The Farne Islands

I’ve been a little too busy for blogging.  I sold a house, I bought a house and I’ve endured all the fun-filled, stress-free hours that involves.  I’ve also been on a short break to Paris;

Dunstanburgh Castle

Dunstanburgh Castle

and a longer holiday to Northern England.   Last year, I crossed Northumberland on foot (see ‘Walking Across England’) and it effortlessly slipped into my top five English counties.  So when my partner and I received an invite to a Big Birthday Bash Weekend near Rothbury, we quickly decided to make a week of it.  Before the party, we booked into a charming Alnwick B&B and toured about the countryside; ate Craster kippers for breakfast and crab sandwiches for lunch;

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visited several stately homes and castles-with-roosting-swallows (wringing every last pound out of our National Trust membership); and hopped on a boat to the Farne Islands.   If I had ever bothered to write a bucket list, the Farne Islands would’ve been on it and I could now tick it off.  But I didn’t, so I can’t.

Farne Islands (1)

Inner Farne

Two weeks ago on an overcast morning in late July, we chugged out from Seahouses harbour and crossed two choppy miles to the islands.

Grey Seal (2)

Grey seals with Bamburgh Castle behind

During the summer months, the islands are home to an impressive 100 000 breeding pairs of seabirds – as well as a large colony of Atlantic grey seals.

Grey Seal (1)

Grey seal pups are born in October and until that happy event, the adults aren’t particularly busy.

Farne Islands (2)

Other than sea-spray, the first thing to strike me on our approach to the bird colonies was an acrid, ammonia stink.

Farne Islands (3)

The towering cliffs and rock piers were screaming with life and iced with smelly, fish-based guano.  It’s a rich welcome.

Arctic Tern

Arctic Tern

During the height of the breeding season, visitors are advised to wear hats.  Arctic and common terns are protective of their young and dive-bomb anyone walking near their nests.   And draw blood.  But we landed on Inner Farne towards the end of the season and walked about safely – hatless.

Guillemot

Guillemots are rather more laid back.  I’d seen these handsome auks before near St Bees Head but only at a distance.

Shag (2)

Next to it stood a Disney-villain shag.  Unfortunate name, shag.

Shag (1)

I haven’t been face to face with an anonymous shag for years.

Kittiwake (1)

The kittiwake is one of seven species of British gull but the only one that doesn’t feed inland.  Apparently the name derives from their call … but I can’t say I noticed.

Kittiwake (2)

There is a small colony near my home in Sussex but here in Northumberland, I was right in amongst them and could have touched one, had I thought it appropriate.

Kittiwake

This pair of juveniles nestled inches below my feet.

Puffin (3)

But, of course, there was only one bird I especially wanted to see and for which the Farne Islands are famous.

Puffin (9)

You’ll understand my excitement at seeing puffins for the first time and watching a whole flotilla (or raft – to use the proper term) bobbing about on the swell.

Puffin (10)

Puffins are one of Britain’s most popular birds and it isn’t difficult to see why.

Puffin (13)

They are attractive, brightly coloured, endearing and slightly comical.  Even a shag thought so.  If not the guillemot, who’s seen it all before.

Puffin (5)

According to The Guardian, 2015 wasn’t a good puffin year.

Puffin (4)

Freak summer downpours drowned the burrows which the birds dig, build a nest in and lay a single egg.  Of the 100 burrows monitored by Farne rangers, only 50 pufflings (yep, proper word) successfully fledged.  In 2014 the number was 92.

Puffin (7)

Depending on weather and food supply the islands’ breeding colony varies between 30 000 and 50 000 pairs.

Puffins

But by mid August they’ll all be gone.  After raising their chicks, puffins spend seven or eight months at sea.

Puffin (14)

Our witty, knowledgeable boat captain* told us that puffins are known locally as Tommy Nodders.  Which is a fine name; unlike shag.

Puffin (2)

In poor light, I had no expectation  of photographing Tommy Nodders in flight.  Even less so with an iconic bill-full of sand eels.

Puffin (1)

But then that is why the Farnes are so captivating.  I saw plenty I expected and plenty more I didn’t.

Tommy Nodders?  You might want to add them to your bucket list.

oooOOOooo

*We used Billy Shiel’s Boat Trips and heartily recommend them.  I’d suggest phoning in advance: boats get fully booked and only sail if conditions are good enough.  (All tours were cancelled on the two previous days because of rough seas).  Our two and a half hour jaunt lasted three hours (bargain!) and cost £15 each.  If you are not a member, you pay extra for landing on the National Trust owned islands.  Boat trips run from April to October and unlike us, you might even see dolphins.  There are a range of trips available but HERE’S the one we did.

 

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43 thoughts on “The Farne Islands

  1. There is nothing finer than a Craster kipper. Our visit to the Farne Islands involved the wearing of hats, and boy were they needed!

