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Look out for comet NEOWISE in the northwest sky after dusk. The comet will reach its closest point to Earth this week, 23rd July when it will be 64 million miles (103 million km) away. It appears low above the north-western horizon as the sky darkens and could be visible to the naked eye around midnight, although it is much easier to spot with binoculars. The comet will remain in the  sky all night but its position will change as the Earth rotates so that by early morning it will be in the north eastern sky.

To find the comet around 11pm, first find the Plough, then look down and to the right (towards the horizon and round to the north). The comet will appear as a fuzzy patch of light with its tail pointing almost straight up, away from the horizon.

Don’t be disheartened if you don’t spot the comet straight away – it takes a while for your eyes to become adapted to the dark so give yourself about 20 minutes away from bright lights to have the best chance of seeing it. You can also try ‘averted vision’ – that is, looking just to one side of the object you’re trying to see, which can often be effective for spotting faint objects.

The comet was discovered by the NASA space telescope NEOWISE in March this year. Comets are balls of ice and rock, so called ‘dirty snowballs’, that come from the far reaches of the solar system. Comet NEOWISE has a nucleus around 5km (3 miles) in diameter with a tail that has two parts as is typical for comets – a white tail made of fragments of the comet itself and a blue tail, made of ionised gas blown back by the solar wind.

Check out this timelapse captured by Jodrell Bank’s Anthony Holloway, featuring the comet NEOWISE amongst a sky of stunning noctilucent clouds above the Lovell Telescope.

Ant also took some fantastic image of the Telescopes at Jodrell Bank with the comet overhead (pictured here). Why not try and capture it with a camera yourself from where you are? Share your images with us on twitter, facebook and instagram.

A virtual careers fair with Kier

The impressive new First Light Pavilion is being built by Kier Construction who have written a guest blog for us about their recent ‘virtual careers fair’…

Guest blog: Lara Da Rocha Faria, Corporate Social Responsibility Manager, Kier Construction.

As we all become accustomed to the new normal, I’d like to share how Kier Regional Building, North West have continued to deliver our community programmes throughout the lockdown.

With some schools beginning to return – mainly the younger pupils, its those students coming to the end of their educational career and looking to their future who are left scratching their head about their next steps.

At this time of year our social value manager and project teams are usually very busy helping support some of that career decision making, whether that be attending careers and apprentice fairs, facilitating work experience placements, planning summer internships and arranging site visit for local school and college pupils.  Covid-19 has put all of this on hold and it has challenged us to look at alternative ways to deliver a positive impact in our local communities.

Just as we have adapted to the challenging circumstances of keeping our sites live and safe, the education sectors have also been adapting.  Students may not be in the classroom but if you are a parent you will appreciate that they are still being educated and part of this is about helping students of all ages prepare for their future career.

Supported by Ryan Southern, Senior Site Manager, working on the First Light Pavillion project, I went virtual last month delivering a ‘careers in construction’ session at the Cheshire Paving the Way Careers Festival. A resounding success, the virtual careers fair inspired thousands of students, helping them to prepare for the next stage of learning or employment.

The Kier pre-recorded ‘Day in the Life of’..  videos and live web chats had 24,586 views with 76,000 visits to the Festival site over the week.

  • 77 schools participated
  • 17 HE/FE contributors
  • 67 employers involved
  • 116 video sessions delivered

“It was a great event to be part of, many thanks for including us. The content was fantastic for the young people and hopefully they all got something out of it.” Jane Jones, Macclesfield College

“It has provided genuinely insightful information that I am very grateful to have received.” Luc, student

Ryan Southern said about this new way of delivering careers to the next generation, “It’s a great way to connect with so many students.  I was really impressed to see so many young people focussed on a future career in construction at a young age”

As part of the virtual careers fair Kier offered students the opportunity to apply for a work experience place and we are currently developing our virtual work experience week to be delivered at the beginning of July.

It may have taken us a few takes to get the videos  just right (the BBC are not going to come calling anytime soon) and the IT is not always 100% reliable but the amount of time saved in travel, setting up, student coordination and the related costs in both travel expenses and the impact on the environment, make me think there is definitely scope for this to be a regular way of delivering careers support in the future.

