Days out: Go wild on Farne

Where do you find puffins, kittiwakes and the odd rabbit? Sarah Jewell spends the day on with 70,000 seabirds on the Farne Islands
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The Independent Online
The Farne Islands, off the coast of north Northumberland, are a cluster of barren rocks, treacherous to sailors but a sanctuary for thousands of nesting seabirds and an idyllic spot for bird-watchers. During the summer little fishing boats take visitors out to the largest islands, Staple and Inner Farne, and, for a fee payable to the National Trust, one can bask in the beauty of a wildlife reserve where grey seals poke their heads out of the sea and kittiwakes screech in the sky.

The name Farne derives from Anglo-Saxon times when the islands were called the Farena Ealande - "Island of the Pilgrims". The first visitor was St Aidan, who in 640 left the hustle and bustle of monastic life on Lindisfarne (which you can see outlined on the horizon from the boat) for the quiet and solitude of Inner Farne. St Aidan lived like a hermit, but his successor, St Cuthbert, was even more reclusive. He built himself a circular cell of rough stones, with a timber roof to cut off the distraction of the sky, and shut himself away for nine years to pray and meditate in total isolation.

St Cuthbert's only companions on the island would have been the birds and, according to legend, he was particularly fond of the large brown eider ducks that still breed on Inner Farne. Even today they are amazingly tame and make their nests bang up against the edge of the National Trust's wooden-slatted walkway that runs around the island.

The male eider ducks are black and white, as are many of the other Farne birds such as the guillemot, the lesser black-backed gull, the kittiwake, the terns and, of course, the islands' most charming characters - the puffins. Known locally as the "tommy noddies" because of the way their heads bob as they walk along, they have chunky little bodies, large heads and thick orange and yellow beaks. They swoop about flapping their tiny little wings and look very comical. The terns, however, are not so sweet; during the breeding season they become fiercely protective of their eggs and dive-bomb unsuspecting tourists, sometimes drawing blood with their sharp red beaks. Visitors with bald pates are advised to wear a hat.

Birds are not the only wildlife on the islands; there is also a large colony of grey seals, the rarest species of seal in the world. Their creamy- coloured heads bob up beside boats and they roll and tumble like puppies in the waves. There are also rabbits on the islands, originally brought over from the mainland by the lighthouse keepers before escaping and breeding.

The first lighthouse was built in 1673, and its keepers had to lug coal and timber up a 40ft tower to keep a fire burning all night. By the early 19th century the fires had been replaced by a revolving beam of light from the new lighthouse on Longstone island. Grace, the daughter of keeper William Darling, became a national heroine in 1838 when she helped her father save the lives of nine people from the wreck of the Forfarshire, and a boat takes visitors past Harker's Rock, where the ship broke up.

The visitors

Sarah Jewell took six-year-olds Rita Pilkington and Reuben Carter on a day-trip to the Farnes.

Sarah: We got on to our boat, Glad Tidings, at the fishing village of Seahouses, well fortified with an extremely tasty lunch of fresh fish and thick, homecut chips from Lewis's Restaurant in the high street, and I was glad that it was such a calm sea. It is easy to see why so many ships have been wrecked as the boat weaves its way through the partially hidden black rocks.

As a child I had a book of Girls' Heroines, and my favourite heroine was always Grace Darling. The courage of this 22-year-old girl, who rowed out one stormy night to save the lives of drowning sailors, captured my imagination - and, seeing how unsteady our sturdy, motorised fishing boat was on a very still day, I was even more impressed by how brave and strong she must have been.

Grace is supposed to have heard the cries of the drowning men and pleaded with her father to go and rescue them, but, as it was hard enough to hear what people were saying to each other on our boat in broad daylight with the water slapping up against the side and the terns screeching overhead, it is hard to believe that this bit of the story was true.

Back on the mainland, we went to the Grace Darling museum in Bamburgh, a few miles away from Seahouses. I was delighted to see the original Northumbrian fishing coble that she rowed in. The museum also contains lots of intriguing trinkets and relics from the Darling family, such as a long lock of Grace's hair, letters and the log book recording the rescue.

Four years after the rescue Grace died of TB, and we went to visit the ornate memorial to her in Bamburgh churchyard, opposite the cottage where she was born. It is the most beautiful, windswept graveyard, overlooking the sea and a fitting place for her to be buried.

Rita: I loved going on the boat and wanted to dive in the water, but it was quite wobbly and made me feel a little bit sick. I liked the puffins best because they are so little and cute, and I liked the seals because they are really fat and chubby. The birds were all very noisy and the rocks are all white and smelly from their poos. There are 70,000 seabirds. I liked getting off the boat and going on the island but the cliff was very scary, and I was afraid that I would fall in. I liked going to see the house where Grace Darling was born and looking in the window.

Reuben: I was the first person on the boat to see a seal. I liked looking at the seals' heads in the water, they looked like fishing buoys. I liked putting my hand over the side of the boat and getting splashed with water and I liked the puffins best because they were so tiny and flap their wings so fast when they fly. When we got off the boat I saw an eider duck beside the path and I nearly kicked it by mistake. The captain of the boat told us that the guillemot lays one egg on the rocks and it is pear- shaped so that it won't fall off. I had a very good day out.

The deal

Farne Island Tours at Seahouses (01665 720308), open to 31 October (first sailing 10.30am). Cost: adults pounds 3.90, children over five pounds 1.95.

A National Trust entrance fee of pounds 3.90 per person is payable on arrival.

Grace Darling Museum, 2 Radcliffe Road, Bamburgh (01668 214465), open to 30 September, Mon to Sat10am-5pm, Sun 12-5pm. Admission free.

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