The first time we visited the Farne Islands six years ago, we saw puffins and terns, enjoyed sunshine and a calm crossing. On the journey home, Geoff, the grandfather of my partner, Matthew, and the chief twitcher in the family, advised: “Don’t ever come back. . . . You will never have a day as good as this again.” Fortunately, we ignored him, and he has long forgotten his comment, so when we suggested another boat trip to the islands in late May, he replied: “Oh, yes, please.”
The Farnes are a group of islands about five miles off the northeast coast of Northumberland, England. Sometimes, as many as 28 islands are visible, depending on the tides.
There are no permanent human residents, but a group of National Trust wardens stay on Inner Farne during the spring and summer to protect nesting birds. Around 23 species of seabirds — more than 100,000 individuals — take up residence on the islands during warmer months to breed and rear their chicks.
So Geoff, his wife Nan (both 94), Matthew and our daughter Kitty (5½ ) joined me on a boat cruise from the coastal Northumberland town of Seahouses. The trip takes about three hours, including a one-hour stop at Inner Farne, and is dependent on the weather, so it is important to check on service in advance. Our vessel skirted the outer islands, stopping occasionally so the knowledgeable team on board could point out the local residents. A large group of gray seals lounged on a rocky outcrop, then dozens plopped into the sea and bobbed around as if to try for a closer look at this strange species of hairless ape that visits the islands only in the summer. I have never seen so many seals at once. Dolphins occasionally can be spotted there, too, but not on that day.
Each island has its own identity. Staple Island’s huge columns of rock rise out of the sea like Manhattan skyscrapers, but spackled with white, smelly guano. “Urggh — stinky Farne!” Kitty declared, holding her nose. But the hundreds of razorbills and kittiwakes perched on top didn’t seem to mind, nor did the herring gulls that set up home on the most precipitous of rock ledges. The boat pulled into an inlet, where we gazed upward at the teeming mass of birds on the cliffs. Atlantic puffins skimmed the water’s surface, their beaks full of sand eels.
There is local history here; hundreds of ships have been wrecked around the islands over the centuries. One particular story of bravery was recounted to us by our guide while our boat approached Longstone Lighthouse. In 1838, the SS Forfarshire was shipwrecked on the Farne Islands and was spotted by 23-year-old Grace Darling, daughter of the lighthouse keeper of Longstone Island. Realizing that adverse weather conditions were preventing lifeboats from reaching the vessel, Grace and her father, William, set out on a small rowboat. They rescued four men and a woman from the sea and brought them to Longstone. Then William and the rescued men returned to pull four more survivors from the waves. Nine other people were rescued by another boat, but the rest of the passengers and crew perished in the disaster. News of the rescue reached the press and soon Grace was a celebrity. Her story was known as far away as Japan, America and Australia. Artists came to Northumberland to paint her, and the attention grew so intense that the Duke of Northumberland became her guardian to protect her from unscrupulous profiteers. Unfortunately, just three years later at the age of 26, Grace died from tuberculosis.
We pulled away from Longstone Island and headed to our final stop, Inner Farne. Due to a packing mix-up, I was hatless and hoodless. The weather was fair, but it was not rain that I feared — it was the arctic tern! After all, I had visited before and still shuddered at the memory.
As soon as we began to walk up the path toward St. Cuthbert’s Chapel, the birds began to swoop and peck. These anxious and determined little parents nest on the ground, sometimes right on the path, and if any humans come close to their eggs or a brooding bird, they are harassed and bullied until they move on. And who can blame them? Some of the terns have flown to northern England from the Antarctic to breed. Squealing human visitors must run the gauntlet for about 10 yards until they are clear of the tern neighborhood.
Nearby, brooding brown eiders dozed on their nests, the ducks almost merging into the heath, and black-headed gulls looked on languidly from their ground nests. Meanwhile, the star of the Farnes, the colorful Atlantic puffin, may look comical but is no fool and wisely nests in burrows underground, safe from clumsy humans and their hiking boots. It was not quite high season for puffins — I am sure there were more on my first trip — but I was not too disappointed, as the variety and closeness of the huge variety of birds can be breathtaking.
I am not a keen birder, despite Matthew’s attempts. Binoculars are not my friends, and birding, to me, means cold, damp walks on flat, marshy estuaries. But here, with the birds right in front of you, it was impossible not to be impressed. As I wandered toward a headland, I felt like I was stepping into a prehistoric time machine. Scores of glossy, black-green birds with bright-green eyes were standing guard over broods of what appeared to be fluffy little pterodactyls. On closer inspection, I realized that they were European shag chicks, the families unperturbed by the chorus of clicking cameras two yards away. A rope marked a line over which I was not to cross, and a National Trust warden hovered nearby, as vigilant as the parent shags.
Birds of the North Sea vary in size and shape from large herring gulls to tiny terns. Many are beautiful, sleek and shiny, with distinctive features — the bright orange beaks of the arctic terns; the actually chocolate-brown heads of the black-headed gulls — and personalities, such as the clownish puffin, the penguin like guillemot and his tough-looking cousin the razorbill.
The islands have links to Saint Cuthbert, a bishop of the early Celtic Christian tradition, who made Inner Farne his hermitage. He left for a time but the island called him, and he returned to his monk’s cell, eventually dying there in A.D. 687. A group of buildings sit on the site of his original cell at the chapel that bears his name.
Like Cuthbert and the migrant birds, I am called back by these islands. This was my third trip to the Farnes, and I look forward to many more. But now our hour on the island was up and our sea safari nearly over. We boarded the boat and returned to harbor, windblown, tired and hungry . . . and looking forward to fish and chips for tea
This article was first published in the Washington Post on July 28, 2016.