    It was great to meet you when we went round Buck House, though personally I think this is a far better venue. You’ve made me homesick for the north east again, even though that’s not where I hail from originally.

    A new home. How exciting 🙂

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    • Hullo Michelle, yes. It was lovely to meet you too, at last. (I never did write about our visit to the Palace – as much as I enjoyed it, I couldn’t really think of an angle that slotted in to my blog. I know what you mean about feeling homesick for Northumberland. I do too – and I have yet to have a decent kipper down south! See you at the next meet-up? I shall recognise you now. Dave

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      • I’ve managed a write-up, but you’ll have to wait until next week. I took some photos on the way out of the gardens, plus there were some gardeny bits and bobs along the way… just popped by to grab a link to your blog to go in the post 🙂 Until the next time…

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  2. Fab photos as usual. Got to love those Tommy Nodders. I’ve never made it up there but it is on the list. such an escape in to the wilds. It looks like a Game of Thrones film crew could be just around the next corner.
    Glad you have survived your move (and enjoying the smaller garden??). Having moved three times in the last year I feel your pain.
    Caro

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    • Thanks Caro. Move not survived yet! Still in the interminable, grindingly slow phase of waiting and fretting … but hoping to move in September. I can’t recommend Northumberland enough – smashing county. Go! Dave

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  3. We had a holiday in Northumberland several years ago, it is wonderful countryside. We would visit more often if it was closer. Fantastic photographs. Good luck with the new house and ‘Garden’.

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  4. Hi David andJim!!
    congrats with purchase of new house…I am still in the convoluted, distressing process of selling Aberdeen House (jim exhibited last year) Will get there and then a move to the Borders and Coldingham – so will definitely takeBilly Shiel’s boat – thank you for sharing all your fab trips with us…you inspire me…off to cycle north to south of Mull/Iona next week. Would be nice to put you guys up in our wee bothy should you be in the Borders…
    Please could you tell me what camera you use or arethe photos so good because you have a great lens? I’ve only just started photograpy….all the best with settling in to wee hoose …. Jo (Elvery)

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    • Hello Jo, we saw that your house had been sold – good luck with the move and I’m envious of where you’re moving to. Your cycle trip sounds exciting too – hope the weather is kind. With moving house and various other travel commitments we’ve had to forgo our annual cycle trip but we’re already looking at the Freedom Treks website for next year! As for my camera – I have a Nikon D7000 and the bird shots were all taken with my 70-300mm zoom lens. Hope that helps. All the Best, Dave

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  5. Wonderful puffin photos thank you David. They are so fascinating. When we visited Iceland we missed them by about three weeks; so disappointing. Don’t think I’ll get another chance. Glad you got to see them. Cheers and enjoy the new digs.

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    • Iceland is on my non-existent bucket list too, Chris – which seems to be non-existently growing every day. Sorry you didn’t see puffins. Our guide told us that most of them had already left when we visited and I suspect they are all gone from the Farnes by now. I found it amazing that they spend so many months at sea. Doesn’t sound a whole lot of fun but then they seemed happy enough. Dave

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  6. As if you didn’t get enough panting search queries about tits, now you add anonymous shags to the mix!

    In Newfoundland I watched a puffin “running” along the ocean surface madly flapping its wings while it struggled to take off, and then, after making no headway, just give up, exhausted. I think it succeeded on the third try. It was absolutely adorable. Somehow incompetence is a lot more endearing in other species. (Not that I would have done any better.) Glad you could enjoy such a lovely vacation between the house bothers. x

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    • Drat. I’d forgotten the panting queries, Stacy. I must remember to write those two words on a post-it and stick it on my screen for my next post. Wouldn’t it great if incompetence in our own species was endearing? I would be so very, very, very endearing. Oh well, back to the real world. House bothers, eh? We’d forgotten over the past five years how bothersome it all is. Which in itself is a form of incompetence, I suppose. Ho hum – soon be Christmas. Dx

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  7. Yet another good read. I agree about the comical line and am very glad that it didn’t get edited out. It started my morning with a chuckle which is the best way to start a Monday. Btw, we discovered Northumberland about 8 years ago and have been back six times. Rothbury is usually our base and we often do the Carriage Walk which takes us up high behind the Queen’s Head with a magnificent view of the area. Have you ever been to West Yorkshire? Saltaire is very special (designated world heritage site by UNESCO) and when we visit we stay at a remote place called Bottom’s Farm with wonderful views. Also close to Haworth and great walking country.

