Thursday, July 03, 2014

Farne Islands

I am sitting in a very average cafe, sipping good strong tea and nibbling on an indifferent scone. It doesn't matter. It's warm in here and the floor is steady. As a bonus, they have internet. I'm waiting for the bus back to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Perhaps a point worth noting about Berwick-upon-Tweed is that it is a great base for outings. For example, you can make a fairly easy day trip to the Farne Islands out in the North Sea.

You wouldn't think I would look for an opportunity to step onto a small rocky boat that would spend an hour or two bopping about in the choppy cold waters. My sea legs are nothing to be proud of. Still, how can I not go? Farne Islands are home to one of the largest seabird colonies. And for just a few more weeks, you can go and see this year's hatch of puffins. (Toward the middle or end of July, one night they will up and leave. Just like that. Without notice or warning. To spend nine months far away out on the cold waters of the North Sea.)

The morning sky is promising. Looking out my bedroom window, I'm thinking it looks mildly blue. Mildly.

The Tourist Office has equipped me with bus schedules. I can take the 10:07 to the fishing village of Seahouses. From there, a handful of boats alternate in put put putting small groups out to the islands. Not all day. The National Trust stands guard here and only two of the islands have landing stations and neither is open to visitors for more than a handful of hours. It's all very strict and properly respectful of the nesting birds.

And so after an incredibly elaborate and quite sumptuous breakfast (of fruits, juices, yogurts, eggs, fish, more eggs, toasts, honeys -- all locally sourced and where possible, organic)...


... I set out. Due south along the coast, on the local bus.

By 11, we pull into the tiny fishing hamlet and just at that moment, I (and two other travelers taking the same bus) notice a passenger boat is getting ready to leave. We run for it and are enormously gratified to be told it has three remaining seats (meaning everyone else has to squeeze on the side benches to make room for us).

In retrospect, I see that I am lucky for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that even though two later "landing" boats will be going to the islands this day, the sea does get rougher with each hour. I would have had a really awful time of it on a later boat.

We're out to sea.


A photo for you of the coast -- with castles and abbeys and lighthouses in the distance...


...and now lets face the islands:



My boat is within that three hour window with permission to land on Staple Island. How fortuitous that is! Staple Island has a large number of puffins right now. Thousands of them! But let's not neglect the other birds: the loud shag, the arctic stern, gulls of course, and the most obvious bird on these islands -- the guillemot, nesting noisily in large colonies and looking a bit like penguins.

puffins, like a painting: with two landing

noisy shag families

nests of kittiwake gulls

guillemot families

and of course, the star puffin

I didn't take my telephoto for this trip so what you get is what I can get with my Sony Nex workhorse. Believe me, there were a number of professionals whose equipment was worth a hundred times that of mine. Some of the photographers were supremely nice and let me through to get closer to the birds. Others were rather protective of their space and wanted no one else around them. It was an interesting community of mixed dispositions. I wish I could do it all over again, but I offer you at least some of what I witnessed today. Humbling -- it was really humbling in its beauty.

Allow me to post two more puffin photos from a beautiful day out on the Farne Islands! I am sure I will never again see so many birds, not scared, within close proximity to me, in such a dramatic and splendid setting. (Not to be forgotten is the smell of bird and sea, all rolled into one!)



We leave after an hour on the island. If I thought I'd have a quick voyage home, I was wrong. The boat then takes us around some of the islands where you cannot land. There is a bit of history offered about the lighthouses, about a brave rescue of a sinking vessel, but curious as we may have been about all that, our attention was on the birds.

Well, not only. There is a colony of Atlantic Grey Seals and they, too, are in their nesting mode. Half of the new cubs will not survive the winter. It's a poignant tale of hardship. But for now, there is only hope and beauty in witnessing their life cycle.



As the winds pick up and the sea throws sprays of ocean water into the boat, I ask the two-man crew if they ever get sick.
Always, at the beginning of the season, they admit. But we get used to it after a couple of days. Billy Shiel's, the man who runs their boating operation apparently routinely gets sick every time he goes out. I have to think he rarely does the trip anymore.
But you're lucky! -- they tell me. Today is very calm!
Fine, if you say so...

One last look...


And now I am where I was at the beginning of the post, eating a lousy scone and drinking great, as always, tea. It steadies the insides.

There is only one return bus to Berwick and I would have quite a bit of a wait and there is only so much of this little fishing hamlet that you want to see (though they do have a National Trust gift shop and I always enjoy those, feeling that any purchase there benefits preservation). So I follow the advice of a Tourist Office agent and take an earlier bus that goes halfway, getting off at Belford.

I should have connected there, but I miss that Berwick bus by one minute. And so here I am, in a rural, sleepy village. Belford.


Where not much is happening. The one cafe is closed. The pub is not yet open. And over an hour to kill until the next bus.

I walk to the building that claims to be a hotel. Downstairs, men are gathered at the bar. Some twenty of them in various groupings and configurations. Okay: a place to sit down. And take out my computer which I had stuck into my backpack. And this is so remarkable because in every sleepy town and village I have had nothing but excellent WiFi reception. How times have progressed!


Once back in Berwick-upon-Tweed, I stop at a place my hosts recommended for dinner: Foxton's Wine Bar. And again, I am so pleasantly surprised: a solid salad and a quite excellent risotto with seafoods.


Yes, food awareness is spreading through England like rapid fire, even as I see that the chip habit is holding its own.

Back at the Bed and Breakfast, I talk to my hosts about my day. It could be that in my solo travel mode, I am less shy about detail. Perhaps I look in need of company. In any case, they sweetly invite me for a walk along the ramparts -- to their vegetable plot and back again. I happily accept.

It's a lovely evening to be out.

Pam and Dave show me their garden. Mostly potatoes -- always in demand and easy to care for, Pam tells me.


To me, everything looks vibrant and well tended. The soil is magnificent! None of this hard clay stuff we're forced to deal with at the farmette.

As we continue to walk along the walls, we come across a soccer (sorry, football) game. Animated! In the honey tones of evening light, against the backdrop of the North Sea. We pause for not a short time.


And now the final stretch, over the bridge that spans the main street.


And then, down to the river. They propose a half pint at their favorite pub -- the Leaping Salmon.

I think about the kindness of these people who, until recently, were strangers to me. They live in a world of puffins and swans and they still never tire of the beauty of the landscape. As we stand on the ramparts looking toward the old railway bridge, Dave tells me -- we have to wait for a train to pass.
Pam sighs, used to this.
It wont be long! He says emphatically.

It's cool by now and the thought of waiting for a train seems...chilling. But sure enough, in two minutes, a train appears around the bend.
It should be crossing the bridge within a minute! -- Dave tells us with not a small amount of excitement. Now! Take the photo now!


I do (see above). And it's an okay photo. Not great, not awful. But when I'll flip to it in the future, what I am absolutely certain to remember is Dave's excitement at sharing this bit of loveliness: a new train, passing over an old bridge that once linked England with Scotland, even as now it's just linking one bank of Berwick-upon-Tweed with the other.