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The Observatory

On the Downs, near the Suspension Bridge, is the Clifton Observatory. This was originally a snuff mill, built by James Waters but partially destroyed during a gale in 1777.

The old mill was rented to the artist William West in 1828, for use as his studio. He installed the camera obscura, which is still there today in working order.

The camera obscura projects a panoramic view of the surrounding area onto a white surface inside a darkened room. A box on top of the building contains a convex lens and sloping mirror. Light is reflected vertically downward onto the table, giving a true (not mirror) image. The technique, which originated in the 16th Century, gives best results on bright days.

William West in an advertisement of June 1830 described it as 'embracing the whole of the surrounding scene from the gallery to the horizon'. He also offered use of achromatic and Newton telescopes and an astronomical clock.

The present owners were granted planning permission to build a dome to replicate a 19th century one with a viewing terrace.

The picture below shows how close the Observatory is to the Suspension Bridge, which crosses the gorge to the right of the photo. There is, however, another feature close by - St Vincent's Cave, also known as the Giant's or Ghyston's Cave, as on the board at the Observatory entrance. It can just be made out at the bottom right of the picture, some 250 feet above the valley floor. The Observatory Hill itself is 338 feet above the river's normal high water mark.

William West cut out an underground passage in 1837 to what he called Ghyston's Cave. Originally the only access was via the cliff face. It is said to have been connected with the ancient chapel and hermitage of St Vincent, described by William Wycestre as being in the most dangerous part of the rock called Ghyston, as some pieces of carved masonry and a large square glazed tile were discovered in the cave. This chapel is presumed to have broken away from the cliff and disappeared into the gorge beneath.

A 1900 guide book mentions half a dozen types of umbelliferae growing on St Vincent's Rocks, which 'some regard as relics from the garden of potherbs cultivated centuries ago by the recluse whose hermitage was in the Giant's Cave'.
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