As a teenager I was sure that I was going to be the female David Attenborough or at the very least become Jaques Cousteau’s beautiful assistant. Despite a degree in zoology, life took me down a very different path. Which means that I have a deep, unfulfilled love of nature and, just in case anyone at the BBC reads this, I am still home alone, waiting to be discovered.
So, when I had the opportunity to visit the Farne Islands I jumped at the chance.
The Farne Islands lie a couple of miles off the Northumberland coast, between the magnificent Bamburgh Castle and Seahouses, the Blackpool of the North East.
The islands are billed as “the most famous sea-bird sanctuary in the British Isles” so I am ashamed to admit that, until I holidayed on the Northumbrian coast, I had not heard of them. Well, that’s not quite true. Along with most people of a certain age I was taught at school about Grace Darling and her act of great courage. Along with Florence Nightingale, she was a woman to be admired and emulated by all good little girls. If you are reading this and are younger than forty-something then let me explain further as I’m not sure these uplifting tales of great acts of bravery and selflessness are still taught in schools. They used to feature regularly on Blue Peter but that was in the days before children’s TV became all flashing lights and shouting – but I digress.
On 7th September 1838, Grace and her father rescued the survivors of a stricken paddle-steamer which had run aground in stormy seas. It turns out that the Longstone Lighthouse, where Grace and her father were stationed, stands on the outermost of the Farne Islands. So, if I had been paying more attention at school, I would have known that I had heard of Farne Islands.
As it was I picked up a leaflet on the harbour at Seahouses which advertised boat trips to see puffins and terns. Even though my career as the BBC’s most famous zoologist had failed to materialise, I still had maintained a keen interest in wildlife, particularly birds and had undertaken many watercolours and studies of birds over the years. One of my favourites has always been the tern, such delicate looking birds yet robust enough to survive the rigours of life spent mainly at sea. So to have the chance to see and photograph, another of my passions, these beautiful birds, was too much to resist.
My dad used to have a boat which he laughingly referred to as a sailing dinghy. It was six-foot of polystyrene and fibre glass to which a mast could be added by way of a hole in the middle of the central seat. Seafaring at its most basic! The boat I stepped into, to head out to sea, was not much bigger. It didn’t have a sail but did have about fifty passengers crammed in, like penguins.
There were bigger boats but they were hiding just round the corner of the harbour and I was so keen to get going that I leapt into the first available boat.
It was a sunny day and the sea was calm but the swell, particularly in relation to this very small boat, was huge. I know this to be the case as the captain’s mate spent the entire outward trip, looking at the passengers and grinning, trying to guess who would be the first to be sick. By the time that we reached the first of the islands lots of the passengers were very pale and there had been lots of seat swooping to get the greenest looking to the sides of the boat. However, everyone had managed to hold onto their breakfasts.
I am not sure whether the trip into the guillemot colony was part of the daily routine or included on this occasion especially for the benefit of the captain’ s mate, but the stench of rotting fish was unbelievable as we wallowed in the tiny inlet.
If the mate had bet on one or all of us to succumb at that point he was to be disappointed and the captain turned the boat out to sea and headed for the landing on Inner Farne. As we approached the island, managed by the National Trust, the sound of the terns was deafening. The sea was clear blue and strewn with seabirds bobbing in the small breaking waves. One of the four full time wardens stationed on the island helped everyone ashore. The birds were everywhere and it was difficult to know where to point the camera first. Most of my early shots were of blue skies where terns had recently been, but I clicked and turned and re-focused and clicked away madly.
I had taken the trip with a friend who was less enthusiastic about the birds and keen to get lunch once we were safely on the island. Remember when you were a child and the sun was shining, your friends had just filled their paddling pool with water and invited you round? You had your swimming costume and your towel and you were just heading off when your mum insisted that you had to have lunch first. Well, my cheese pasty on the Inner Farne was like that lunch. I could not eat it quickly enough but was concerned to appear at least a little sociable. I don’t think that I ate my lunch while actually hopping from one leg to another in childish anticipation of being set free to go and play, but the hopping was certainly going on in my head.
With lunch finished, I headed off to the cliffs just beyond the lighthouse. On this one small area of sheer cliff, were puffins, cormorants and all manner of gulls. The noise of the squabbling gulls was incredible while overhead the terns were calling and skimming along barely head high. The National Trust brochure does say that you will be dive bombed by terns and you’d better believe it, particularly as was the case on my visit, when they have young to feed.
The young terns are all over the island: in the short grass, on the walkways, on the walls, everywhere. They are unconcerned about the human visitors which means that they just sit there and it is their parents returning with food that take it upon themselves to try to move you away from their young. They dive and screech and skim along just above your head, a truly stunning spectacle and a great way to see these beautiful birds, very, very, close up!
The puffins, the birds most people had come to see, nest all along the cliff tops. The nesting areas are roped off and their chicks are a lot less sociable than those of the terns. I decided the best way to see and photograph the puffins was to stand directly in their flight path; that is to say, between the sea where the adult puffins had been fishing and the nests where the young puffins were waiting for their lunch. This proved to be a good choice and the fly past of puffins was spectacular. I guess that the puffin is the most easily recognisable of all British birds with their stumpy black and white body and comical multi-coloured beak. When they fly they look even more cartoon-like, with their wings rotating wildly rather than beating sedately, just as if someone had wound them up and set them off. Of the hundreds of photographs I took as I loitered on their landing strip, most were blurred, but the experience of watching these amazing little birds returning with their beaks full of fish for their young, is one I will cherish for a very long time.
As for the terns, well, after spending years of painting pictures of terns from other people’s photographs, I now have hundreds of my own on which to base future paintings. As well as the puffins, gulls and terns (Common, Arctic and Sandwich), the Farne Islands boast nesting pairs of Fulmar, Shag, Mallard, Eider, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Kittiwake, Guillimot, Razorbill, Rock Pipit and Pied Wagtail along with a large colony of Atlantic seals.
There are several boats taking visitors to the Farne Islands for sight-seeing trips, pleasure trips and excursions to land on the islands. All of the trips leave from the harbour at Seahouses, only Inner Farne and Staple Islands can be landed upon, and these are managed by the National Trust.
Full details can be found at: firstname.lastname@example.org. National Trust members are allowed free access to the islands but boat charges from Seahouses do have to be paid.