In a land of skuas and gannets

The sunniest day on our honeymoon was when we went furthest north. Hermaness is a stunningly wild and beautiful nature reserve – and because of the weather and the wildlife we saw it at its best.

The Hermaness coast - absolutely magnificent.

The Hermaness coast – absolutely magnificent. In real life it’s even better.

Bonxies - or great skuas... piratical birds that live by nicking the food off other birds, and dive-bomb any humans who dare to venture anywhere close to their nests. They certainly add to the air of wildness at Hermaness!

Bonxies – or great skuas… piratical birds that live by nicking the food off other birds, and dive-bomb any humans who dare to venture anywhere close to their nests. They certainly add to the air of wildness at Hermaness!

Puffins at Hermaness - as cute here as anywhere else!

Puffins at Hermaness – as cute here as anywhere else!

Hermaness coast, looking north. The rocks are white because they are covered in gannets...

Hermaness coast, looking north. The colour of the white rocks is because they are covered in gannets…

A small part of one of the gannet colonies on the Hermaness coast.

A small part of one of the gannet colonies on the Hermaness coast.

These stacks are the most northerly parts of the British Isles - and Out Stack (to the right) is the last solid surface before the Arctic ice cap. The rocks on the left are white because they are covered by a large gannet colony.

These stacks are the most northerly parts of the British Isles – and due north of Out Stack (to the right), the next solid surface is the Arctic ice cap. The lighthouse on Muckle Flugga used to be the most northerly habitation in Britain until it was automated in 1995. The rocks on the left are covered in gannets.

Norwick Beach

Norwick beach - you might think this is a photo of a normal sandy beach, but actually it's a photo of a rather unusual geological boundary.

Norwick beach – you might think this is a photo of a normal sandy beach, but actually it’s a photo of a rather unusual geological boundary.

Just over 400 million years ago, an ancient ocean was being squeezed out of existence by the collision of two large landmasses (which in later ages, and after more geological dramas, would become Europe and North America). One of the results of this collision was unusual: a section of oceanic crust was thrust above the continental crust. Remnants of this form about a third of the Shetland islands of Unst and Fetlar. The boundary between the two bands of ancient crust can be found at Norwick Beach: in the photo, the continental crust is the dark rock to the left, the oceanic crust is the light rock to the right.

Jen was keen to swim at Norwick Beach - but not for long!

Jen was keen to swim at Norwick Beach – but not for long!

Lerwick Baptist Church

Both Jen and I were keen to find a good church on the Shetlands, so we decided to go to the Lerwick Baptist Church. This required a three hour trek from Norwick Beach, including a couple of ferry crossings but we were well rewarded by a lively and welcoming congregation and excellent preaching. They have a recently-built church and have about 150 in the mornings (there were about 50 that evening).

We then spent a night at Shalders guest house, which was a uniquely delightful place to stay. We were a bit puzzled by the St George’s flag that was flying outside, but all became clear when Jen asked Ann, the proprietor, the following morning: she has 23 flags in her cupboard, and flies the one appropriate for the home country of her guests.

Puffins on Skomer

Puffin on the cliff edge at The Wick

On Wednesday I took advantage of good weather and spent the day on Skomer. This an island off the Marloes Peninsula in Pembrokeshire, which is famous for its seabirds and particularly its puffin colonly. Although I had intended to look for a wide range of the island’s wildlife, I ended up being completely beguiled by the puffins.

I’d been there a few years ago, on a day which was largely foggy, but still had an amazing experience. This time, as the weather was spectactularly good (itself noteworthy considering the storms that prevailed for much of the rest of the week) I decided to set myself up at the Wick, where the puffins are most numerous, to try to get some decent photos. There’s a particular spot with a stunning backdrop to the sea below, where thought I’d be able to line up a good shot or two.

Puffin at The Wick on Skomer

What I hadn’t expected was that a puffin with a beak-full of sandeels would then land right in the middle of the frame! A couple of snaps later, it was gone to feed its young…

Having lined up the background, this puffin landed right in the middle of the frame!


Shy puffin

It’s astonishing how bold puffins can be, and how close they can get to people. Most of the people there are likely to have gone away with stunning photos. However, a few of them did seem to be a bit shier, hiding away in burrows.

My one regret of the trip was that, having gone to Pembrokeshire with John Linney, Dave Doughty and Jesse Stuart, I ended up being the only on the Skomer trip. After I’d shown them the photos, they were wishing they’d been there!

