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A saint, a heroine … and a lot of wildlife!

The Farne Islands

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Inner Farne

The group of islands known as the Farnes lie a few miles off the Northumberland coast and include some of the wildest places in England. The islands are divided into two groups, the Inner and Outer Farnes, and vary in number from 28 at the lowest tides to only about 15 at the highest.

As well as wildlife there is a lot of history associated with the islands – they have been home to several hermits over the centuries, of whom the most famous is Saint Cuthbert, and it was here that probably the best-known sea rescue in English history took place, when a young Grace Darling and her father set out from the lighthouse on Longstone to go to the aid of sailors when the paddle steamer ‘Forfarshire’ ran aground on nearby Harcar Rock in 1838.

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Billy Shiel's boats in
Seahouses Harbour

Naturally, the only way to reach the Farnes is by boat, making a visit here rather special. Three companies (as of 2016) run a variety of trips, all from Seahouses and differing only a little in terms of what is on offer and price: Billy Shiel’s, Serenity and Golden Gate. Of these, the first is by far the best known, having been in operation since 1918 and featured on several UK TV programmes. It is a family business currently run by the third generation Billy Shiel, and famously once carried the Queen on a Farne Island trip.

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Path on Inner Farne

Whichever company you choose (and we went with Billy Shiel’s), you will then also need to decide on the particular trip you want to take. One factor in your choice will be the time of year – for instance, landing on Staple Island is possible only in the breeding season (May 1st through to July 31st), presumably because there is nothing to see on these rocky crags the rest of the year. On the other hand, it is possible to land on Inner Farne throughout the season, April to October, but on afternoons only during the breeding season. If you aren’t especially interested in landing, or want a shorter tour, you could opt for the 90 minute Grey Seal cruise which sails round the islands to view these fascinating animals. Or between April and July keen bird-watchers can do a full day (6 hour) trip which includes landings of two hours on Staple Island in the morning and two hours on Inner Farne in the afternoon.

Prices obviously depend on the tour you choose – for example, the Inner Farne landing trip costs £15.00 (adult fare, August 2016 price). But note that if you’re not a member of the National Trust you will also have to pay a landing fee of £8.00 for adults in breeding season and £6.50 at other times. Non-landing trips work out cheaper because there’s no National Trust fee to pay.

The boat tours are suitable for anyone but note that the walking route round Inner Farne is a little bumpy and hilly in places – I watched one family really struggle to wheel their child’s buggy around and give up! Also note that the tours don’t go out if the weather is bad or the seas too rough. We went on quite a windy day and some locals were unsure whether we would have been able to go, although apart from some slightly choppy waters and a lot of spray, it was not a problem.

Inner Farne

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Inner Farne: on the cliffs

This island is home to St Cuthbert's Chapel (named for the saint who once lived here as a hermit), a lighthouse and a visitor centre. Most tours land here so you can explore these sights and see the seabirds.

Although there are a number of buildings on Inner Farne, it is the bird life that brings most visitors here. This is at its best during the breeding season, May to July, when the island is the chosen nesting place of Arctic Terns, Puffins, Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Shags and many other species. The National Trust, which owns the islands, employs rangers who are based here for nine months of the year to protect the birds and educate visitors about them. When we visited in August the main nesting season was over, and the Puffins and Terns had left, but we still saw lots of birds – mainly Shags and Kittiwakes, but also a few Gannets and Fulmars. As you walk around the island you will find rangers stationed at key viewing points who will be happy to answer your questions about the birds.

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Shag and Kittiwake on Inner Farne

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Shag on Inner Farne

Note that if you visit at the height of the season you are advised to wear a hat, as the Terns in particular can be very aggressive in protecting their nests and have been known to dive down on people’s heads – not to mention the habit that birds have of dropping their 'fertiliser' from above as they fly overhead!

One of the most prominent of the few buildings on Inner Farne is St. Cuthbert’s Chapel. The saint after whom it is named lived here as a hermit for about ten years before, in 684, he was called to be Bishop of Lindisfarne – a call he initially resisted because he wanted to stay on this island. He had lived a life of great simplicity here, living entirely off the land, and after only a couple of years as bishop he came back here to die in 687 before being buried on Lindisfarne. While here he formed an attachment to the sea birds, especially the eider ducks which he sought to protect and which are still known locally as Cuddy’s Ducks.

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St. Cuthbert's Chapel

Cuthbert’s cell has long since disappeared but the chapel dedicated to him is nevertheless pretty old in its origins, having been built in 1369 as part of a small monastic complex here dating from the early 14th century. The Benedictine monastic cell based here was dissolved in 1536 under Henry VIII, but the chapel building remained. It was extensively renovated in the 19th century – the windows date from then as do the wooden pews along the sides and the panelling, which was designed for Durham Cathedral in 1665 and brought here in 1848.

When we arrived on Inner Farne one of the National Trust rangers met our boat and told us that he’d be giving a short talk in the chapel for those that wanted to hear it before heading off to explore the island. We went along to listen and found it informative – and not too long!

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In St. Cuthbert's Chapel

Opposite St Cuthbert’s Chapel across a small courtyard is another stone building. This was once another chapel dedicated to St Mary and designed to be used by any female worshippers, but today it serves as a small information centre and shop. And behind the chapel is Prior Castell’s Tower which dates from about 1500 and is named after Thomas Castell, Prior of Durham (1494-1519), who was probably responsible for building it to house the monks who lived here at that time. It was originally four stories high (now only three) and has served as a fort and, in the 17th century, as a lighthouse, with beacon fires lit on its roof to warn passing ships. Nowadays it is home for some of the National Trust rangers who live on the island for nine months of each year.

