Island Life… and Death (Farne Islands)

Bamburgh Castle

The existence of the Farne Islands is due to a geological feature called the Whin Sill, the term deriving from what regional quarrymen called flat sections of dark rock.  This is hard, volcanic material that erodes much more slowly than other rocks in the region and so gives rise to the high ground where Dunstanborough, Lindisfarne and Bamburgh Castles were built as well as the section of Hadrian’s Wall at Crag Lough.  The Farnes are part of it too; a scattering of hard black rocks off the Northumbrian coast, although until the mid 19th Century they were technically part of County Durham because they were owned by Durham Cathedral._pw_8539

The islands have supported few human inhabitants over the years, the first recorded being St Aidan in 651 and succeeded by St Cuthbert each of whom lived in solitude in a dug out cell on Inner Farne.  Though the island is now dominated by a bright white lighthouse, a small chapel stands on the site of that cell, together with a defensive Pele Tower that was added in 1500 when border reivers rendered the area lawless.  No more than a handful of monks were ever resident here, but when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the monks from Lindisfarne were disbanded too and Durham Cathedral took ownership.

There’s not much to live on.  The number of the islands varies from 28 when tides are at their lowest to 15 when the North Sea reclaims its share.  Most of those that remain above the water are barren rock, or thinly covered in seaweed, but Inner Farne and three of the other larger islands have a layer of soil averaging a metre in depth, soil enriched by generations of bird droppings, so that the monks and then the lighthouse keepers who lived here could at least do some gardening.

_pw_8656The lighthouse keepers were essential with all those hidden rocks here and hundreds of ships have fallen victim to them, making the area popular with divers as well as naturalists.  On the day I visited the was a slight swell and the weather was fine.  If things deteriorate the tourist boats don’t sail and nor does anyone else with any sense.

Aside from the monks’ chapel and tower all the other structures on the islands are lighthouses and watchtowers or what is left of them.  There is a cottage on Brownsman alongside one of these towers (where fires could be lit to warn shipping) but adjoining the cottage is a low round structure that is all that remains of a lighthouse that was blown down in the 19th Century.  It’s replacement was built on Longstone, another island in the group and was the sole reason for my journey that day.

_pw_8654On the morning of 7th September 1838 the lighthouse keeper’s daughter Grace looked out of her window (uppermost in the white section) and through the storm spotted an emergency that would make her a national heroine.  A coastal passenger steamer travelling from Dundee to Hull mistook the Longstone light for that on Inner Farne, and as a consequence it ran aground in thick fog and gale force winds on Harcar Rock.  The vessel was the Forfarshire, and local fisherman now refer to the rock as Forfar Rock as a result.  There were 39 deaths from the impact, and nine managed to get into the ship’s lifeboats to escape, but that left 11 stranded on the rock where hypothermia or drowning seemed the only likely outcomes.

Grace and her father rowed out in those heavy seas to rescue those on the rock, and though two had died before they reached them, in two trips they were able to get the rest to Longstone.  Grace died only 4 years later from tuberculosis.

Conditions were thankfully much better when we moored on Longstone.  The light is automated now so there are no resident keepers carrying Grace’s baton.

With only 20 minutes available to us on the island I had a choice to make – be given a brief tour of the lighthouse or go hunting for the right place to compose an image.  No contest really – I can come back and do the tour another time!  Now there was only one thing left to decide…  portrait or landscape?  Which do you prefer?

Longstone Light
Longstone Light


Longstone Light

Taken Flight (Farne Islands)

The television presenter and comedian Jim Bowen is perhaps best known for hosting the show based around the game of darts called “Bullseye”.  He had a number of catch phrases that  he used in the programme including the one he saved for contestants who had gambled and lost everything:

“Look at what you could have won.”

