Rising spectacularly above the chilly North Sea swell, the Farne Islands offer a dramatic contrast to the mainland, where saints and seabirds have come to live in splendid isolation.
Puffins on Staple Island, Inner Farne. ©National Trust Images/Joe Cornish
The tide is out on a cold, crisp morning on the coast of Northumberland. The North Sea has sucked itself back toward Belgium, revealing golden pillows of sand ready for a new day. It has slurped at Seahouses harbour, too, leaving fishing boats bobbing far below the great wall of the pier.
Young, female, grey seal basking on a beach, Farne Islands. ©National Trust Images/Joe Cornish
Above the boats, perched on the walls like brightly coloured seabirds, are people. A skipper whistles and waves to the group and they grin nervously as, one by one, they climb down a long ladder, to the deck of Glad Tidings.
She is a small boat, sturdy and seaworthy. Once her mission was to haul lobster pots; now her cargo is people. Glad Tidings still heads into the chop and swell of the North Sea, but her destination is not a bobbing buoy – rather, a defiant string of rocks scattered off the Northumberland coast.
These are the Farne Islands: 28 isolated land masses of varying sizes, from spacious Inner Farne and Longstone, to unnamed outcrops lying between two and five miles off Seahouses. For such a ragged collection of low-lying, weather-worn rocks, they have an impressive international profile. Famed for a saint, a heroine and seabirds, they draw attention, and visitors, from all quarters.
The Farnes are the final upthrust of the Great Whin Sill, a volcanic rib that stretches across the heart of Northumberland to the coast. They appear as flat-topped, treeless islands, some with a thin covering of scurvy grass and campion, others bare as a polished pebble. Originally connected to the mainland, the islands were cut adrift after sea levels rose during the last Ice Age. They feature the Whin Sill’s igneous dolerite rock, formed in strong columns to produce spectacular cliffs and sea-stacks up to 20 metres high. This geology, combined with isolation, lack of shelter and poor potential for pecking out an existence, make them an unlikely choice for human habitation.
Yet, in the Celtic tradition of island hermitages, seventh century monks in search of solitude climbed into boats and crossed the Inner Sound. The first recorded was St Aidan, but the best-known arrived in AD676. St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, a missionary monk with a reputation for healing, chose Inner Farne as his home. He built a tiny cell of earth and stone where he lived and prayed. At first he would receive visitors and wash their feet, but later he confined himself to his cell and opened the window only to give his blessing. While he avoided contact with people, he developed a rare affinity with the wildlife and allowed eider ducks to nest on the steps of his altar. At the same time he instituted special laws to protect his avian friends; these may have been the first bird protection laws anywhere in the world.
St Cuthbert left the island in 684 to become Bishop of Lindisfarne but returned to Inner Farne in 687 to die. Over time he was followed by other hermits, including St Aethelwold, until, in 1255, a small Benedictine monastery was established.
While there is now no trace of St Cuthbert’s cell, a chapel dedicated to him was built in about 1300. This weathered, stone building, which can be visited today, was renovated in the 19th century by Archdeacon Charles Thorp of Durham, who added a vibrant stained glass window and 17th century woodwork, plucked from Durham Cathedral. Picking up Cuthbert’s mantle, he also arranged for the first wildlife wardens to live on Inner Farne after he bought the island in 1861. Their job was to protect the seabird nests from the voracious Victorian egg collectors, who would attempt to collect hundreds of eggs on every visit.
The islands’ fame spread and, by 1925, they and the bird population were at risk of being over-run. A vigorous public campaign began to buy the precious group and hand it over to the National Trust. Since then, the trust has made massive strides, with wardens installed for nine months of the year on Brownsman and Inner Farne.
Compared to other islands in the chain, Inner Farne is positively cosmopolitan: besides St Cuthbert’s Chapel, it boasts a visitor’s centre, a boardwalk, toilets and solar panels. Visitors step off the jetty and pass the ‘fishe-house’, on the site of a medieval guesthouse for visiting monks. Further on, past the chapel, is a pele tower built in 1500, where a garrison of soldiers were installed as defence against French invasion.
At this time mariners – French or otherwise – were warned off the rocks by means of a fire burning on top of the pele tower. The first attempt at a purpose-built warning system was in 1673, when Sir John Clayton erected a tower on Inner Farne as part of his comprehensive scheme for the East coast. Sadly, it descended into farce: according to Trinity House, the General Lighthouse Authority, influential Newcastle merchants refused to pay dues for its upkeep and the fire was never kindled. Further proposals were made in 1727 by coastal traders but little was done for another 50 years.
By 1778 two lighthouses finally exhibited lights: one on Inner Farne and the other on rugged little Staple Island. This was blown down in 1784, its replacement was flattened by heavy seas in 1800, and a light was finally reinstated on Brownsman Island. By 1809 the two towers, both coal lights, were decaying, and Trinity House built the modern lighthouse on Inner Farne, that is still in use today.
A National Nature Reserve (NNR), the Farne Islands is among Britain’s most important bird sanctuaries. A total of 294 bird species have been recorded, including, in the 1760s, the now-extinct Great Auk. A flightless bird but a powerful swimmer, it looked like a blend of penguin and dodo. Predators included polar bears, orcas and white-tailed eagles although, on the Farnes, humans were its downfall.
On a contemporary level, the National Trust records 24 breeding species, represented by around 80,000 birds. These include puffin, guillemot, shags, eider ducks, razorbills and kittiwakes, with oystercatchers and ringed plover among the permanent residents.
Because of the sheer number of birds, which nest close to the pathways and on the sea cliffs, the best time to visit the Farnes is between May and July, during the breeding season. An eyeball to eyeball encounter with a green shag, or an impromptu dive-bombing by a defensive Arctic tern will leave a memory that surely lingers. While the focus is inevitably on feathers, the islands are also home to one of Europe’s largest Atlantic grey seal colonies, with around 1,300 pups born annually between September and January.
But as the converted fishing boats chug from Seahouses to the islands, it is the resident puffins that are the real stars of the show. As each boat nears the islands, a barrage of tiny bodies will fill the sky, tight little wings flapping like laundry in the wind. As the birds reach land, they will dive, without hesitation, into burrows while visitors raise their cameras and laugh with delight at these charismatic clowns of the sea.