FEATURE: What We Do – BDC Knockhill Circuit, Scotland

Posted by Ian Gratton on 18th July.

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Over the years I’ve been shooting drifting I’ve attended over 35 competition events and I’ve recently started to feel like a bit of a autonomous machine in doing so. When you are feeling lazy, re-visiting familiar tracks sure makes things easier as a photographer – you have past experience of what vantage points work and which don’t. You can stand in footprints of events past and achieve pretty much the same results. In this respect, experience is a blessing and you know exactly where to go to bank some safe shots, but in another sense if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. A different approach is needed to keep things interesting.

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As media we enjoy a privileged position on track. To many standing and viewing the event it might seem like a golden ticket. Show up, stand in the best spots, press the shutter button when a car passes and then head off home and share the images on Facebook. I can only reason that this is the reason why each year the amount of media personnel applying to shoot drift events seems to increase and, as a result, the accreditation process gets more stringent. The truth of the matter is that there’s a lot more to what we do than the idealistic summary above. It’s great fun and we wouldn’t change it for the world, but it’s no ride in the park – hopefully what I’m about to write goes some way towards documenting this via our experiences at the British Drift Championship second round at Knockhill Circuit, Scotland.

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For a start, we move around. A LOT. In the 14hours I spent trackside at the British Drift Championship second round at Knockhill, I did a total of 4.23 miles of walking. This doesn’t however take into account the number of crouches, squats, pelvic twists, and climbing (falling down banks) performed as the cars as they fly by. That almost constitutes exercise, right?

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It’s become almost tradition that the British Drift Championship visits Knockhill in Scotland towards the back end of the season around September. This year, however,  the circuit hosts round 2 of the championship in a much more pleasant June. Would this change bring us a smoke-friendly dry Saturday and Sunday? The signs above the motorway flashing amber warnings of ‘Heavy Rain Forecast’ indicated otherwise.

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We photographers like to have choice, wide angle lenses, longer telephoto lenses, non zoom lenses, a camera body or three. Previously I’ve approached events armed to the teeth with kit, however this can limit you rather than help you. You spend more time thinking about which camera and/or lens combo you should use and end up missing moments. For Knockhill, I picked one body and one lens and stuck with it come what may. For the Saturday I’d use the full-frame Canon 5D Mk III body which I’d recently switched out for its older Mk II brother, and on the Sunday I’d use the APS-C Canon 7D, with it’s longer reach. The Canon 70-20mm f/2.8 would be my lens of choice for the weekend.

So I’m technically going to cheat on the ‘one lens’ bit. The smaller lump of glass in the foreground of the photograph above is a teleconverter. This essentially works like a very high quality magnifying glass you put between the lens and camera giving the lens an apparent 1.4x times magnification. So a 70-200mm lens becomes a 98-280mm lens – it’s a cheaper alternative for reaching closer without having to buy a bigger lens. The only cost to using the teleconverter is a hardly noticeable loss of clarity and a reduction in the amount of light that can enter into the camera – but that wont compromise things enough to notice.

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Fellow Drifted photographer Jordan Butters took a similar approach, however his weapon of choice was a Nikon body and Nikon 400mm f/2.8 prime lens. Now, 400mm is a LOT of reach for a camera lens – it allows you to take crystal clear pictures of things quite some distance away. The only weakness is you can’t zoom in and out – you have to position yourself in correct vantage point to take the photograph you want, which means some additional moving around the track.

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British Drift Championship events are a coming together of friends old and new – drifting is a shared experience loved by an ever growing fan base and crowds. From our perspective as official media for the event its almost the exact opposite. The three Drifted photographers at the event, Jord, Ste and myself, would rarely see each other during the day. If we moved round the circuit together we’d end up with three sets of pictures that look very similar. Shooting an event like this can sometimes be a very solitary experience but with three photographers operating in three different locations it really helps to get us varied material.

With the action slow on track at the start of the event, it’s a good time to head for a wander around the pits.

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You cant really expect the busy tyre guys to set off a bead blaster as you desire for a posed picture – they have a job to do – every competitor is depending on them. It was after waiting for the shots above that a startling statistic came to light. If 130 competitors all use five pairs of rear tyres over the course of the weekend that’s over 1,300 tyre swaps and inflations that these guys have to do. Even for someone who absolutely loves to change tyres, that is some serious work!

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Fresh from the win at Round One, Jack Shanahan was back to see if he could continue his winning streak. Shanahan is currently living what must seem like a dream. To be competing at this level must be one hell of a buzz for the young man.