Mud, steel and an unshakeable vision: The construction of the Lovell Telescope

Sir Bernard Lovell’s ‘giant paraboloid’ was originally proposed in 1951 and complete by 1957. Why did it take so long to build? The short answer is that no-one had ever built anything like this before. The new radio telescope was to be 250ft diameter, 290ft high and fully steerable to focus on any area of the sky with pin-point accuracy. There were plenty of small steerable dishes around at this time, but Lovell understood that something significantly larger was needed to advance the new science of radio astronomy.

Although the scientific community supported him, Lovell initially struggled to find an engineer to take on the challenge. Many simply did not think it was possible to build such an instrument.  But in 1949 he met Charles Husband, a Sheffield-based engineer who considered the proposition and concluded it was achievable; ‘about the same problem as throwing a swing bridge across the Thames at Westminster…’.  But as they were to discover together, the requirements of enormous size and absolute precision, to be executed in a muddy Cheshire field, would be an engineering challenge like no other.

Above: Charles Husband and Bernard Lovell in front of the almost-complete telescope in 1957 (Copyright University of Manchester)

In this clip from Lovell’s oral history interview on Web of Stories, he explains just one such problem. In 1954 when the construction work began there weren’t any cranes large enough to handle the mass of steel that was involved, so Husband built a series of cranes and gantries until they had something that could work at the enormous height of the telescope. This is typical of Husband’s innovation; at every stage of this often fraught construction project he was prepared to find new approaches and original solutions, refusing to be limited by existing technologies. He understood that Lovell was breaking new grounds in science, and the telescope could break new grounds in engineering. In many ways, and despite difficult moments in their relationship, Lovell and Husband represented the perfect partnership of science and engineering.

Lovell’s construction diary, held at The Royal Society, gives an almost day by day account of the telescope’s construction. Reading the entries, you experience the saga through Lovell’s eyes. You feel his frustration at steel price rises and worker strikes, anxiety at the constant negotiations, despair as weather halts progress at crucial moments, dismay at the increasing doubts of those around him, and jubilation at small victories.  All the while the costs involved are becoming higher and higher.

Particularly poignant are his Christmas Eve entries, in which he reflects on the last year:

1953: ‘A year ago today Cementation were struggling around the hundredth pile. Today in brilliant sunshine only Wades are on site putting in the drain pipes […] There has certainly been some progress between these two Christmasses, but there will have to be a good deal more by Christmas Eve 1954 if the instrument is to be ready for use in 1955.’ [MS_870_0251]

1954: ’Since the diary note on the eve of Christmas a year ago the site of the telescope has been transformed […]  Above all, and in spite of the 1000 tonnes of steel on the site, the future is dark with financial anxiety. But surely now it will be finished, perhaps even in 1955.’ [MS_870_0350]

1955: ‘Another Christmas without the telescope – but surely not next year! […] Still, we have a good deal more than a year ago, including the control building, although the control room is still empty.’ [MS_870_1_3_0032]

The delays were not entirely out of Lovell’s hands. During construction he requested a number of design changes for scientific reasons, the most significant of which was replacing the original wire mesh dish with a solid surface, to enable the telescope to work at shorter wavelengths. This was in response to the 1951 discovery of the 21cm hydrogen line; a hugely significant development in radio astronomy. It was part of a suite of design changes in 1955 that necessitated an additional 440 tonnes of steel and brought the telescope £250,000 over budget.

What becomes apparent throughout this story is Lovell’s unshakable commitment and vision. At all points of the project he was encouraged to abandon. At the beginning of 1954 Lovell wrote to Husband to ask him to ‘obtain some big erection on site as soon as possible. Many people are still taking every opportunity of saying the project must be cancelled‘. As early as 1953 Patrick Blackett, Lovell’s lifelong mentor, expressed extreme annoyance at Lovell’s ‘blind ambition’ and the delays it was to cause, stating that the cream of the research would be skimmed off by places with ‘less ambitious apparatus’.

Above: The telescope rises out of the mud, c. 1955 (Jodrell Bank collection, copyright University of Manchester)

But Lovell was single-minded, and the giant telescope slowly rose up out of the Cheshire mud. On the 2nd of August 1957 the telescope made its first recordings of the sky, the moment that is referred to as ‘first light’. As Lovell recalls in his autobiography Astronomer By Chance: ‘The recording was of no particular scientific importance, but for us it was an inked trace on a paper chart symbolizing an end to five years of massive engineering and a beginning to the researches that we had planned and dreamed of for many years.’  

