stumbling in the filtered light.

2

Not waving but drowning.
The dead seas rising to envelop us.
Skeletons reclining on plastic islands.

3

No hum of bees. No flowers vibrating
In the cool of the morning. The trees do not blossom.
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

4

…in a handful of dust. The farms have
Dried up and blown away, even the insects starving.
If only there were rain. Dull orange sun in a sepia sky.

5

After the thunder, silence. Negation
Deeper than absence of sound. And she ran toward me,
Burning, eyes staring, mouth open but unable to scream through the flames.

6

Ashes falling like snow
Blanketing bare tree branches, deep on the ground.
Long sleep with no waking.

© Mark Milner, 2018, Vancouver

Morning run

metronomic slap slap slap
footfalls like rain falling
wet on the pavement
hard to believe it’s almost six

pair of headlights
slip out of an alleyway
slither through a puddle
depart

and me in XTC
senses working overtime

and crossing the bridge
mind out over the water
heart up over the moon

it is only one step and then another and
another like words falling
wet on the pavement

hard to believe
hard to believe
it’s ten past six and almost home

© Mark Milner, Vancouver, 2018

Ungodly

Many people find it hard to accept that anyone is really an atheist. When the going gets tough, they think, the tough get praying. There are no atheists in foxholes. I suppose that last part may be true. Most of the atheists I know would rather find an alternative to fighting, if at all possible, while many religions have made a fetish of dying for your beliefs. And, statistically, atheism is fairly unusual, so it’s likely that not many atheists find themselves in a foxhole, especially outside the context of a World War, like the two that consumed the first half of the 20th Century.

Still, people look at you funny if you say you don’t believe in a god. Not that I say it all that often, and not generally unprompted. Atheism isn’t something I advertise. I don’t feel any need to proselytize in the name of… well, of no one, of nothing. I don’t really want to convert anyone to doubt.

But believers often want to convert me to faith, or to convince me that I really do believe in something, and that that something is really juts another name for a god. And not just any god, but their God. After all, as Ricky Gervais likes to point out, there are thousands of gods, and most religious people only believe in one of them, and disbelieve in the rest; I just happen to disbelieve in one more than they do. Or don’t. Whatever.

Frequently the something they try to convince me I believe in is science. This seems funny to me, and shows they don’t really understand what science is. What science isn’t is a system of beliefs. What science is is a method of proving (or, more often, of disproving) hypotheses about the world. It is a useful method for developing our understanding of natural or physical phenomena, and has led to a great many technological advances (although technology, contrary to popular belief, is not the same thing as science).

There are, of course, things I believe for which I have insufficient or no proof at all, although I tend to view these beliefs as hypotheses. I don’t, however, believe these things religiously. If someone were to provide proof that I’m wrong about them, I don’t think I would have much trouble changing my mind. I’m not speaking, here, only about scientific proofs/disproofs. This could be (and often is) more a matter of philosophical persuasion. That was the case when I stopped believing in gods.

I was brought up in a religious family, as an Anglican (the Canadian version of Church of England, Episcopalian, etc). All my early life, I was trying to find ways to think about god that made sense to my young mind. When I was very young, for example, before I started school, I imagined that the bright light at the centre of a light bulb was god. Even then, I wanted some evidence that the being in the Sunday school stories was more than just an idea. Much later, it was the problem of evil that ended my faith for good. The question if god is all powerful, all knowing, all good, and the creator of everything, how is there evil in the world? didn’t seem to have a reasonable answer. It still doesn’t. I don’t buy the ‘free will’ argument, that god is just letting us choose. My will would be no less free if all the options I had to choose from were good. Also, it still doesn’t explain the origin of evil.

That problem, of course, is specific to Semitic or western religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in a polytheistic world view, or one in which the creator god is not all good. Those have other issues, that western religions share, such as how gods interact with the physical world and its laws, such as conservation of matter and energy.

It may be that I am wrong. That there is a god, or many gods. Perhaps even the one worshiped by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. I doubt it, but that possibility exists. If I am proven wrong in my atheistic hypothesis, I will acknowledge it and change my mind. (Continuing to believe something that’s proven wrong is just idiotic.) But in the meantime, rest assured I will not try to convert any religious folk (including my family) to my point of view, and I hope I can expect the same treatment in return.