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Jack’s Nexen Tyres stablemate for the weekend was Spain’s Lluis Lopez. I’d not seen much of Lluis since I’d initially come across him in Portugal a few years ago. His S14 is now running a potent LS2 V8 motor and is sporting a rather sizeable rear wing. This, along with the protruding bodywork on a few other cars, was being called into question by competitors and scrutineers over the weekend. Are there potential rule changes on the horizon?

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Its commonplace in drifting to see competition cars running engines and drive trains from completely different cars. If you peel back the graphics and pumped up body work most of these cars are a hybrids – I wonder what manufacturers make of seeing their competitor companies hardware making their own cars better?

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One swap that isn’t so common place is use of the VR38DETT engine taken from the Nissan R35 GTR. Martin Battye’s S15 is the only Nissan S-body we know of in the UK with this engine – and linked with a Quaife heavy duty 69G sequential gearbox makes for a seriously potent car.

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Peering through tiny holes in Lexan windows its easy to see this technical expertise and attention to detail isn’t just all on the surface with most of these cars. There is something almost beautiful about a functional race car interior. Lets not beat about the bush – these ARE in fact race cars – they travel by trailer or transporter and are by no means queens. These cars have a purpose – they are built to win.

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Everything has it’s place and needs to be within easy reach. Every fuse, switch, knob, gauge or dial needs a purpose – if it doesn’t have one it goes in the bin as it only serves to add weight and add to an already complex electrical jigsaw that could go wrong and cost the team points.

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There’s a huge amount of work ahead before the ignition key turns on any car. For many getting to the venue is a long, slow journey in a race truck or with a trailer in tow. For a successful weekend you have to be ready – the weekend could be won or lost back in the pits in the event of car damage in a battle or an unplanned tyre change a one-more-time situation arises and the five minute rule comes into play. Having a larger support team and facilities certainly helps but this is very much out of reach a bit further down the ranks –  even so – a driver knows his or her mates have got their back and will be ready to help if need be. Drifting in the UK simply does not get the investment and budget it does in countries like the USA.

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Wheel studs get their final checks…

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Flailing bumpers are re-attached…

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The hugely impressive DW86 sits dormant in the pits…

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But moments later the car is up on its gas jacks and bursts into life. Its mechanical components churn and clatter whilst lubricating fluids are brought up to operating temperature to smooth things out and allow for maximum grief with the loud pedal. In this modern age of wide rubber big power smokescreen drifting a 1600cc 4AGE engine just isn’t going to cut it anymore – the extra 20bhp you’d even get from a 20v engine swap isn’t going to do anything but waste your money. Extreme times call for extreme measures and if you want to drive an AE86 in today’s world of competitive drifting you have to get with the program an swap out the sewing machine sized motor for something that can get the job done.

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We should be thankful that AE86 owners are prepared to go to the extremes of engine swaps like this (and Brian Eagan’s F20C Supercharged AE86 Trueno) and we still get enjoy watching them in competition – although in such states of trim they are no longer the ‘underdog’ of old – these now almost 30 year old cars have been engineered to excel at what they do. It remains true – no car can hone your skills like an almost standard AE86 with no power. That isn’t something I just read on the internet – its from owning one for the last 10 years. That kind of driving, however, is now reserved for pure fun, it has no place in professional competition now, its just a truth we have to accept.

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Super-Pro drivers return from their briefing and are re-united with their cars. There is just enough time to engage with fans via social media before suiting up and getting ready for the hectic day ahead.

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The chorus of Super Pro cars swells with the addition of 1JZ and 2JZ motors leaving the Team Japspeed garage.  This gives us a good opportunity to look at just how much wider than normal the rears of these cars now are.  Massive blister arches only just manage to cover the wide rubber these cars now run – the bigger contact patch allowing for more grip – and with power output on the grid anywhere between 400bhp and 1000bhp, this makes for a lot of smoke!

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With the track dead, its time to get to my first vantage point, ready for the start of the action. From the end of the pit lane you can see the track drop away into ‘Duffus Dip’.

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First time over the hill in open practice is always a bit of a fact finding mission, especially with some dampness in the air. Seasoned veterans know the drill: move back over to the apex and aim for the red high curb – try not to climb it – the overhang of your front bumper will put you on the clipping point.

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There’s a 10m drop in sea level waiting for you out of sight!

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Come in a bit too hot and you’ll be on the red curb. First it will try and take your front bumper…

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Climb a little higher and you’ll pop the front inside wheel in the air – maybe a slight correction on landing but your hopefully still good – the camber on the inside edge of the track will suck you down the hill.