The telescope wasn’t fully operational until 1958, and the debt remained until 1960, by which time the telescope had become wrapped up in the space race and matters of international defence… And that’s another story!

Thank you, volunteers

This week marks Volunteers Week and we want to send a huge thank you to all the volunteers and voluntary organisations that support us here at Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre. 

Like many other sites across the nation, we’ve had to put volunteer programme on hold during the coronavirus outbreak and we can’t wait to be able to welcome our volunteers back. In the meantime we want to take this opportunity to celebrate the hugely valued role our volunteers play as part of the Jodrell Bank family.

Since we began working on our National Lottery Heritage funded First Light Project, our growing team of volunteers have given over 4000 hours of their time sharing their passion, enthusiasm and expertise in a range of roles across the site.

There are so many different ways volunteers support us at Jodrell Bank and help us further our aims…

During the winter season, amateur astronomers from local societies such as Macc Astro gave over 1000 budding stargazers the opportunity to glimpse the heavens through a telescope; our visitor welcome volunteers have helped us host thousands of families during busy school holidays and half terms; and a countless array of gardeners, fern and fungi experts, beekeepers, birdwatchers, wildlife experts and gooseberry growers have devoted time and energy in protecting and supporting the biodiversity of our 35 acres of gardens and arboretum. Click here to read what our gardeners got up to in January and February…

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We’ve been joined by new volunteers too – members of the Manchester Cottonopolis branch of the Women’s Institute volunteered with us for the first time at a very special Girls’ Night Out for International Women’s Day, bringing with them a dazzling array of astronomically-themed cakes to be sold in aid of the Manchester women’s charity Emmeline’s Pantry. Our friends, The University of Manchester Physics Outreach team, joined us too.

Every single one of our volunteers makes a huge difference to the work we do here and helps us in our mission to protect, share and celebrate this important site, for the benefit of all.

Thank you!

Lovell’s first career: Wartime radar and the development of H2S

Letter from AP Rowe to Lovell, February 1945. University of Manchester Library (JBA/CS7/19/4/1945)

In February 1945, 10 months before Bernard Lovell would arrive at Jodrell Bank for the first time, A. P. Rowe, Chief Superintendent of the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) writes to Lovell to assure him:

‘You must have nothing whatever on your conscience. If you never did a stroke of work for the rest of your life you would have justified your existence.’

It’s an extraordinary thought that even without Jodrell Bank Lovell’s name would have gone down in history. His wartime distinction is less well known that his work in radio astronomy, but as the UK celebrates VE Day, we’re highlighting Lovell’s work developing the H2S airborne radar system, which greatly improved the Royal Air Force’s bombing accuracy and proved decisive in the outcome of the second world war.

When war broke out in the summer of 1939 Bernard Lovell was an idealistic young physicist at the University of Manchester, researching cosmic rays under his illustrious head of department, Patrick Blackett.  He knew little about radar, and when Blackett told him to abandon his cloud chambers and report to A. P. Rowe at the Air Ministry, he had no idea what the next six years would hold for him.

Like many university scientists he became a research physicist, applying his expertise to the rapid development of war technologies, in this case, radar. After two years working on interceptors and detection systems for night fighters, Lovell was ordered to take charge of the development of a new device for night bombing. In 1941 it had become apparent that the RAF’s bombing offenses in Germany were largely unsuccessful because pilots couldn’t find their targets. The longer wavelength systems used for navigation were not precise enough to lock onto specific landmarks, so a narrower radar system, on centimetric wavelengths, was required. And fast.

Lovell was apprehensive about this new responsibility, which would see him to apply his expertise to offensive technologies for destroying rather than saving lives. But this was war and as he describes in his autobiography Astronomer By Chance: ‘those last shreds of misplaced idealism were soon to be blown out of my being by a whirlwind of activities that made the previous two years of my wartime work seem like a rest cure’.

Notably, this whirlwind involved the invention of the cavity magnetron (a high-powered vacuum tube that generates microwaves and is used now in microwave ovens); the crash of a Halifax bomber during a test flight, which tragically killed members of his team; an ultimatum from Prime Minister Winston Churchill; and many iterations of what became known as the H2S.

