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;


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.

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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.


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.


This pair of juveniles nestled inches below my feet.

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

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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.

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

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

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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.

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


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

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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.


*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.


The Norfolk Coast

On a cold drizzle-evening recently, I settled down with a glass of wine and my laptop.  The laptop’s hard drive was groaning with 45 000 (!) digital photos and it was time to make some space.  After deleting a couple of hundred, and drifting off to the fridge for a refill, I grew distracted by re-discovering half-forgotten photographs, squirrelled away in deep, dusty folders and dank, cobwebby files.  I found one batch taken on a weekend break to Norfolk with my partner Jim and our son in August 2013.  I’ll post some of those now in the hope that they provide a little wistful sun and cheer during a rainy, drab month.



When a member of Jim’s family kindly offered us the use of her holiday home in north Norfolk we immediately, excitedly, breathlessly replied, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’


The house was an unremarkable bungalow until it was redesigned and rebuilt in 2003.  It is a bold design and won’t be to everybody’s taste.  But after a little initial hesitancy, I loved it.

Inside is bright, airy and minimal: all polished concrete floors and beech ply.  No chintz.  The living room has a high, vaulted ceiling (into that steep, pitched roof) revealing the expanse of brick chimney with a wood burner at its base.  Large windows give plenty of light of course (though I would have made them bigger still) and gaze out over a simple garden to surrounding fields and salt-marsh.


It is an assertive, self-assured build and doesn’t seem to care whether or not you like it: which is just as well as the house is visible from a mile away.


The garden is ideal for a holiday home.  The only regular job is the mowing of lawns (by whoever is staying), framing a large block of tall, native perennials.  This simple layout brings a chunk of surrounding meadow into the heart of the garden – as well as the buzz of bees and rasping of crickets.


Scabious, knapweed, yarrow, wild carrot and the like are jostled by dock and thistle interlopers.  But then dock seed-heads add a pleasing rusty-red and thistle flowers lure in more bees and butterflies.


Where garden meets salt-marsh, sits a mirror-sided studio that whacked my jealousy gene hard.  And continued to jab at it.  I easily imagined myself living here and sitting within this garden-room, supping Earl Grey, periodically tapping furiously at my keyboard, stopping too often and staring out of the window.


At this view.  The marsh is mesmerizing and


changes almost constantly with the light.


And it is full of marsh-loving birds – as you might expect.  I wasn’t able to get great photos of the bird life I saw but I think this is a (slightly blurred) female reed bunting.


This looks like a reed warbler though it might just as easily be a marsh warbler.  (An expert can have trouble telling them apart … so take your pick).


I’m rather out of my confidence zone with ID’ing these small, unfamiliar birds but I’m going to confidently assert that this is a juvenile whitethroat (unless you know different).


On the skyline, beyond the marsh, sits a handsome windmill, and whilst pointing my lens at that, a bird of prey floated into view.  It didn’t come very close and initially, I thought it was a buzzard.


It was only with binoculars that I realised it was much rarer than that.  This is a marsh harrier – one of only three or four hundred pairs breeding in the UK.  I felt honoured to see it – if only from a distance.  (It’s tagged with green for easier spotting and identification, I suppose.  Or else canny advertising for salted peanuts).



The house is only a short drive from a small seaside town but from there it is a further mile or two to the beach – a long, leisurely walk on sandy paths and wooden walkways beside the banks of muddy creeks and inlets.


Common tern

Plenty more bird life here.


The north Norfolk coastline reminds me of the German Baltic where I spent my childhood summers.


Miles and miles of wide, yellow beaches, backed by dunes meshed together by marram grass.



The sea is shallow, shelves gently for hundreds of yards and warm in August.  Not great for swimming, perfect for paddling (after a game of beach cricket and a sandy, slightly gritty picnic).


The following morning we drove to Blakeney and hopped on a boat to visit a seal colony.  It’s what one does whilst on holiday in Norfolk.


No.  Sadly not in this smashing little ‘Swallows and Amazons’ dinghy.


We could smell the seals before, rounding a sand-spit, we saw them.  A smell of large, hot, fish-eating mammals and their various excretions.  Can you imagine?  Bit like tinned tuna mixed with long-overdue-for-a-change cat litter.  Heady.


The seals are used to groups of gawping humans floating slowly past and barely opened an eye or waved a flipper.


I wondered whether they think boatloads of chattering tourists are laid on for their own entertainment, amusement and curiosity.  If so, the novelty has long waned.


There are both grey and common seals at Blakeney but I struggled to tell which was which.  The grey seal has a longer, more pronounced snout apparently – like the one above?  Its latin name is Halichoerus grypus which translates as “hooked-nosed sea pig” – which isn’t very nice, is it?


This is another grey seal?


But as grey seals aren’t necessarily grey and are more common than common seals, it’s anyone’s guess really.


After a long, salty, fishy day out Jim and I were astonished (and not a little pleased) that we had finally succeeded in tiring out a 13-year-old boy.  Now that’s a sight you don’t see very often.

Never mind seals and marsh harriers.