Nature

THE FARNE ISLANDS

Lindisfarne and the Farne Islands: seals, saints and seabirds on a boat trip around Northumberland's historic coast
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It’s high tide on a bright, clear morning along one of the finest stretches of coast in Britain. The great, grey arm of the harbour wall at Seahouses reaches into turquoise water; fishing boats barely shift in the calm; gulls take to the warm air in screaming run-ups or perch statuesque on posts. A multi-coloured line of us walks along the harbour wall, tasting the sea-salt on our tongues, before descending a line of steps towards the orange rigid-hulled inflatable waiting below.

Alan, the skipper of the ten-seater Ocean Explorer, is as cheery as the day, and as sun-tanned as a creosoted fence. “We couldn’t have asked for better weather,” he says, checking tickets and helping us on board. “Calm, warm, great visibility. It’s going to be splendid on the water.” Nudging out of the harbour a few minutes later, it’s clear he isn’t lying. The view is all wide-open twinkling sea and hazy horizon.

“Now, hold on to your hats,” he bellows as he opens up the boat’s engines. The nose lifts and we’re powering through the expanse of water towards our first destination, a remote collection of volcanic rocks that lie between two and five miles off the north east coast of England, a place David Attenborough calls his favourite spot to watch wildlife: the Farne Islands.

Soon the reason these outcrops are so widely cherished by naturalists becomes apparent. The first sign of seabirds appears on the water. Guillemots with brown heads and cream-coloured chests rise and flap skywards, away from our speedy approach. Then, as the black weatherworn rocks of Inner Farne grow in our vision, we see the full extent of their colonisation. Every inch of these little flat-topped, vegetation-free islands seems to bristle with bird-life; it has a moving, squawking white skin. As Alan brings us slowly into a sheltered bay, our senses reel with the staggering levels of movement and noise.

We have guillemots, razorbills, shags and that lovely little gull, the kittiwake” says Alan, pointing out the differences in the wall of avian nesters rearing up in front of us. “All return in the summer to breed and take advantage of these cold, clear, nutrient-filled waters where food sources are plentiful. We have around twenty-four breeding species in total, which means around 90,000 birds on a good year.

It seems a conservative estimate. There are birds everywhere, bombing overhead or zipping into the water to fish; it’s like standing in the centre of a motorway at rush hour. “Look!” says Alan indicating into the sea next to the boat. “The guillemots are swimming for sand eels.”

Sure enough, they’re under us too. Below the surface the birds are using their wings to dive down to the rocks and hunt the gullies and crevices. But it’s impossible to concentrate on anything for long. The amazing onslaught of wings and cries results in simultaneous gesturing and exclaiming – ‘Look at this kittiwake!’ ‘A gannet!’ ‘The chicks are so fluffy!’ ‘It’s feeding!’ – then comes a shout we’ve all secretly been waiting for. ‘Puffins!’

As Ocean Explorer edges around another outcrop, they buzz the boat, wings flapping, feet splayed, coming in to land on the rocks. Up close puffins are wonderfully endearing birds with their black and white plumage, those clown-like faces and orangey-red beaks. The beak is actually only colourful during the breeding season; the rest of the year, when this population of tens of thousands will be out in the Atlantic Ocean somewhere, it is a muted brown-grey. But today they’re in full costume, fish bristling from their beaks, and we’re all lost in a bird-watcher’s paradise.

More fly in close and drop into the water, bobbing beside us while Alan explains this area’s history as a conservation hotspot: “In 1925 the bird population here was actually at risk of being over-run by egg collectors. Then the islands were handed over to the National Trust and we now have wardens that live here on Inner Farne for nine months of the year, monitoring and looking after these remarkable creatures.”

Ahead, another boat has pulled into a jetty and its passengers are disembarking. It’s possible for the public to land on the islands and get even closer to the nesting birds, as well as the traces of human habitation: a visitor cente, St Cuthbert’s Chapel built after the missionary hermit-monk who came here to live a life of prayer and solitude in 676AD, the ‘fishe-house’ on the site of a medieval guesthouse and a ‘pele tower’ built to house soldiers as a defence against French invasion. Another prominent feature is the red and white lighthouse on a rocky outcrop off to starboard. “That’s Longstone Lighthouse,” says Alan. “Once home to the Darling family of lighthouse keepers. And see the window facing us?” He asks. “That was the bedroom of their daughter, Grace.”