This precision bombing device used a rotating antenna within a cupola attached to the underside of a bomber, to build up a map of the terrain below that pilots could see on the cathode ray tube inside the cockpit. It was the first ground mapping technology ever to be used in combat. When in February 1943 the first, 10cm radar version of the H2S was brought into operation for the bombing of Hamburg, pilots marvelled at how could clearly they could see the city’s docks as ‘fingers of bright light sticking out into the dark of the Elbe’.

Lovell received many congratulations following the Hamburg offensive, but as he wrote in his diary ‘I can’t feel a bit elated, only weighed down with the vastness of things in hand and in the future’.

In 1945 as the war drew to close and this intense pressure lifted, Lovell was exhausted. The toll it had taken on him is evident in this 1945 photograph of the H2S group; he looks thin and pale and can’t seem to muster a smile. Rowe’s letter of the same month is a kind but firm order to take some time off. In July he was released and gratefully returned to the university, cosmic rays and his cloud chambers. But of course nothing was the same, war had transformed the pursuit of science and Lovell set to work applying the new radar technology to the study of the sky.

Lovell remained modest about his wartime work, with some ambivalence about being the man who led the development of the system that, according to Air Marshal Victor Tait, ‘was one of the main factors in making the Air Force so effective in the destruction of the German armed forces’. However, the work earned him an OBE in 1946, and throughout his life he received letters from the public thanking him for what he gave to wartime science, turning the fortunes of the Allied Forces and leading to the national celebrations on VE day. For some, the H2S, and not the Lovell telescope, is his greatest achievement.

You can listen to Lovell himself telling the story of his wartime work on Web of Stories here. You can also find out about our First Light Project here, which will open up more heritage stories and enable visitors to Jodrell Bank to explore the incredible stories behind the pioneering scientists that work here.

From the Archives: Food rations and self-sufficiency at Jodrell Bank

Britain queues for food in wartime London, 1945. wikicommons

For many of us, the experience of shopping for food during the coronavirus lockdown is an unsettling one. Long queues, empty shelves and the frustration of still not being able to get hold of any self-raising flour; not something we’re accustomed to in the 21st century and it is forcing us to adapt our approach to shopping and cooking.

Of course, within living memory these sorts of restrictions were a fact of everyday life. World War II rationing, which continued in some form until 1954, impacted the entire country – housewives and radio astronomers alike.

In the Jodrell Bank archive at the University of Manchester Library there is a fascinating folder titled ‘canteen dormitory, 1947-1953’, which charts Bernard Lovell’s struggle to feed the growing numbers of staff and students on site at this time. As the Jodrell Bank Experimental Station (it didn’t yet identify itself as an ‘observatory’) grew it was increasingly difficult to cope with the ‘meagre allocation’ of food, and in one letter to the Macclesfield Food Office, dated 22 January 1952, Lovell complains that he has had to stop providing meals for the students who had come down from Manchester. Hard times, especially since the students were usually the ones doing the hard, physical labour around site!

Jodrell Bank Experimental Station ration book coupon, August 1950. University of Manchester Library (JBA/JBM/1/6)

There was some good fortune though; Jodrell Bank at this time was also home to the University’s experimental botany fields, and gardeners and physicists shared the canteen facility. In a letter from May 1950 E.G. Warne, who was in charge of the botany grounds, assures Lovell that by autumn he will be able to supply the canteen with vegetables ‘at what is really a nominal price’, and until then suggests ‘the omission of a vegetable other than potatoes from lunches and dinners’, rather than reducing the overall quantity of food as ‘there might be complaints about inadequate meals’.

This chimed with the general advice at the time, to grow your own and ‘dig for victory’. Our times are of course different and we can’t easily grow our own toilet paper in our back gardens, but this spirit of self-sufficiency and generosity out at Jodrell Bank is something we can learn from.

Hannah Niblett, Heritage Officer

Jodrell and Cambridge: A shared radio astronomical heritage

18th April is World Heritage Day, and as the UK’s newest World Heritage Site, this is a good opportunity for us to reflect on our new status. This year’s theme is Shared Heritage.