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If you take a lot of the red curb you’ll be looking at the sky. A totally unexpected moment for me and the camera but I imagine more so for Paul Cheshire!

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What goes up must come down and the car lands heavily on the other side of the corner on the drop into Duffus and sees the front suspension compress to its limits. Amazingly, Paul continued on through the rest of the course with a compromised line but tip of the hat for keeping it all together. Equally amazing no damage was done to the car with such a heavy landing.

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With not getting to visit Knockhill very often I selfishly end up staying at this vantage point for quite some time as it offers up such dramatic views of the action.

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Made even more dramatic by cars paying homage to Japanese Drift car styling of the early 2000’s  – for most of us this was our first glimpse of drifting.

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With the dull sky the drop off in the ground is more profound and the cars entering into smoke drifting back up the hill makes for some moody moments just before they drop out of sight.

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They come back into view again further down the track prior to entering the last turn and front clip of Scotsman corner where another high red curb awaits.

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By the end of Super Pro free practice the inevitable happens. The rain comes pouring down and spectators and media alike fled for shelter. Things become interesting now as Pro drivers have to adjust to the conditions and approach their runs differently to anything they have witnessed from the side-lines through the morning. Having ‘weather proof’ camera gear means I can keep shooting – driving rain isn’t enough of an excuse to run for shelter.

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Some opt for an exploratory run through the course to figure out grip levels and to avoid a potential off that could leave them without a car for the rest of the weekend.

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Lots of steering lock is now about trying to stop the car from spinning out on the damp track rather than trying to maintain angle at speed.

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Mis-reading conditions of the now soaked track and going in hot now only leads to serious understeer, washing out missing the clip completely and landing in the deep kitty litter.

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If you are lucky you’ll float over the top and manage to get out on the other side.  If not, you’ll yellow flag the practice session and need a tow out.

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After two or so hours in the pouring rain it was time to take a break from the track and grab a quick bite to eat.  Walking back through the pits and up to the start line the Pro drivers who’d not had a run yet looked anxiously down the pit straight to see if the next car would make it though without incident before setting off down to Duffus themselves.

In order to avoid big breaks in the action for spectators lunch periods are often quite short. By the time you walk back from the track to the circuit café there isn’t really much time to feed. Jord had completely opted out of lunch and he was busy processing images captured in the morning in the Knockhill media suite to provide both the British Drift Championship and our own Facebook page updates. Each driver class has their time slot and after that (bar repairs or setup changes) their day is done. As media our time slot lasts the entire day.

Having dropped off a coffee for Jord I headed to the other end of the track where Semi-Pro practice was taking place. Its here where I found a very wet and dejected Ste who was off to take shelter from the pouring rain and get a quick bite to eat of his own. I figured I’d better go and see what was happening.

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Looking back up the hill from where the cars start out the track had a nice greasy shine to it – there is no grip here.

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Initiating for the first rear clip at a slower speed…

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Drivers then enter a sea of water as they go left and aim for a front clipping point on a very unforgiving wall.

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The then transition back into a right hand corner through what can only be described as a lake.

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The standing water made for some great splash shots – but the sheer amount of water was causing some drivers issues with their cars. With all the typical under trays and guards removed water gets to places where it wouldn’t normally go. Electrical components like coil packs are really not fond of water and some cars were suffering with serious mis-fire issues – not what you want when planting your foot and expecting revs and power.

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With the Semi-Pro qualifying over the rain was still pouring down with the addition of wind cars and pit equipment were covered as much as possible and tents where tied down.

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With all the action over for the day pits emptied fairly quickly as everyone retreated from the rain.  The pits that had been such a hive of activity during the day was turned into a massive car wash by the weather.

So with day one done its time to head back to the hotel and get dried out.  Our work doesn’t stop here – its now time to download the contents of the days memory cards onto the computer – and then back up all the images from the day.  You can never be too careful – loosing all your shots from a busy day would present a serious problem.

The rest of the evening is balancing act between relaxing, eating, socialising and trying to process some of the photographs you’ve taken.  In a day we end up taking many images – in fact a LOT more than we actually need.  Normally you would do your best to get rid of any shots that are blurred or didn’t quite work the way you wanted them to at the side of the track but this is becoming more difficult.  With the much higher number of competitors and the military precision by which these events are now run there isn’t much of a gap in the action.  If you have your head down reviewing shots at the side of the track chances are you could miss something significant – the cars just keep on coming.  Still not fully adjusted back into the UK time zone its 2am before I realise I really should go to bed – it’s a 7am start in the morning after all!

Sunday – The Day Of No Rest

Sunday morning came round way too soon – 2 cups of coffee and a Premier Inn breakfast and it was time to be back at the track.

