Puffin spotting in Northumberland

·5-min read
<p>More than 50,000 pairs of puffins make Northumberland’s Farne Islands their home each summer</p> (James Litston)

More than 50,000 pairs of puffins make Northumberland’s Farne Islands their home each summer

(James Litston)

A change of scene is good for the soul – and after a winter of soul-sapping lockdowns, we could all use a tonic. So it’s lucky for me that the scene up ahead is joyful to behold. I’m looking down the length of a wide and empty, low-tide Northumberland beach. The breeze brings the dry sand to life, stirring it into shape-shifting swirls that race down the strand like mischievous sprites. Dainty sanderlings dash along the water’s edge while skylarks’ songs rain down from above, their melodic phrases and trills cascading as if celebrating this glorious day.

Best of all, the clouds reflecting off the mirror-like sea are lending it a silvery sheen that lifts both the light and my spirits. It all feels very wild and alive.

It’s this wildness that has brought me here to this corner of Northumberland. Its unspoiled shores and fishing villages watched over by ancient castles are protected as one of Britain’s 34 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s also awash with wildlife, and it’s that that I’m hoping to see today. My two-mile beach walk is taking me from my holiday digs in Beadnell to the harbour at the village of Seahouses, the departure point for tours to meet Britain’s (and my) favourite seabird: the puffin.

A puffin on Farne island (James Litston)
A puffin on Farne island (James Litston)

As the gift shops filled with puffin-shaped tat in Seahouses attest, these comical birds are a major draw for this part of Northumberland. Their colony lies offshore on the Farne Islands, once claimed by David Attenborough as his favourite place to seek nature in Britain. The reason for such glowing praise is the intimacy of wildlife encounters, with puffins nesting within feet of the footpaths and Arctic terns dive-bombing visitors’ heads.

Unfortunately, the National Trust (which owns the Farnes) says landings are currently not allowed on the islands. “It’s a shame because the Farnes’ real magic lies ashore,” says Rachel Shiel, whose family has run Farne Islands boat trips for the best part of a century. “For a few months each summer, the islands are like a wildlife documentary. The puffins are so confiding. There’s nowhere else quite like it.”

But even without going ashore, my boat trip is remarkable. As we approach the isles, we’re greeted by rafts of puffins bobbing about on the sea, their colourful beaks looking all the brighter against their monochrome plumage. A chorus of splashes erupts as wings and feet pit-a-pat on the surface as the birds move out of our way, crash-landing again a few feet further on.

 (James Litston)
(James Litston)

The riot of sound and activity builds as we get closer to the cliffs. Squadrons of guillemots zip past on their rapidly whirring wings, while others cling to their cliff-ledge nests above rocks richly spattered with guano. There are kittiwakes too, calling out their onomatopoeic names. More than 100,000 pairs of seabirds breed on the Farnes. Being surrounded by this much life and in such close proximity is astonishing.

En route back to port, my attention is grabbed by the brooding hulk of Bamburgh Castle rising over the dunes. It’s still a lovely day, so I opt to walk there from Seahouses via three more miles of sandy shore. I discover that it was the capital of the kingdom of Northumbria, though the current (privately owned and inhabited) structure dates from the late 1800s. And by sheer good fortune, my visit ends just as the bus is pulling into Bamburgh, saving my somewhat weary feet from the long schlep back to Beadnell.

 (James Litston)
(James Litston)

My luck runs out the following morning, however: the skies are leaden and promising rain. It’s not exactly ideal conditions for another coastal walk – but as we’re following in the footsteps of pilgrims, a little suffering seems appropriate. I’ve signed up for a guided walk to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, which involves a three-mile yomp each way across vast tidal mudflats.

Vertical poles mark the route, so it’s possible to go it alone, but it’s safer and more informative with a guide. We squelch across the gloop, entranced by the mournful singing of seals and hoping that we won’t require the elevated refuges that provide the last resort for walkers caught by incoming tides. As we walk, Patrick, our guide, tells us about Lindisfarne’s colourful history, from the monks who established a priory here in 635AD to the Vikings who came to raid it some 160 years later.

Bamburgh Castle (James Litston)
Bamburgh Castle (James Litston)

Walking back, his tales are lost to the wind as the rain comes down in earnest. But it only adds to the sense of wildness that’s made this experience so wonderful. Windblown raindrops blast into my face like icy shards, but I feel invigorated. It’s the antidote to lockdown living that I’ve so badly needed.

Travel essentials

Getting there

London North Eastern Railway operates the London to Edinburgh line via Berwick-upon-Tweed. Return fares from London start from £48pp, or from £118pp in first class. The X18 bus service runs from Berwick station to Bamburgh in 45 minutes, or Beadnell in 65 minutes.

Staying there

Orchard Country Apartments has five cosy and comfortable, one-bedroom units in Beadnell from £545 per week in summer (or from £345 per week in low season).

Puffin cruises with Billy Shiel’s Boat Trips cost from £20pp.

Admission to Bamburgh Castle costs £12.50pp.

A Footsteps in Northumberland walk to Lindisfarne costs £17.50pp.

More information

visitnorthumberland.com

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