Through the Keyhole

While in Swanage, there have been several significant locations we decided we simply had to see, one of which was the sunrise at Durdle Door.  A magnificent natural arch of solid limestone, created by the erosion of the pounding tides on the Jurassic Coast of England.  The extra bonus of our visit being in the winter is that this is the only time of the year during which the sun rises through the archway, creating something called the “keyhole” effect.  With Ian’s interest in the photographic aspect, and my interest in the geology and natural majesty of it, we planned our trips down to visit the early morning spectacle ahead of time.

Though we have been blessed with a remarkable amount of sunshine and lack of the pouring rains which are traditional for this time of year in this area, we had to find a morning which was not overcast.  With the sky full of clouds or fog most mornings, we checked the weather forecast constantly, making sure the weather was still prime for a sunrise shot.  On the morning of our trip, we crossed our fingers and pulled open the curtains to see stars in the sky, with only a few scattered clouds blowing across it.  At 6:30 am, we hopped in the car, and drove the 30 to 45 minutes down to Lulworth.

When we pulled up to the entry to the parking area, we found the gates closed, but there was a large number of cars parked nearby, and we joined them, parking ourselves along the edge of a road.  As it was a Sunday, there were quite a few people itching to get their shot of Durdle Door at sunrise, so we followed their lead.  After about a quarter of a mile, we finally reached the steep clifftop trail which wound down to shore.

Although the sun was still an hour away from breaking the horizon, the sky was finally light enough for us to get a good look at the beach and crashing waves, as we made our way down the slippery steps to the shore.  Due to the limestone rich cliffs in the area, the beach at Durdle Door is a shingle (small smooth rocks and pebbles) beach, made up of hundreds of different ages and colors of limestone rocks, ground smooth by millennia of crashing, churning waves.  The smooth pebbles were even more difficult to walk across than a normal sand beach, and we found we were winded by the time we made it to the point on the beach where we thought the sun would line up properly through the arch.

Ian has a handy little app on his phone, which estimates the location of the sun in the sky at any given point during the day, and we were disappointed to see the sun’s path skip over the arch completely.  A bit disappointed, and not pleased at all with the cold and wind, I grew bored watching the dozen or so photographers as they set up their equipment and waited for their shot.  So, I wandered back down the beach and climbed the staircase up the cliff to get a good view of the neighboring “Man of War” cove.  With the seabirds circling overhead, and the waves crashing against the cliffs, I was happy to find a nice spot to sit, and enjoyed the view as the sun rose over the horizon.  I even found a comfortable curve in the ridge over the cliff, where I lounged back and watched the sky turn brighter and brighter.

Once the sun was up an hour or so I stretched and made my way back to the other side of the hill to see what was keeping Ian.  He was slowly making his way back across the beach, stopping now and again for another shot.  When he had finally climbed back up the steps and met me at the top of the cliff, he said that the sun had eventually peaked through the arch, but that there were eventually dozens of photographers down there, vying for their own shot of the “keyhole”.  He said that every photographer on the beach was essentially crammed into a four foot by ten foot area, snapping away, and that they had to keep leapfrogging next to each other, estimating where the prime shot would be as the sun continued its path across the sky.  Pleased that Ian got the pictures he was looking for, but a bit sad I didn’t get to see it for myself, we trekked back up the steep hill to our car.

Later that day, as I watched Ian playing with some of his shots in Lightroom, I decided I wanted us to try and get back down to Durdle Door at least once more, so that I could watch the sun rise through the arch.  A few days later, the weather gods smiled upon us, and we made one more trip down to the coast.

Parking in the same place we had on our previous trip, we were pleased to see that there were no other cars.  We wouldn’t have to jostle in between tons of other people to watch sunrise today!  Tracing the same path we took before, we made it to the beach only about twenty minutes before the sun was set to rise, and saw that there were only five or six other people waiting with us.

As I waited for the sun to come up, I sat on the pebbly beach, and listened to the beautiful sound that the waves made as the rushed up the beach and then back out to sea over the rocks and pebbles.  It’s an entirely different sound than you would hear at a sand beach, and one I hope I never forget.

Finally, after all the waiting, I saw the five photographers cram into a four foot wide area of the beach, and watched as they lit up, with the shadow of the arch framing them on either side.  Quick to join them, I got my first look at what everyone called the “keyhole” effect.  As the sun rose, it tucked under the highest part of the arch, and glowed in a beautiful way which looked like an old school, backlit keyhole.  Glowing yellow and orange, and lighting up the ocean before me, I was thrilled that I got to see the spectacle myself.  With the beautiful scene before me, and the sweet music of the ocean on the pebble beach, I found myself in a feeling of complete peace, and it was wonderful.

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