In Search of Puffins - and St. Cuthbert - 28 to 31 May 2013

Seahouses, Northumberland; Inner Farne; Lindisfarne; Durham

The Farne Islands lie just off the Northumberland coast between Seahouses and Bamburgh. In the breeding season, they are home to tens of thousands of seabirds. In the main they are uninhabited (except for lighthouse keepers and English Nature wardens); St. Cuthbert lived for a while as a hermit on Inner Farne.

The weather was not great, but we were able to grab a brief interval of bright calm to take one of the many boats from Seahouses. I'm very pleased to have caught a Cormorant (flying) in the same shot as a Shag, clearly showing the difference in the shapes of their bills.

Nothing quite prepares you for the sheer number of birds... or the smell when you get close!

I'm no expert, but I now know the difference between a Guillemot and his stockier cousin the Razorbill; the Kittiwake I'd take for a gull on most days of the week; but I know a Puffin when I see one - at least, I do in the breeding season when they display their idiosynchratic splendour.

A few Puffins lined the cliff to see us arrive, but they don't nest on the cliffs as many seabirds do.

Puffins nest in burrows, and there are thousands of these holes all over the islands. You never know when a Puffin might pop up out of one.

Many birds, like this Eider duck, nest right by the paths, apparently oblivious of the humans gawping at them. Puffins are shy, but they would be less worried by humans than by the predatory Great Black Backed Gull, which could attack even adults. This Shag won't worry them, though - it's all he can do to keep his feet! Walking on grass is clearly not his thing.

One species, nesting all around the visitor centre, does not appreciate human company: the Arctic Tern. This stunning, elegant bird with its slender wings and lipstick-red beak and matching shoes, was the star of the show for me - even though...

...they go for your head, and I felt a sharp peck from this one even through my hat!

Grace Darling woz here! But the lighthouse has been rebuilt since.

You need an assistant to count you down, and still a bit of luck, to get this shot!

I'd always assumed that mighty Bamburgh Castle, just up the East coast, was about due North of Seahouses - so I was quite startled to see the setting sun sail right over it; obviously, it's rather more to the West than I had supposed! Normally I'd crop out the security camera on the right, but if you look carefully at the horizon below it you can see the distant lump of Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island...

...which we visited the following day.

The castle overlooks the harbour and the ruins of the abbey of Lindisfarne, once a powerhouse of early English Christianity and home of the great St. Cuthbert, hermit and reluctant bishop who died at his hermitage on Inner Farne in 687. It was very moving to learn of how greatly he was not only revered but also loved by his community. Long after his death, when the Vikings began pillaging the very vulnerable abbey in 875, the monks fled - but not without the apparently miracle-working remains of their saint, which they carried around Northern England with them for the next 120 years, looking for a new home.

Our next destination was Durham, but we stopped on the way for a word with the awesome Angel of the North. Well worth a visit, but he doesn't say much.

The sun shone gloriously on us in Durham. There were some monks carrying a coffin through the shopping centre, but I still didn't get it...

...until we visited the cathedral where, behind the high altar, we found ourselves at the tomb of St. Cuthbert. For one who shuns religious emotion, it was a shockingly spine-tingling and overwhelming moment, a fitting climax to a quite accidental pilgrimage.