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    • Hello Lyn, thanks very much. I first visited Northumberland about 15 years ago and stayed in a very remote cottage high up the Ingram Valley and fell in love with it then. (As did my dog). Sadly it wasn’t until last year that I managed to return. I can absolutely understand why you would go six times in 8 years. I stayed in the Queen’s Head when I walked the St Oswald’s Way last year – and ate there this time round. The birthday weekend mentioned above was held up the road at Clennell Hall. We spent one glorious day walking Windy Gyle – superb – and one rather hungover afternoon at Cragside. I don’t know the walk you mention but when I return ….. As for West Yorkshire, hmm a bit. I don’t know Saltaire but I’ve been to Haworth – once many years ago. Yorkshire is certainly in my top five counties too. I’ve walked through parts of it many times. The Cleveland Way is probably my favourite long distance footpath. God’s own country, apparently. Dave

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  8. Great trip and some fantastic pictures. I’ve always been a fan of the puffin but have yet to see one in the wild.
    Did I mention the photos are fantastic? Love the seals with the rocky landscape behind. Amazing!
    All the best for the new house.

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    • Thank you Frank. I’m really looking forward to moving. The new house has a very manageable sized garden (unlike my current one). Gardening all day for a living isn’t a great inducement to tackle a huge space when I get home. D

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  9. Fabulous photos Mr A….I’m sure your break did you good after the stresses of house selling n’ buying.
    Wishing you ‘good times’ in your new abode ☺

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    • Hullo Jane, thanks. It was good to run away and hide for a while. Everything house-wise was quite uncertain when we went away but (fingers crossed) the sale and purchase seems to be going through now. D

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  10. We stopped off at the Farne Islands a couple of years ago when on our way to Scotland. The puffins were absolutely fantastic, I came away with hundreds of photos. The terns were very busy guarding their nests and chicks, we were there in June, and yes, they did draw blood on a couple of occasions! You have some fantastic photos, but then you always do!

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    • Thank you Pauline. I now know that June is THE time to visit the Farnes (with hat). I should’ve liked to have seen the tern chicks and actually quite liked to have been dive-bombed (with hat). Can’t be helped. I shall just have to re-visit (with hat). Dave

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    • I’d certainly recommend Northumberland, Helen. The B&B I link to above was smashing, smack in the centre of Alnwick and within walking distance of the castle and garden. The latter is worth a visit in itself. (I didn’t take enough photos of it to make a post … it felt too much like work to do so at the time). And the Farne Islands were superb. Dave

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  11. Fantastic photos, such great close ups. You have to love the comical looking puffins don’t you. Never been to Northumberland but it looks fantastic. Buying a house, selling a house you’re a glutton for punishment.

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    • Thanks Elaine. It is a long drive up to Northumberland from Sussex but I fully intend to return. And return. That coastline is stunning. As for the house-move, well we tend to move every five years or so primarily to provide some kind of pension! Stressful and trying but quite exciting too. D

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  12. While reading this post, I wouldn’t help but think of the time I ate puffins when staying in the Faroe Islands 10 years ago. The locals are mad for a bit of puffin meat so I thought I’d indulge. They stuff the little carcasses with cakey stuffing, sew them up and boil them. The birds are served up with gravy and potatoes and you eat them with your fingers.

    “I haven’t been face to face with an anonymous shag for years.” – This comment resulted in me spilling hot tea in my lap while laughing.

    Great post!

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    • Ooops. Sorry about the hot tea … but glad I got a laugh! I don’t think I could bring myself to eat puffin however they might be prepared but an interesting tale nonetheless. I read somewhere that years ago they were a staple in the Hebrides too. I guess similar environment and similar lack of food choice. I’ve always thought that sea-birds wouldn’t be great eating and actually, you don’t say what they tasted like. Is that significant? I’ll have to add the Faroes to my non-existent bucket list (sans puffin with cakey stuffing). D

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      • David, from memory the puffins tasted like gamey poultry. The meat was brown. It was obviously OK because I have a photo of me sitting behind a plate of bones. Pilot whale on the other hand – completely revolting. Black meat with a really strong pungent fishy taste. Served with a little sliver of blubber. I was staying with locals and didn’t want to offend them by refusing to eat it.
        I highly recommend the Faroes – fascinating place. The people are somewhat reserved but do appreciate you trying out a bit of Faroese rather than insisting on English or Danish. I recommend you attend around ólavsøka which is their national holiday in July – lots of festivities, alcohol and the weather is less likely to be completely foul. Also hire a car as public transport is non existent. Completely stunning scenery and such a unique place! I’ll take my kids there when they are a little older and can handle almost 2 days travelling from Tasmania.

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  13. I am speechless with admiration for the line ” I haven’t been face to face with an anonymous shag for years”. It works on so many levels. The pictures are pretty good, too. Hope a house post will follow. And an invite to a house warming party. I could bring a shag.

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    • You speechless, Charles? There’s a wonder … and a satisfaction. I almost edited out that sentence but for your sake at least I’m glad I didn’t. Bring a shag to my party? I’m not running a knocking shop y’know. D

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