Hardly consoling, though I feel a little like Bowen when I write a blog about the birdlife of the Farne Islands.  The Farnes are a seabird haven that have recorded visits from some 290 species, though they are particularly notable for being a breeding ground for terns, guillemots and most famously of all… puffins.  These feathered clowns are great fodder for the ornithological photographer, and with over 36000 breeding pairs they are easy to find as they nest in ground level burrows.  You won’t find a single one in my photographs though which is why the Bowen quote comes to mind.  Breeding season is over and the puffins have all left for another year.  So too have 50,000 pairs of guillemots.  (The burrows will now be tenanted by rabbits until the puffins return and chase the interlopers with sharp beaks and more aggression than you’d expect)._pw_8564

Now I’m no birder, so this wasn’t my motivation in taking the trip, but nevertheless I found myself photographing birds; the seal colonies seem to like the same habitats as shags and cormorants, and before I left the harbour I was surrounded by gulls, oyster catchers and turnstones.  In my ignorance I was also surprised to see ducks at sea, imagining them to be freshwater fowl.  These were pretty special ducks though; the largest to inhabit the UK, and well insulated as you can see.  These are eider ducks, also known as cuddy ducks after the saint who lived in solitude on Inner Farne; St Cuthbert.

_pw_8602My fascination however was with the airborne division, or at least mainly airborne.  Although they don’t nest here, these waters are popular hunting grounds for gannets.  These larger birds are masterpieces of evolutionary design which enables them to dive from great heights and then pursue their prey when submerged; the six foot wing span folds back to turn them into an elongated dart, their bills have no external nostrils, their faces and chests have built in airbags to absorb the impact of their high dives, and their eyes are set forward to provide excellent binocular vision for judging distance.  Useful adaptations when you’re hitting the water at up to 100 kph.

That of course posed problems for me – trying to spot a bird that was about to dive and that was close enough to make a worthwhile image was tricky enough, but then capturing its point of entry with clarity when on a bobbing vessel proved too great a challenge.  Luckily their yellow heads and elongated blue-grey bills make them a worthwhile subject even when just in flight._pw_8618



The Seventh Seal (Farne Islands)

_pw_8785One of the problems about shooting wildlife, especially photogenic, entertaining, or threatening wildlife, is that you just don’t know when to stop.  You shoot dozens of images in case this expression is better than the last, or that the beast in question is more in focus, looks more powerful, and so on.  I learnt this when I visited Norfolk last year, or rather I should have.  Instead the big brown eyes and dripping whiskers got me every time; so there was lots of editing when I returned.

The grey seal population of the Farne Islands is about 6000 strong, and is carefully managed by the National Trust who have stewardship of the islands as they do at Blakeney, (both Blakeney and the Farnes have witnessed record seal pup births in recent years).  In the past they have resorted to culling to keep the numbers down, but public outcry has seen the practice banned except in special circumstance to protect fish stocks or fishing equipment.   Salmon fishermen see the seals as a threat to their livelihoods and so there are still controversial kills taking place along our coasts as seals are shot, though the evidence of their impact on fish populations is unclear.

The issue is far more contentious in other nations however, particularly nearer the Arctic Circle where indigenous peoples such as Inuit and Sami have long traditions of seal hunting.  Based on the ease with which I can capture then with my camera, I can’t imagine that they are challenging animals for the hunter.

The boatloads of people I have joined in my trips around the Farnes and Blakeney point demonstrate how a living seal can contribute to local economies, so tradition aside it must be a difficult call as to whether they are a cost or a benefit in purely economic terms, though I’m not for a moment suggesting that this should ever be the sole criterion for assessing the worth of any living creature.  To these eyes they’re always a welcome sight, which is strange really given their binomial name – halichoerus grypus.  It means “hook-nosed sea pig”!  _pw_8850

I get the pig reference; basking on rocks and mud flats they share a fatty rotundity with the porcine beasts, but really?  Whoever gave them that name clearly wasn’t a fan.

Perhaps a salmon fisherman?_pw_8678




Farne From The Madding Crowd

I’ve never been to the Farne Islands.

This wildlife sanctuary maintained by the National Trust lies just off Seahouses on the Northumberland Coast, so with a long weekend at my disposal, it seemed like a good time to rectify the matter.

If I’m totally honest I did nearly visit once before, but a planned trip turned into one of  the flashpoints of my marriage so it was aborted.  As I pulled into the car park at Seahouses I wondered if one of the other visitors had had a similar experience.