Jodrell Bank became a World Heritage Site in July 2019, in part because the site is the only one in the world that retains traces of the development of radio astronomy from its earliest days to the present. This extraordinary story that is written across the landscape of Jodrell Bank, from the remains of the 1946 searchlight aerial; an instrument for the radar detection of meteors, through the majestic Lovell telescope, to the shiny new headquarters of the Square Kilometre Array.

But why is the story of radio astronomy so important? Why does it have the ‘Universal Value’ that UNESCO look for in a site of international importance? The development of radio astronomy marked a revolution in our understanding of the universe; it has been the basis of the 20th and 21st century’s great leaps forward in astronomy and cosmology, such as the cosmic microwave background, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence and the recent imaging of a black hole. And crucially it also paved the way for astronomy in other wavelengths, such as infrared and x-ray. It is in multiwavelength astronomy that we now get the most colourful and detailed picture of the universe.

These developments have had a profound impact on humanity; on how we understand our own place and our planet’s place in the universe; our ‘pale blue dot’.

But although our site tells this story, the story doesn’t belong exclusively to Jodrell. Radio astronomy emerged as a new science after the second world war. Although two notable individuals, Karl Jansky and Grote Reber, had detected galactic radiowaves earlier than this, it was war time radar research that inspired physicists, such as Lovell, to see whether radar could be used to study the sky. This happened simultaneously and most significantly at four sites: Jodrell Bank, the Cavendish Laboratories in Cambridge, the British Army Operational Research Group and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Sydney, Australia. Open a correspondence file from the Jodrell archive of this period and you will find many letters between Lovell and the leaders of these research groups; sharing data, asking questions, reporting new developments, requesting corroboration, outlining hypotheses.

There was a particularly strong relationship between Jodrell and Cambridge. Lovell and Cambridge’s Martin Ryle were similar in many respects. Both had worked for the Telecommunications Research Establishment during the war, developing radar systems, before returning to their respective universities where they applied their wartime expertise to their research.

The 1949 letters below are part of a series between the two men from the exciting early days of radio astronomy. They had turned their radio receivers to the skies and found that the universe was indeed transmitting in radio frequencies; the possibilities of seeing what had previously been invisible was starting to unfold. The areas of interest were in the constellations of Cassiopeia and Cygnus, and Lovell speculates about the cause of fluctuations in the signal and asks his peer ‘Is there any fallacy in this reasoning?’.  Ryle responds three weeks later with his own speculation and encloses their own tracings of Cygnus and Cassiopeia plus their ‘activity charts’ so Lovell can make the comparison for himself.

The ongoing dialogue between scientists was critical in the rapid development of radio astronomy, that went from bouncing radar signals off meteors in 1946 to the first mapping of an extragalactic radio source – the Andromeda Galaxy – just four years later.

Radio astronomers in these early years had no real contact with optical astronomers; the phenomena they were discovering didn’t correspond to anything before seen in optical astronomy, and their processes were entirely different. Each research site had different equipment and approach; Cambridge for instance had a number of small aerials and concentrated on the technique of combining them to obtain a sharper view. Jodrell focused on the use of larger, single dishes, allowing them to detect much fainter and more distant radio sources. Neither could get a complete picture but by working together, along with the team in Sydney and, in the next few years an increasing number of sites around the world, they mapped the entire radio sky and created a revolutionary new window into the universe.

From the Archives…

A key part of our First Light Project is about bringing the story of Jodrell Bank to life through our archives. Visitors to the new heritage exhibition will be able to explore a wealth of historic material: photos of the site in the early days (what the local community named ‘the Fairground’), logbooks from big discoveries in radio astronomy, correspondence covering the critical years of telescope construction, recently released material revealing Jodrell’s role in the cold war, and audio and video clips that take you right into the control room at key moments of the space race.

Jodrell Bank ephemera is held in archive collections around the country, but our official archive is in the Special Collections at the University of Manchester Library. This is a vast collection, some 2000 files, many of which contain hundreds of documents. Our Heritage Officer Hannah has the daunting task of researching it: ‘I think I know the history of Jodrell Bank quite well, but every time I open a file from the archive I discover something new – a new perspective, an unexpected connection, or an intriguing segue in the story. I really hope that we can give visitors to the exhibition this same thrill of discovery’.