Accounting

Who profits if you spend less than you save?
Sometimes survival’s as good as it gets.
What you do matters more than what you have.

Working day after day only to stave
Off risk of want means a life of regrets.
Who profits if you spend less than you save?

It’s the consonance between live and love
The banality of our daily life forgets.
What you do matters more than what you have.

The free man dies as surely as the slave.
Death is the final payment of our debts.
Who profits if you spend less than you save?

It’s a lie that fortune favours the brave.
Blind luck decides the outcomes of our bets.
What you do matters more than what you have.

You can live to work or work to live.
Whatever the balance, time always collects.
You might as well spend it all and not save.
What you do matters more than what you have.

 

© Mark Milner, 2018, Vancouver

Postscript

I’ve been home for about 40 hours now, and little by little my body is readjusting to the eight-hour time lag between Ireland and the west coast of Canada. Before my thoughts on my trip recede too much into the distorting waters of memory and forgetting, I thought I’d dash off a few observations in postscript, and post a few more pictures from some of the places I visited.

The bike

Whe I first started planning my trip, I had intended to ship my own motorcycle across to Europe. The more I looked into this, though, the more I realized that it made more sense to hire a bike that was already there. This was mainly about cost-benefit. The relatively short length of my time overseas meant the total cost of renting a brand new bike wasn’t much greater than the cost of shipping my own. When I included the various fees and taxes, insurance costs, and what I would need to do with my bike to get it ready for the trip, it was more or less a wash. My wife pointed out that I was less likely to have  expensive and frustrating mechanical issues with a brand new bike than with my ageing warhorse, and since the chances of finding a qualified BMW mechanic in remote areas of the Highlands didn’t seem good, and since the hire bike included roadside assistance in the cost of the rental, I decided she was right (as is often the case).

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My hire bike: a 2018 Triumph Tiger 800 XRT.

I’m glad I made that choice. The Triumph Tiger 800 is a fantastic bike, and while I don’t like it better than my old R1150GS, certain features definitely came in handy. I’m quite sure that cruise control, for example, helped save me from speeding tickets, especially in Scotland, where speed cameras are ubiquitous. Over time I got used to working with – and more often around – the ridiculous number of controls on the left handlebar, although I’d still suggest Triumph take a look at how this is all arranged. I suspect that something like BMW’s thumb wheel would be easier to use, and help prevent unwanted selections (like inadvertently switching on the heated seats when turning on the fog lamps).

In retrospect, I should have inquired more carefully about luggage capacity. I packed an appropriate amount for the cases I have on my bike, which are admittedly enormous. The aftermarket bags on my GS – Happy Trails side cases (35 and 40 litres), and a Givi top box (52 litres) – can comfortably hold more than enough for a three to four week trip. The much smaller OEM bags on the Triumph are better suited to one week. It’s my own fault for not enquiring. If I ever hire a bike again, I’ll do so.

I would also strongly recommend bringing your own riding gear, or at the very least, your own helmet. The gear I was provided with was mostly high enough quality (I’d even consider buying some RST gear if I could find it here), but it took nearly the full length of the trip for me to remember to put motorcycle pants (or ‘jeans’ as they call them over there, since ‘pants’ means underwear to them) first, then boots. My own gear has nearly full-length side zips, so I can (and usually do) put my boots on first.

The helmet was more of an issue. It fit a little snugger than my helmet, didn’t have a flip up chin bar (which meant I had to remove my glasses every time I wanted to put the helmet on or take it off) or a sun shade (so that I had to decide whether to wear my sunglasses or my regular glasses, something that can’t be changed on the fly). It also didn’t come with internal speakers, so I couldn’t get audio instructions from the GPS and had to look away from the road more often than I would have liked.

The GPS (or sat nav, over there) was an excellent thing to have, and worked well when using Google Maps (or other apps) on my phone wouldn’t have. Even though I had to look at it more than I would have liked, it was much easier to do so quickly than would have been the case on a paper map.