The Red Barron (sic)

Because it had rained so much the previous evening, I’d checked the weather forecast before setting out on the 75 minute journey.  A young forecaster called Ben told me through a fixed smile that the grey start would quickly dissipate to bright and sunny skies.  Perfect.

I was a little disappointed then to find that as I drew nearer to my objective the skies were not so bright.  In fact they were rendered invisible by mist and fog, so I was surprised by the number of visitors in town on a murky Sunday morning.  Seahouses traditionally had two main attractions, the Farnes being one, and it’s reputation as a stop off point for quality fish and chips being the other.   Nowadays the whole of the Northumberland coastline is liberally provided with holiday lets and campsites that testify to the area’s growing popularity.

What brings people here?  Well for one thing there’s an excellent cycle touring route between Newcastle and Edinburgh, and with the growth of interest in cycling that has taken place in the UK following the successes Sir Dave Brailsford and his numerous medal winners, more and more people are taking advantage of this.  The name of that route is a further clue to the visitor numbers.  This is the Coast and Castles route.

Lindisfarne Castle
Lindisfarne Castle
Dunstanburgh Castle

Northumberland’s location on the border with Scotland means that it has seen more than its fair share of conflict over the centuries, and the county is studded with fortifications, from the Bastle Houses designed to defend against the raids of the infamous Border Reivers, through modest structures like Belford or Lindisfarne Castle, the ruined shells of Warkworth or Dunstanburgh, to the vast stone walls of Bamburgh and Alnwick.  The region’s appeal to the historian is obvious.   I thought of photographing Bamburgh while I was there, but sat atop its defensive cliffs it was lost in the mist.

APW_8740For walkers there is a 64 mile coastal path.  64 miles of beautiful, unspoilt beaches along an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  As England’s most sparsely populated county the ratio of people to acres of sand means that you can always find a space to build your sandcastle.  For me the broad expanses of sand provide opportunity to contrast the different textures sculpted by wind and tide,  from soft sand dunes held in place by bents grasses to the shattered rocks and crushed and cracked crustacean cases that litter the littoral.

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Arriving at the harbour to book my crossing, I was told that due to the weather there wouldn’t be a crossing for at least an hour, and that a decision would be made closer to the time about that trip.  I passed the time photographing the greyness of the harbour and it’s unsaturated colours before returning to the news:

“We will sail out and around the islands, but won’t be landing.”

I’ve never been to the Farne Islands.

Look out Tank Girl!

I’ve spent the whole day training others to deliver presentations, part of which required me to listen to short presentations by each of the delegates on a topic of their choosing.  The subjects were certainly varied; learning to play a keyboard, the seven wastes, scuba diving at the Farne Islands and the Movember moustache challenge among them, but by far the most intriguing title, and as it turned out the most entertaining presentation was Panzer Mice!

In this we were treated to the story of how a brilliant wartime manoeuvre saw the Russians parachuting crates of mice over German lines, so that the highly trained plucky rodents would seek out the innards of Panzer tanks, nibble through cables and halt the German armoured advance towards Moscow.  This lead to the deployment of cats as an SS countermeasure, only to be thwarted when subsequent Russian crates contained dogs in an escalation of this mammalian arms race.

Of course the story is a fiction, but it does have basis in fact for the 22nd Panzer Division was indeed halted by the intervention of mice, but mice inadvertently introduced by the Germans themselves after straw used in the insulation of the tanks against frost, proved an attractive nesting spot for the rodents.

In confessing to his subterfuge, the presenter did speculate as to whether this story had inspired the American development of incendiary bats for use against Japan.  This time the story is true as you will see if you follow this link.

Anyway, all this entertainment meant that I was late getting home, and although the skies were already darkening I was without a portrait for today.  A quick trip to the beach and I thought I had my subject, but he scuppered my plans by wading away from me into the sea!

Luckily I met Natalie shortly afterwards, and although the light meant that her portrait is not as sharp as I would have liked, there is enough light in her eyes to produce a pleasing picture I think.  Her dog was kind enough to pose too.

By the time I got home again the light had gone completely.  Must be better prepared tomorrow!.