For example, when the Jodrell Engagement Team visited the John Rylands Library earlier this year to look through the collection for themselves, they discovered that at school Bernard Lovell wasn’t the star physics pupil they had imagined him to be…

Kingswood Grammar School report, Autumn term, 1925: young Bernard achieves 78 in Chemistry, 78 in Botany, but just 38 in Physics: ‘Capable of doing much better’.

His grades did improve as his school years went on, but the Headmaster’s comment in the Spring term of 1931 seems to summarise Lovell’s approach to his schooling: ‘Should do well, but must definitely decide not to think of cricket when he is doing mathematics and science’.

As it happens, Lovell never did stop thinking about cricket whilst doing maths and science, but that’s a story for another day…

Gardens Update

Despite the challenging weather conditions over the last few months we’ve had a busy time in the gardens here at Jodrell Bank and have enjoyed some wonderful seasonal highlights along the way.

With wellies adorned the gardeners have been out monitoring our collection of trees and checking for damage after the storms noting a few losses along the way. However our hearts have been lifted with the pockets of sunshine in between the showers highlighting the first signs of spring with cherry, pear and magnolia blossom bursting into life.

Our wonderful garden volunteers have been as busy as ever with a few projects around the site. As part of our Heritage Lottery funded First Light project, they are a valuable new addition to the team and join us fortnightly throughout the year carrying out a range of activities and projects in all weathers. Some work sessions are very practical while others have an emphasis on learning new skills including Fungi identification, bird surveys, fern propagation and wildlife habitat construction.

In our most recent volunteering session they spent the morning turning over our compost bays and replacing worn out pallet dividers with new ones from First Light project deliveries – the contractors had barely unloaded them when we snapped them up for our compost area!

We’ve also had experts from RSPB Macclesfield Wildlife Explorers join our volunteers for a Big Garden Birdwatch with over 20 different species spotted in the arboretum within the allotted hour including Redwings, buzzard, ravens and a last minute swoop in by a Goldcrest which was a delight to see.


Its often a worrying time of year for beekeepers wondering if their bees have made it through the winter months with enough stores to keep them going. We weigh our hives on a regular basis by hefting with a luggage scale and discovered a couple of the hives were lighter than we would have liked. We are lucky enough to be able to borrow the engagement team’s infrared camera to sneak a peak on our bees and were relieved to see all was well, however we gave them a pack of specially formulated fondant to provide extra food to last til the spring. We’re looking forward to when we can open them up for our live beekeeping demonstrations when the temperature rises above 16 degrees C, come and join us and learn about these fascinating creatures.

Engaging with heritage at the John Rylands Library

With the diggers on site for the construction of our First Light Pavilion, our future as a major new heritage attraction is starting to feel very real and the Discovery Centre teams are embracing this exciting new development. The combination of ground-breaking science and world-class heritage on one visitor site is unusual; there aren’t many examples out there that we can emulate. So this is an exciting time for us as we reshape our identity and pilot new ways of working.

As part of this process, our Heritage Officer Hannah Niblett took members of the Engagement Team to spend a day with staff at the John Rylands Library, another of the University of Manchester’s Cultural Institutions. The aim for the day was to immerse themselves in a heritage site, see heritage engagement in practice and connect with colleagues doing similar work.

Within the stunning gothic architecture of the Library, so different from our own environment (compare their towering fluted ceilings with our contemporary exposed pipework and ceiling girders) the John Rylands team explained and demonstrated their education, public and exhibition programmes. Our group then had a tour, explored the exhibitions and took part in a fascinating archive-based education session.

To experienced science communicators, heritage approaches such as object-based learning can seem like a different world, but seeing it in practice was extremely valuable and reassuring. The team came away with lots of ideas about how to incorporate heritage engagement into events and exhibitions at Jodrell Bank.

They finished the day with a deep dive into the Jodrell Bank archive that is held at the Library, including Bernard Lovell’s school reports (‘could do better’!), staff notices from the early days of Jodrell Bank (‘No gum boots in the library’), observation log books and fascinating letters revealing Jodrell Bank’s role in the cold war.

We’re extremely grateful to Yvette Jeal, John Hodgson and the team at the John Rylands Library for such a useful and inspiring day. Hopefully we can welcome them at Jodrell Bank for a reciprocal visit very soon!