Puffins at The Wick on Skomer


Puffin with sandeels at The Wick

Being a tourist

I’ve just spent most of the past week being a tourist, as my mother has been visiting Durham for a few days. This was much helped by the weather, as we had some of the only days of summer so far this year!

Puffin posing with sand-eels

We spent a day up in Northumberland, which included a trip to the Farne Islands. Mum had never seen puffins properly before – but there were plenty here! I was keen to photograph one with a beakful of sand-eels. I noticed many fly directly over the island, but they seemed spooked by the number of tourists and only a few landed. Then just before departing for the boat, this one appeared, and almost posed for the cameras!

We also visited some of the local museums, which offered great insight into the once-thriving economy of the region. The first of these was the excellent Head of Steam Railway Museum in Darlington: this houses the original Locomotion, which ran on the inaugural Stockton-and-Darlington railway, and was a fully working engine for thirty years.

Locomotion at the railway museum in Darlington, and the HMS Trincomalee in Hartlepool’s marina.

Sue, Tom and Mum at a local Italian restaurant.

The Hartlepool Maritime Experience has as its showpiece the HMS Trincomalee, a fully restored battleship that was built in 1817, and had active service in the Navy for ten years from 1847. It’s an impressive sight (see above), and the tour of the decks was a window into a different era – and a tough environment. The sailors living in the dark and cramped lower deck would have slept in hammocks that were hung just above the dining tables, and owned little that could not be stored in a two-litre duffle bag. There was an odd contrast later in the day with the monks’ dormitory in Durham Cathedral: spartan though this may have been, they at least each had a separate bay to sleep and study in, with copious light and space compared to the sailors.

Healing on the Streets

Over the last few months I’ve been part of the Healing on the Streets team in Stockton. It’s been really good to be part of it from the start, to experience some of the wariness of the local townspeople as to what we’re about, and then to perceive a distinct thaw and greater willingness to receive prayer. One of the first people we prayed with in April was wheelchair bound and suffering from cancer. It seemed a significant moment, but we did not hear from her afterwards. Today she wheeled up to say that she had had a CAT scan a few days previously and was now clear of the tumour! We were concerned that she was not walking yet, so we prayed with her for that. We await further news of how she is doing.

The joy of desert places

Tom – my giant neighbour – is a fan of the ascetic way of life, and as we have chatted I have become convinced that he’s onto something. Yesterday afternoon we sat down to chat about asceticism: what it is, why Tom is excited about it, and why it’s important.

Tom describes the joy of asceticism the following way. “Movies and chocolate are nice, but if you watch and eat them for a week, you feel dreadful. However, if you go for a walk, you may not feel like going, but at the end you feel glad of it. Asceticism is like this on a large scale – but I’m sure we can only go there with the help of the Holy Spirit. I want to see what ‘there’ looks like, because I think it’s a joyful place.”

It’s about simplicity, in what we believe and in our material expectations. In theology, it’s about a direct relationship with what happened in Palestine two thousand years ago; and in our material lives it’s relying less and less on luxuries and secret crutches to get through the day. “I’ve tried most of them”, smiles Tom.

But it also has society-wide implications. We live in a complex world in which insurance companies, lawyers and accountants set out what is required of us and of our communities – which is both a symptom of our divided world, and a cause of it. For the last ten years Tom has had the conviction that England is set for a serious economic desert (with the financial crises of the last year or so, he’s not the only one) – but out of this impoverishment, during which asceticism may be forced on us, the nation will regain its soul.

Finchale priory on the River Wear, just north of Durham… from an era more used to ascetic lifestyles

One of Tom’s heroes is the great Celtic saint of the north-east, Cuthbert, who spent many years as a hermit on the Farne Islands, but was for a short while bishop of Lindisfarne. During this time he performed many miracles, particularly of healing. I ask Tom whether Cuthbert was too extreme? He replies, “Isn’t Christ too extreme? If anyone actually heals someone, isn’t that too extreme for many of us?” and then adds “Cuthbert was consistently holy. The room of his heart was always swept clean and ready for holiness. When holiness came, he was ready for it. Many of us have flashes in the pan: it’s the perpetual smouldering fire distinguishes the saint, and I think asceticism can get us there”.

More recently, Tom’s been impressed by the example of David Hope, who some years ago resigned as Archbishop of York in order to return to being a parish priest. He’s planning to meet him soon to have a series of conversations about a “new asceticism” – to quote Hope – to get a better idea of the territory and possibly to publish the resulting dialogue. For Tom, Hope’s action demonstrates what asceticism is about: it was a move away from power and status, towards humility and truth.

Farne Islands