The Islands of Pilgrims
By Nigel Blake
Television allows us to experience the many great nature spectacles in this world, exotic places that we can often only dream of visiting, so it is perhaps a surprise to many that we have some very special places ‘on our doorstep’ that in my opinion rival the likes of Serengeti and Bharatpur for wildlife watching excitement.
I remember reading about the Farne Islands in ‘Where to watch birds in Britain’ by John Gooders, I had been given the book as a Christmas present by my parents when I was about 18, within its covers it told of Puffins and Guillemots close enough to touch, and Shags and Terns that pecked at you when you got too close. I had never been to a Seabird colony on an Island then, and I wanted to just get on my way to see this for myself, but my heart sank when I read at the end of the section that the best time to visit was May to July… it seemed like a lifetime away.
With the 5-month wait over and having passed my driving test I headed off up the A1 in my little purple mini on what was for me an epic birding pilgrimage and the chance to photograph Puffins for the first time in my life.
Situated about 3 miles offshore from the fishing village at Seahouses in Northumbria the Farnes are a group of low granite islands; they have been the destination of pilgrims since long before the sixth century, when St Cuthbert lived in solitude on the nearest isle to the mainland, Inner Farne, at 16 acres this is the largest of the islands.
St Cuthbert, (whose name is connected by the local name ‘Cuddy Duck’ for the Eiders that breed on the islands) did not quite live as secluded a life, he was held in high regard as a healer, this gift of his bought many pilgrims who sought his powers, indeed the name of the islands may well have derived from the Gaelic ‘Farena ealande’ meaning Islands of the pilgrim. Cuthbert became the Bishop of Lindisfarne and spent some time at Holy Island before returning to the Farnes, where he had the greatest affinity with the nature that lived there, he is claimed to be the first real conservationist, deteriorating health led to his death in 687A.D. his grave can be found at Durham cathedral and a small chapel built in 1370 and dedicated to his name is still on Inner Farne.
On my first visit to the islands I could have been walking in St Cuthbert’s footsteps, other than a huge white painted lighthouse on the highest part, the Island has possibly changed little since he was there, and has not changed since I started visiting nearly 30 years ago, he probably had to withstand the spiteful attacks of Arctic terns too. From the moment you get off the boat these birds flap around your head, defending their eggs and young with almost kamikaze vigour, often drawing blood from the unwary visitor, so remember a sturdy hat when you go! Around the jetty there are many Terns, Arctic and Common, just across on the beach there is a Sandwich Tern colony that has increased in size since my first visits to the National Trust managed islands, there are often Ringed Plover sitting on eggs here too.
Just up from the landing stage Cuthbert’s Chapel, the Pele Tower, once the home of monks and now the wardens accommodation, the visitor centre and toilets are the first buildings you reach after queuing to pay a small landing fee, dotted around here (and usually under the wooden seats) are female Eiders, sitting tight on their down filled nests they incubate clutches of up to 6 eggs for about 4 weeks. Occasionally two females will share a nest with a huge number of eggs in, when hatched they will herd all the ducklings together into large crèche groups.
The top of the Island has lots more nesting Terns, you will have to mind where you tread as they will lay their eggs on the footpaths, also there are many Puffins nesting in the warren of Burrows that honeycomb the Thrift and Sea Campion infested turf. In early summer the Puffins gather in groups on the cliff edge and make endearing little grunting noises. June and early July is the best time to see these gaudily beaked seabirds, with rapidly growing hungry young to feed, the adults, with bills full of Sand eels have to run the gauntlet of marauding gulls, often they crash land and run the last few paces into the burrow to avoid losing their hard caught fish supper, sometimes though the gulls win.
The most stunning sights though are from the highest part of the island, the cliffs by the lighthouse, here Fulmar and Kittiwakes hang on the up draughts, and sit on nests alongside Shags and Guillemots right at your feet and Puffins, Razorbills and Guillemots whiz back and forth on the wind. The same wind that carries the acrid, nostril tingling ammonia smell from the guano-spattered rocks below has Herring and Black backed gulls, Oystercatchers and the occasional Gannet drifting effortlessly on it too, the whole scene backed by the squawking cacophony soundtrack of all these birds calling is quite an assault on the senses.