It was from that window in the stormy, early hours of 7th September 1838 that 23 year-old Grace Darling saw a stricken paddlesteamer, the SS Forfarshire, had struck the very rocks Ocean Explorer is now idling beside. The vessel had already broken in two in the raging seas, but Grace could see people clinging desperately to the low-lying island. So, in an act of courage, she and her father set out in a rowing boat in the terrible conditions, covering a mile to rescue the 13 surviving passengers and crew. It was an act that propelled her into the Victorian consciousness as a national heroine and her story of bravery persists to this day.

In a slightly eerie moment midway through Alan’s recounting of that fateful night, the heads of the Farne Islands’ non-feathered residents appear. Seals are famously inquisitive animals and they swim in surprisingly close, snorting and watching us with those big, black, aqueous eyes, like Labradors. These islands are home to one of Europe’s largest Atlantic grey seal colonies and around 1,500 pups are born each year between September and January. Cameras click away, capturing the young females as they playfully emerge glistening beside us one minute and haul themselves onto the rocks to bask in the sun the next.

It would be easy to stay and watch the wildlife all day, but with the birds squawking us away, we chug out of the rocks and back into open sea. Ocean Explorer’s nose lifts and we’re off again, whipping towards what many regard as the jewel of the Northumberland coast: the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

Most visitors cross the half-mile of sea between shore and Lindisfarne via its famous causeway, a sand-swept tarmac road that is exposed twice a day at low tide. However it’s still high water; Holy Island remains cut off to all but boats, seabirds and us. We approach it through a shimmering channel of North Sea as blue and beautiful as the Mediterranean, passing underneath the towering Lindisfarne Castle perched on a great rock to our right. The island’s little bay is filled with crabbing boats and as Alan slows the engines, a bull seal surfaces nearby, almost within touching distance.

Once moored we have two hours to explore and, apart from the island’s resident villagers, the place is ours. As you’d imagine for somewhere regarded as the ‘cradle of Christianity’ in Britain, there’s plenty to see. Looking out across the water you get a feel for why the first missionaries retreated here for solace, wildness and distance from the politics of the mainland. The priory founded on this island by Saint Aidan in 635AD grew into one of the most important religious sites in the Anglo-Saxon world. From Lindisfarne, monks and bishops – including Northumbria’s patron saint, St Cuthbert – travelled throughout northern England, evangelising and converting the population, producing the stunningly illustrated Lindisfarne Gospels in the early 700s – the oldest written gospels in the country. After flicking through their glorious pages via an interactive display at the heritage centre, I wander up to the gaunt ruins of the priory, which was re-established by the Normans after the Vikings raided the island in 793. It’s a peaceful spot now though, wonderfully absent of crowds. There are arresting views in every direction and swallows flit through the blue above.

Close by, on top of the rising ground known as the ‘Heugh’ is a newly converted lookout tower offering an even finer panorama. From its ‘glass-room’ Lindisfarne’s other iconic feature, its castle, sits washed by sun high on its crag. Now National Trust-owned, Lindisfarne Castle was originally a Tudor fort before being converted into an arts and crafts house by renowned architect Edwin Lutyens for the owner of Country Life. My elevated vantage point also reveals the Farne Islands, the Cheviot Hills and the far Berwickshire coast, as well as providing a bird’s eye view of the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve, covering more than 3,500 hectares of wildlife-rich sand dunes, grassland, saltmarsh and tidal mudflats.

Making my way back to the boat through the village’s pretty, flower-draped streets, I can’t resist stopping at Lindisfarne’s famous mead distillery for a quick taster. The creation of the alcoholic fermented honey drink has been happening here since Saint Aidan’s days when it was believed that if a soul was in ‘God’s keeping’, the body should be fortified by mead. And after a thousand years of tradition, who am I to argue?

The return to Seahouses is fast and exhilarating, thanks to a swelling sea. “We are doing about 35 knots,” Alan shouts as we glide over the white-tipped water whooping and laughing with every rollercoaster-like bounce. Hugging the coast we pass the wide, shining, pancake-flat stretches of golden sand, sea cliffs and the looming silhouette of Bamburgh Castle, circled atmospherically by the ragged shadows of birds. It provides a whistle-stop refresher of exactly why this area is so special. Touching the nose of Ocean Explorer to the harbour wall at Seahouses, Alan walks the length of the boat. “Right,” he says laughing. “Who wants to go again?”

Even with the thought of fresh crab sandwiches foremost in our minds, everyone puts a hand up.

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