Now run as a wildlife sanctuary by its present owners the National Trust, the tiny group of mainly uninhabited islands can only be reached by one of the small ferries operating daily from nearby Seahouses throughout the summer months. Brian Spencer joined one of the frequent cruises.
In all innocence we thought that the Tuesday after Spring Bank Holiday Monday would be quiet. Little did we know that the day was traditionally the busiest for Billy Shiels’s fleet of converted fishing boats. They carry 60 passengers at a time from Seahouses’ fishing harbour out to the fabled sanctuary of the group of rocks a couple of miles offshore in the notorious waters of Staple Sound. The islands are the final outliers of the great Whin Cill, a massive bed of volcanic basalt stretching across much of Northumbria and as far south as part of the North York Moors. Stretching between five and seven miles out into the North Sea (the actual number of visible rocks and islands varies depending on the state of the tide), there are two main groups with sundry rocks whose names give more than a hint of the dangers they present to unwary sailors. Rocks like the Callers and Fang guard the south-eastern approaches, while Megstone, Islestone Shad and Glororum Shad, together with Oxscar, Elbow and Gun Rock lie in wait for careless navigators.
Most visitors join the trip that lands on Farne, the largest island in the group and the only one with any permanent habitation. Here a team of National Trust rangers manage to carry out a high-wire act by carefully controlling the numbers landing on the island, without actually being overzealous. This was the tour we had planned to join, but as the lady in the booking kiosk said, ‘Sorry luv, we are fully booked for today, but there are spaces on the boat that will cruise round all the Farnes, but without landing’, we decided to make do with it. A bit of a disappointment, but as we opted for the round trip and what an experience it turned out to be. Rather than land on the main island and forced to peer down dangerously over the precipitous rocks in order to spot nesting birds, we could almost look directly into their nests, or make close eye contact with the hundreds of busy-body seals and their pups sharing the bounty of the sea around these islands.
Every year, upwards of 150,000 birds use the Farnes for their annual breeding spree. It is no wonder that Sir David Attenborough considers the islands his favourite wildlife site in the UK. Everyone going there wants to see the puffins, those delightful clowns of the sea and they will not be disappointed, for around 39,962 pairs come to breed here every year. Along with them are the hundreds of Arctic terns that take great delight in dive bombing unwary tourists – the best way of avoiding their unwelcome attentions is with a hat, not to wear it, but to wave above in the air whenever one comes too close. Along with them are fulmars, raiders of the sea, the nemesis of unwary chicks. More gentle are the guillemots, razorbills and shags, but the cuddliest of them all are eiders, that sit motionless on their downy nests inches away from the passing feet of hundreds of visitors throughout the season. These are just some of the birds that feed out at sea, but the islands are also visited by an almost bewildering and unexpected range of land birds; rare barn swallows, rock pipits, and pied wagtails can be seen scavenging for insects in and around the rough vegetation.
We could see all this and more from the comfort of our boat. Seals would come up close to see what we had on offer and then disappointed, lazily slip away beneath the waves, only to re-appear a minute or two later for another look over their mobile shoulder. Puffins were in abundance, popping in and out of their nests which they make in burrows just like rabbits. This is the only time they come to land and towards the end of July the whole colony masses for its annual migration far out into the stormy waters of the north Atlantic. Nesting beside them were guillemots, the nearest in appearance the northern hemisphere has to penguins. Cold water loving sand eels, tiny versions of their larger cousins, are still found in abundance despite the rise in sea temperature. They are the favourite food of the puffins which manage by some cleverly positioned hook in their beaks, to hold a dozen or so at a time.
The first inhabitant of the Farnes was St Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne who used it as a retreat from 635 to 651. He built a simple stone cell on Farne Island where he stayed in solitude to pray and meditate in peace. His successor was St Cuthbert who made the island his permanent home from 676 to 685. He befriended the nesting birds and eider ducks are still known locally as ‘St Cuthbert’s chicks’. For centuries the islands were an easy source of eggs and bird meat, and as a result the bird population had declined alarmingly by the late 1800s. As a result the Farne Islands Association was formed in 1880 to protect the wildlife and then in 1925 the islands with the exception of Longstone and its then still manned lighthouse, were handed over to the National Trust. Apart from this building the only other structures are on Farne itself. These are the tiny stone house where National Trust rangers live, the remains of a square tower where a coal-fired beacon pre-dated the Longstone lighthouse; a simple slipway where visitors land completes the total amenities. There was a brave attempt to set up a Benedictine monastery on the island in 1255, but the monks found life too harsh on the exposed rock far out into the North Sea, and so it was abandoned to the elements.
The most famous and best known person to be connected with the Farnes in comparatively modern times is without doubt, Grace Darling. She lived with her parents on the Longstone where her father was the keeper of the lighthouse. On the night of 7th September 1838 and during a storm, the SS Forfarshire with its engines out of commission drifted on to the nearby Harcar Rocks. Here it was held immobile, with the waves crashing over its super-structure, gradually being mashed to bits. Despite the violence of the storm, Grace Darling and her father rowed several times out to the ship, and after many difficult journeys they managed to rescue a number of passengers and crew. Once the story was picked up by the national media, Grace Darling became something of a national heroine; Queen Victoria sent her money and Grace appeared as a kind of music hall act for a while, speaking in front of dramatized pictures shown by a magic lantern. Not long afterwards she contracted T.B. and died at her mainland home in nearby Bamburgh. She is commemorated in the village by a small museum and ornate memorial fountain.
Visits can be made from Seahouses Harbour sailing out to the Farnes by ferries operating during the late spring and summer months. There is a landing fee on to the main island, (National Trust members free) and a taped walkway guiding visitors along a route designed not to interfere with nesting birds, while still allowing them to see the birds at close quarters. Time allowed on the island depends on the state of the tide and the weather, but is usually about an hour or so duration.