The Farne islands

Tom looking small in front of the St. Cuthbert II

Yesterday I had a great trip to the Farne islands with Tom (my giant neighbour), which fortunately we did not plan too well. He’s been inspired by the local Celtic saint, Cuthbert, to such an extent that he has even enthused me as well – not least because  there were plenty of healings and miracles when he was around. We therefore decided to see if we could get a trip to the Farnes, where Cuthbert spent the last part of his life.

One of the colonies of guillemots – there were thousands of birds in the biggest two.

One boat company at Seahouses almost laughed when we asked about trips at this time of year; but as it happened another boat was running, largely because of a group of nine others who were on it. This tour was around the whole archipelago – and as Tom will attest, it was a bit choppy!

This wasn’t an ideal time to go for wildlife – many of the breeding birds like puffins and terns arrive in the spring – but what there was was impressive enough.

Seal colony on the Farnes

Seal colony on the Farnes

There were two huge colonies of guillemots, a variety of auk closely related to the puffin but without the colourful bill. They crowded the rocky ledges of the cliff-faces they inhabited, chattering incessantly, but tended to get spooked by the proximity of the boat and many flew straight into the sea.

Eider duck, of which there were lots, both in the harbour at Seahouses and around the Farnes. Also known locally as ‘Cuddy ducks’ because of their relationship with Cuthbert!

Further round the islands there were huge numbers of seals: I’ve raved before now about the ones that lounge around Greatham Creek, but these colonies are far bigger. Seals may look fat and lazy on land, but they’re amazingly agile in the water: I caught sight of several bouncing along the top of the water, almost dolphin-like.

We didn’t get to land on the islands, but did see the chapel on Inner Farne, at the site where Cuthbert was believed to have lived. Tom – no softie himself – is now seriously daunted by how tough a character he must have been, fending for himself on these treeless islands, at the mercy of icy gales and a tempestuous sea. Normal life in the Northumbria of Anglo-Saxons and Celts (around 680) would be a severe challenge for most 21st century Brits; but Cuthbert’s life was extreme even for those times.

Misty beach at Seahouses

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