Inner Farne is open to the public in the afternoons only and is accessible for disabled visitors; of the group of Islands just two others, Staple Island and the Longstone, are open for landing by boat. Staple Island is not recommended for disabled visitors as it has steep steps up from the landings and it is rocky and difficult walking in some areas, stout shoes/boots are a must when visiting this spectacular island.
I have lost count of the times I have visited the Farnes, for me Staple Island has to be one of my most favourite places in the world, being greeted on the steps up from the boat by Guillemots, Shags and Razorbills that are just an arms length away is overwhelming, as a photographer it is hard to calm down and be selective about what to shoot first. Puffins and Eider Duck are also so close that you do not need long lenses, and all this is before you get to the top of the steps!
The top of the Island is no less fantastic, there are Fulmars nesting on the grass amongst the burrows occupied by some of the Farnes 35,000 or so pairs of Puffins, thousands of Guillemots crammed together on ledges that seem to precarious for laying eggs on, among these you will see the delicately ‘spectacled’ bridled form dotted about.
The life here seems hectic, sporadic fights and aggressive pecking at the neighbours, interspersed with mating and incubating the eggs, fending off piratical gulls that try to steal eggs or young birds, the comings and goings of adults with food for incubating partners or youngsters
Then there are the Shags, prehistoric and slightly lizard like in appearance they sit and pant, their yellow speckled throats rapidly vibrate as they while away the days until their eggs hatch, at this close range you can see just how beautiful these birds are, the black looking plumage is an amazing shade of iridescent green, and they eye you up with an emerald stare, stabbing out with dagger beaks if you get to close.
Down through the middle of the island is a rocky ravine called ‘the Gut’ Kittiwakes and shags nest in here and there are a few Rock Pipits, but during spring and autumn migration all kinds of migrants might show up in this sheltered gulley, the Farnes have quite a list of rare birds.
Looking south from the island’s highest point are ‘the Pinnacles’, these rocky stacks are the perfect tenement accommodation for yet more Auks all vying for the slightest bit of room upon which they will bring their next generation, but to get an impression of the scale of these rocks you need to see them from the boat.
Staple Island is open for visiting in the mornings only.
The Longstone has little to offer now that the Lighthouse has been automated, as its unmanned now it is closed to public visiting, there is a Seal colony there but it is best viewed from the boat.
Longstone Island however was the place of Grace Darling’s epic rescue mission. The lighthouse was built in 1825, thirteen years later the ‘Forfarshire’ a paddle steamer on route to Dundee from Hull was smashed onto the rocky outcrop of ‘Big Harcar’ during a storm, many of the passengers were washed away in the stormy seas, but at around 7 a.m. on that fateful September morning Grace could see from her bedroom window that there were survivors. The 22 year old and her father William set off in a small coble rowing boat managing to save nine souls in two trips, taking them back to the shelter of the lighthouse. Grace, though a shy girl became quite a celebrity as a result, so it seems extra sad that she should have died just four years later from consumption, her grave is in Bamburgh, so too is a museum with her boat and other items connected with her life, its well worth a visit.
Visiting the Farnes
I will be making my annual pilgrimage to the Farne Islands again this year, along with many others who cannot resist the spectacle of all the birds there. The ‘Glad tidings’ sails out from Seahouses harbour at 10 a.m. and at roughly half an hour intervals after that, there is usually quite a queue by 9 o’clock especially if the weather is good, however you should perhaps be prepared for a couple of days stay in the area as sometimes, despite favourable looking weather, the sea conditions can make landing on the islands impossible.
During the breeding season the islands are open from May 1st to July 31st at the times noted in the article and are very easy to visit, the boats are run by Billy Sheil, at the peak of the season it is wise to book in advance, the rest of the season, April August and September the islands are open for the whole day. There are separate charges for the boat and landing fees for the islands, National Trust members are of course able to visit for free under the terms of membership.
I prefer to do the full day trip as it enables me to have over two hours on each island, not really long enough for photography, and not necessarily at the best time of the day, but its still possible to get great images.