From the moment you step ashore, you’ll see puffins crash-landing with beaks stuffed full of sand eels, terns wheeling in the sky or spearing fish from the sea.Gemma Hall, author of Slow Travel Northumberland
‘A boat may be secured for fifteen shillings. In addition to this charge, the boatmen expect to be provided with refreshments, solid and liquid.’ Visitors to the Farne Islands no longer need to supply the skippers of the Seahouses’ tour boats with food and drink, as they did in the late 19th century, but little else has changed here since Victorian tourists came to experience the famous bird islands.
Everyone who has visited these rocky isles scattered a couple of miles northeast of Seahouses will remember ducking and flinching from the dive-bombing arctic terns. A wave of the hands usually keeps the birds, which are ever so protective of their chicks running at your feet, from striking, but you might want to wear a hat just in case.
From the moment you step ashore, you’ll see puffins crash-landing with beaks stuffed full of sand eels, terns wheeling in the sky or spearing fish from the sea, cormorants sitting proud on their castles of dried seaweed, and guillemots guarding rock stacks painted white with guano. There is no other wildlife experience quite like this anywhere else in Northumberland. But only for a few months of the year. Come mid-August, the birds depart for open waters, abandoning their empty nests to the wind and sea.
The islands are divided into two main groups by Staple Sound. On Inner Farne, boardwalks guide visitors on a half-mile long round-island walk. Tens of thousands of puffins nest here in burrows they dig themselves (not old rabbit burrows as is sometimes thought), while razorbills, kittiwakes and guillemots lay their eggs on the columnar seafacing rocks (part of the Great Whin Sill that peaks in several places along the Northumberland coast). Sea campion covers much of the ground that isn’t bare rock.
Inner Farne was inhabited by hermits and monks for 900 years; the most well known was Cuthbert, who lived twice on the island before and after he became Bishop of Lindisfarne. The second time, in AD687, he returned to his much-loved sanctuary to die.
Nothing remains of Cuthbert’s simple shelter and prayer room, but you will see a few old stone buildings, including a chapel built around 1300. The 17th-century wood stalls inside came from Durham Cathedral.
Two lighthouses still operate on the Farnes, both dating to the early 1800s. The red and white beacon on Longstone is the famous ‘Grace Darling lighthouse’ from where the lighthouse keeper and his daughter rowed through a storm in 1838 to aid survivors of a shipwreck. In the years following the rescue, Victorian tourists would visit the famous family at the lighthouse and delight in hearing of the extraordinary event first hand. Today, you’ll need to visit the Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh.
Boat trips depart hourly between 10.00 and 15.00 depending on the weather and can be booked from the kiosks at Seahouses harbour. Tours of the islands offer close-up views of seals and cliff-nesting birds before landing on Inner Farne.
Note that most seabirds will have left the islands before the end of the summer but eider ducks, cormorants, shags and seals can be seen throughout the year, and there are winter migrants from early autumn. Allow for a round trip (including the Inner Farne stop-off) of three hours. Birdwatchers and photographers may want to combine a trip to Inner Farne with Staple Island.