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Yesterday Semi-Pro class had qualified out at the opposite end of the circuit so the morning would start with a practice session for the top 16 qualifiers.  Its only fair they get to grips with the totally foreign layout before their battles in the afternoon.

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All classes would only be running 16 battles at round 2 of the championship and it was now time for Pro class drivers to qualify.

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The track was dry and the sky was more blue than cloud.  Time for the drivers to push on and pick up speed after yesterday’s rain slowdown.

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And how they pushed…finally the billows of smoke in place of clouds and rain.

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Alan Green certainly wasn’t shy of giving his S13 maximum attack…

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Even if it did mean a trip into the kitty litter at speed.

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Speed was definitely up – evident with signs of prolonged handbrake use to slow down a bit before entering into Scotsmans.

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Super Pro qualifying threw up more great action with drivers attacking the course hard.  Who’d have thought you’d see a little Volvo 340 competing at this level – another V8 engine swap success.

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Shooting from the inside of the track at Knockhill gives you a great vantage point for the bottom of Duffus Dip – the regular smoke machines appear to give that little bit more as the spinning tyres are pushed into the ground by the compression.

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The DW86 was looking damn fine.  The car surges forward at great speed thanks to the LS V8 motor in the front.  Seeing it at this angle here the subtle bodywork does a great job of disguising the huge wide 18″ wheels the car now runs.

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Moments later the front of the car explodes as Phil climbs the red curb on the inside of Scotsmans corner to make sure he is as close as possible to the front clip.

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With only 16 places available in the battles everyone is pushing hard.  A ‘banker’ run and fighting up the ranks from a top 32 is out of the question this weekend.  Such a run with only a top 16 could leave you very easily out of the battles – or if you end up at the bottom of a pile your first battle against the 1st place qualifier.

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The entries into Scotsman were full on…

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Sometimes almost full off…

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From mid-way down Duffus Dip on the infield you really do get a great view of the action.

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The front clip and transition at the bottom of the dip is pulverising tyres.

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Super-Pro qualifying was pretty intense with some great driving.

With qualifying over it was time for another short break and a bite to eat.  Knowing full well that human dynamo Jord would already be back at the media centre I collected him another coffee.  We don’t get much of a break – the Top 16 battles for Super-Pro are about to start.  Jord has just enough time to put some updates on the Drifted Facebook page, pass over some update images to the BDC media team and its straight back out to the track.  We part ways – I take the infield, Jord takes the outside edge of the track and we have no idea where Ste is at this point – we just know he is taking care of business.

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One of the hardest parts of shooting the battles is trying to keep both of the cars in the shot.  The drivers are typically very close when they fly over the Duffus crest.  If the lead driver is on a good run it can mean the chase driver falls behind and the cars are quite separated by the time they get to Scotsman corner.

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Sometimes a little too close for all the wrong reasons.

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The cars start hidden – and then flash into view…

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Wheels lift – sparks sometimes fly as cars ground out on the super high red curbs.

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Chase cars get separated from the lead car…and from their bodywork.

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Early Super Pro battles in the Top 16 are close and personal

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And just when things are hotting up – the rain comes and cools things down again.

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With lower traction power stops being an advantage – lower powered cars such as Dan Chapman’s SR20 powered S14 are now equal.

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Entry speeds slow – but the rain doesn’t

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Competitors stay much closer with no traction to pull away.

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David Waterworth and Matt Carter tussle for 3rd place on the Podium…

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As the last blow are traded between competitors, their day is almost over…

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And as the rain comes to an end so do the battles.  Our final four leave the heat of their cars and head towards the podium to find out which three get to stand on those steps.

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After the obligatory spraying of cheap champagne, the drivers part ways and pack up. But our job has only really just began. Two days shooting and a late night on the Saturday tends to leave us in a somewhat fatigued state – no way to start a 5-6 hour drive home. Arriving back just after midnight the photographs have to wait until morning.  The addition of Sundays photos takes my final total count up to just under 1,500. Ste has captured 2,400 and Jord has tallied up just under 2,000. That’s a grand total of almost 6,000 images that need sorting – a whopping 200Gb worth of data. The long arduous task of separating the good from the bad can now begin.

Hopefully this gives you some insight into just how much work is involved in what we do. It’s certainly not the free ride lots of people no doubt think it is. With our material for round 2 finished its literally only days before Round 3 takes place at Teesside Autodrome. So if you see us don’t think for one moment we are having an easy time of things – we are most definitely not – work it is – but fortunately very rewarding work!

Written by Ian Gratton

Ian Gratton

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