diamond geezer

 Monday, June 18, 2007

Northumberland flag  Postcard from Northumberland
  The Farne Islands

aww, ickle puffinA couple of miles off the north Northumberland coast, close to Bamburgh Castle, lie a chain of 28 rocky islands with a population in the hundreds of thousands. Seabirds, that is, who flock to the Farne Islands in early summer to breed and to nest. And for less than £20 you can sail out to see them, and walk amongst them, and even get aerially bombarded by them. What a treat.

Pick your day carefully (becalmed and blue sky-ed is perfect) and head for the small coastal resort of Seahouses. Down by the harbourside are the ticket offices of five different boat companies, each fighting for a share of the seasonal tourist trade. Some appear to be doing rather better than others (although the more popular your tour operator, the more squashed you'll be in the boat that takes you out around the islands).

On the chugging journey across to the islands you start to notice cute little birds bobbing in the waves, and scudding low over the North Sea like tiny guided missiles, and soaring with wings outstretched over the boat, and... good grief, there are puffins everywhere! These adorable little birds are the most populous on the islands, but they share the rocks with guillemots, kittiwakes, cormorants and gulls. In May and June the cliffs of the larger islands are covered with squawking breeding pairs (and a nasty smelly white substance whose origin you can all too readily imagine). The boat sails right up close to several of the larger colonies where parents are nesting, chicks are hatching and neighbours are squabbling. It's like starring in your very own episode of Springwatch.

the Longstone LighthouseOut on the furthest islands the boat pauses beside a colony of grey seals. The seals stare back at the human intruders with a mixture of disinterest and disdain, before flopping inelegantly into the water or closing their eyes for a good long bask. Just round the corner is the Longstone Lighthouse, from which Grace Darling and her father set out in a tiny rowing boat in 1838 to rescue nine survivors from the wreck of the Forfarshire. Had Blue Peter been broadcast in those days, 22-year old Grace would undoubtedly have won a gold badge for her endeavours. As it was, sadly, she dies from tuberculosis just four years later. It's a tough life living in a windswept wavestruck tower in the unforgiving waters of the North Sea.

Arctic tern attackHighlight of my tour was a landing on Inner Farne – an NT-owned historical site and utterly-teeming bird sanctuary [photo]. It's chick-feeding time at the moment, and the island is a seething mass of avian life. And dangerous too. Walk up the boardwalk from the harbour and you can expect to be repeatedly dive-bombed by angry Arctic terns [photo]. They're enraged that you've ignored their angry guttural squawks and have dared to intrude so close to their nests. Down they swoop, aiming for the top of your head, ready to peck and poke in the hope that you'll move away quickly. And ouch, that nip hurts. Well-prepared trippers wear a protective sunhat, or wave an arm above their head in an attempt to keep beak away from bonce. Meanwhile the island's four semi-resident bird wardens walk around serene and unperturbed beneath guano-splattered headgear.

St Aidan lived on Inner Farne back in the 7th century, and very sensibly he built a small stone chapel which provides refuge from aerial attack. But don't hide away, be brave, because the footpaths further up the island are all perfectly safe too. You can walk right up to the clifftops and look down on guillemots and razorbills packed and stacked across the rockface [photo]. Some are nesting only a few feet away, with greedy gaping beaks peering out expectantly from beneath their parent's black oily wings. Meanwhile in the grassy centre of the island are crowds of lovable puffins, guarding over the burrows in which their single offspring are busy hatching [photo]. Off flies Dad across the sea, returning with a mouthful of sprats which he attempts to get back to Mum before a diving gull snatches them away. You could easily stay and watch this natural spectacle for hours, but the boat'll be leaving soon. Good luck getting back to the harbour unassaulted.

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