SIM cards

One of the best decisions I made was getting an Irish SIM card, rather than using a ‘travel plan’ from my Canadian provider. The travel plan would have cost me $150, and not even provided me with the meagre amount of data I normally have access to at home. The SIM card (which I got from 3 mobile) gave me “all you can eat” data (60GB!) in Ireland, and 6GB of roaming data for the UK, for €30 (less than a third of the cost of the Canadian travel plan). I ended up using about 17GB total, including 4.5GB in the UK. If you’re a Canadian travelling abroad for any length time, you should seriously consider getting a local SIM card when you arrive. The only downside is how ripped off you’re going to feel you are when you’re at home and paying more than twice the rate for about a tenth of the data you get in Europe.

Ireland

Ireland is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It’s ridiculous how pretty it is, nearly everywhere.

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A typical view in the Irish countryside. This was near the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The Irish people, especially in the Republic, are friendly and welcoming. Dublin is an incredibly cosmopolitan place, with people from all over Europe – and around the world – working and attending university and visiting there. The whole of Ireland is an incredible blend of the new and old. History is on display everywhere, and yet it’s very forward looking as well, especially in cities like Galway and Dublin.

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Thoor Ballylee, near Gort in Co. Galway, is the tower that Yeats lived in with his family. Irish literary history is rightly celebrated throughout Ireland.

Ireland has punched well above its weight in literature for more than a century, producing such important writers as Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Sean O’Casey, Louis MacNeice, and Seamus Heaney, to name just a few.

Musically, too, Ireland has provided the world with more than its fair share of artists, especially in rock and pop music. Thin Lizzy, Gary Moore, The Boomtown Rats, U2, Sinnead O’Connor, The Pogues, Rory Gallagher, and many others have made a huge impact on popular music over the past 50 years.

IMG_0712
A statue of Phil Lynott, the bassist and lead singer of Thin Lizzy, stands near Grafton Street in the centre of Dublin. In the 1970s, Thin Lizzy paved the way for many other Irish bands, like the Boomtown Rats and U2.

Scotland

Scotland has a different kind of beauty than Ireland. More rugged, less lush, but equally stunning. It’s astonishing just how much the landscape changes as you travel through Scotland. There is as much variation in geology and flora as there is in the many styles of whisky produced there.

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The road from Applecross to Shieldaig in the Scottish Highlands.

I would like to have spent more than the week I had in Scotland. It is too vast to really see much of it. What I did see, I loved. From Loch Lomond to Inverness, Moffat to Shieldaig, Elgin to Edinburgh. The beers are different from those in Ireland, and of course single malt whisky is very different from Irish whiskey (which is almost always blended). As was the case in Ireland, many of the road signs, at least in the Highlands, are in both English and Gaelic (although Scots Gaelic isn’t exactly the same as Irish).

In fact, a person could easily spend a week or more just in the Highlands. Or just in Edinburgh. And, I’m sure, the same would go for Glasgow, which I sadly didn’t get to this time around. I hope Adele and I will visit Scotland in the future, so I can see more of it.

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A lane in Edinburgh’s Dean Park neighbourhood.

England and Wales

I didn’t spend much time in England or Wales. A couple of nights each. The highlight of that was the time I was in the tiny village of Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas lived and is buried. For such a small place, it packs a lot of beauty and history into it. It would be worth a second visit, if I’m ever down that way again.

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The ruins of the castle at Laugharne, on the south coast of Wales.

Midlife non-crisis

All in all, it was a fantastic journey, and an excellent, adventurous way to celebrate being 50. If I were doing it again, I’m not sure what I’d change. Add more time, maybe, if I could, and have Adele accompany me for at least part of it. Traveling alone for that length of time was a very different experience for me. I’m glad I did it, but I think I prefer having someone to share the experience with.

I don’t really have a lot more to say. I do, though, have many more pictures. Here is a sampling from them.

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Farms in the Dingle peninsula.
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Cliffs of Moher
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Connemara
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Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland
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Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland
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The road to Applecross, or Bealach na Ba, Scottish Highlands
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Highland cattle
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Sculpture near the National Gallery in Edinburgh
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Washback stills (the tall ones) and spirit stills at the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown, Scotland
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Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
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Scarborough Castle, Scarborough, England
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Waiting for the tide to come in. Laugharne, Wales.
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Lake District, England.
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Sandycove, Dublin, Ireland.