Do you remember a couple of weeks ago I shared my pictures of Lindisfarne, the Holy Island of Northumbria? Well, I’m heading back up to the county of big skies this morning to share another story from my adventure: a trip to The Farne Islands.
The Farne Islands are a group of islands off the coast of Northumberland, England. Depending on the tide there are between 15 and 20 islands visible at any time, and many of the smaller islands are heavily protected, meaning only the wildlife has free access to roam. The larger islands of Inner Farne, Staple Island and Longstone can be visited by the general public.
Holidaying with my family back in 2012, we picked a good day to visit the Farnes. Warm sun and bright blue skies, the perfect conditions for bird spotting and picture snapping. We drove the short distance from Berwick-upon-Tweed to a little town called Seahouses, where we booked a boat trip around the islands.
There are several companies that offer trips out to the islands, but I would wholeheartedly recommend Billy Shiel and his little fleet of vessels. As far as I understand, Billy Shiel, his father and grandfather before him have been ferrying people to and from the islands since 1918, starting with the keenest ornithologists and now taking anyone looking for an adventure on the water. Have a look at their website for more information.
Look at this bunch of characters: the three blind mice! Luckily for us, the sea was pretty calm on the day we decided to visit. A good thing really, as my mum isn’t a huge fan of boat trips, but she I think her fears were cast aside in an instant when she started spotting birds and wildlife out on the water.
We weren’t far off the mainland when we caught our first glimpses of the grey seals. The four of us nearly fell out of the boat trying to get a better look! They really are beautiful creatures, shiny and sleek, lolling on the seaweed-covered rocks and looking at us with their big black eyes.
It was only when this chap made his way up to our boat that I realised just how big seals are!
Our boat captain was excellent: very skilful, knowledgable and respectful, something I was happy to note. Our trip encompassed views of almost all the islands, even the ones humans weren’t permitted to land on. He took us close, but never too close, and always dipped the motor of the boat so as not to startle the wildlife.
As we approached the inner islands I marvelled at the sheer number of birds sitting atop the rocks. Hundreds of gulls, fulmars and kittiwakes all squawking their heads off, cormorants and shags with their wings on resplendent display and even a cheeky turnstone hiding in the rocks.
Had we taken our boat trip a little earlier in the year, we might have been lucky enough to spot the puffin colony that calls the Farne Islands home during late spring and early summer, but by August they’d already moved further north, towards chillier waters. We were a little disappointed, but it just made me more determined to see them during my next visit.
It’s really not hard to see where my birdgeeking tendencies come from, is it? Love these nerds.
As we turned to come back to the mainland, our captain pointed out some of the man-made structures on the larger islands, such as the lighthouse on Longstone island where Grace Darling, daughter of the lighthouse-keeper, made her daring rescue of the crew of the Forfarshire, shipwrecked on the rocks below. She was just twenty-two years old.
The other structure we spotted was the old Pele Tower on Inner Farne, home to the National Trust’s bird wardens for ten months of the year. I wondered what it was like, living there throughout the seasons, alone but for the birds. Perhaps I’m in the wrong job.
Our trip out to the Farnes took a couple of hours, and even though Billy Shiel’s boat company offers a huge variety of different trips, I would recommend the option we chose for anyone who wants to see the islands but not necessarily touch down on any of them. Looking at the website, I think the trip we took must have been the Grey Seal Cruise.
What I wouldn’t give for another trip out to the islands. My parents visit Berwick-upon-Tweed every year, and I’m hoping to tag along again this August for another trip out on one of Billy Shiel’s famous boats. Trust me, if you like birds, boats, seals, water, big skies, fresh air, friendly folks or any combination of the above, a visit to the Farne Islands is just too good to miss.