The first lighthouses on the Farnes were beacon fires lit on the top of existing towers, and the first of these was probably Prior Castell’s Tower next to St Cuthbert’s Chapel. The first purpose-built lighthouse was on Staple Island, in 1776, but this only lasted a few years, being destroyed in the Great Storm of 1784, after which for a while shipping had to again rely on the beacon fires. But in the early 19th century Trinity House erected two new lighthouses, including this one on Inner Farne in 1809, known as the High Light.

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Path to the lighthouse

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The lighthouse from the sea

Like its counterpart on Brownsman, built the following year, this was designed by Daniel Alexander and built by Joseph Nelson, with a cottage attached to the tower and a revolving reflector that burned paraffin oil. This lighthouse is still in use but a second one built on Inner Farne the following year (called the Low Light to distinguish it from this one) in order to warn of the presence of the nearby island of Megstone, was pulled down in 1911 after the High Light was automated.

Longstone Island

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Longstone Island

We didn’t land on Longstone Island but we did sail past it. It is one of the Outer Farnes, and one of two islands in the group to have a lighthouse (the other being Inner Farne). The Longstone lighthouse was built in 1825 as a replacement for the one on Brownsman and continues to warn passing shipping of the dangers of the Farnes to this day, flashing every 20 seconds. It is no longer manned however, having been automated in 1990 and was converted to solar power in 2015.

This lighthouse is the island’s main claim to fame, as it was from here in 1838 that Grace Darling and her father William set out to the rescue of sailors on the paddle steamer ‘Forfarshire’ which ran aground on nearby Harcar Rock. William was the second generation of Darlings to be lighthouse keepers on the Farnes, as his father had kept the light on Brownsman Island.

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Lighthouse on Longstone Island

I grew up with the story of Grace Darling as my grandmother was called Grace and often talked about her namesake. In the early hours of 7th September 1838 Grace looked out of her bedroom window in the lighthouse (the upper window in the white ring in my photos) and spotted the wreck of the ‘Forfarshire’ on Big Harcar, a nearby low rocky island. The paddle steamer had foundered on the rocks and broken in half, and one of the halves had already sunk. She also spotted some survivors on the rocks and, realising that the seas were too rough for the Seahouses lifeboat to come to the rescue, she and her father set out in their traditional Northumberland coble, a type of rowing boat, to see what they could do to help. Have rowed the mile to the wreck Grace kept the coble steady while her father helped five survivors, four men and a woman, into the coble. The rescued men helped row back to the lighthouse where Grace stayed with the woman while the boat returned and picked up four more survivors.

Grace and her father were later awarded the Silver Medal for bravery by the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck (which was to become the Royal National Lifeboat Institution). She became very famous, receiving gifts from all over the country and even several marriage proposals. Sadly she died very young, aged just 26, from tuberculosis, and is buried at nearby Bamburgh where a museum tells her story.

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Seals off Longstone Island

Brownsman Island

As I mentioned above, the first lighthouses on the Farnes consisted of beacon fires lit on the top of existing towers, such as Prior Castell’s tower on Inner Farne. The first purpose-built lighthouse was on Staple Island, in 1776, but this only lasted a few years, being destroyed in the Great Storm of 1784. A 40 foot beacon tower, below, was built on Brownsman Island shortly afterwards (in 1795) to serve as a lighthouse for the Outer Farnes, and was used until 1810 when Trinity House erected two new lighthouses, the High Light on Inner Farne in 1809 and another on Brownsman the following year.

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Beacon Tower on Brownsman Island

The first of the lighthouse keepers here was Robert Darling, grandfather of the famous Grace. In 1795 he was appointed keeper on the Outer Farnes and for his first 15 years in the job was in charge of the beacon light on this tower, burning timber and coals in a fire basket on the roof. Darling and his family lived in the bottom part of the tower. In 1805 his son William, with his wife Thomasin, came to join his father. When the new lighthouse was built in 1810 William took over the job there and with Thomasin brought up their nine children in the attached cottage.

However, the Brownsman light did not succeed in stopping the numerous wrecks on the islands to the north of this island, so in 1825 Trinity House decided to scrap it and build a new one on Longstone. William, Thomasin and the children moved there, and it was from there that he and Grace made their famous rescue of the Forfarshire survivors.

Big Harcar Island

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Seals off Big Harcar

Big Harcar is famous as the island where the paddle steamer ‘Forfarshire’ ran aground in 1838, leading to the rescue by Grace Darling and her father William, the lighthouse keeper on Longstone, about a mile away. Today though it is significant for the large seal population here. These are grey seals, and thousands live on the Farnes, having hundreds of pups here each autumn. An annual count has taken place each year, administered since 1970 by the National Trust – in 2013 (the last year for which I’ve been able to find figures) 1,575 pups were born on the Farne Islands in total.

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Big Harcar seals

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If you want to see pups you need to come in the autumn, but our August visit gave us plenty of seal sightings and around Harcar the numbers were particularly strong, with quite a few swimming in the waters around our boat.

The National Trust website for the Farnes gives the following facts about the grey seals:

~ Males grow up to two metres in length and weigh 230kg. Their lifespan is 20-25 years.
~ Females grow about 180cm in length and weigh 150kg, with a lifespan of 30-35 years.
~ Grey seals feed on a wide variety of fish, squid, and octopus.
~ They spend 80% of their time below water, 20% on the surface breathing.

Historically the seals were both respected by the monks and hermits who lived here, and also exploited by them. And not only by those living here, as they would regularly catch seals to send to their parent house in Durham. The seals were valued because of the oil that could be extracted from their carcasses, and also as a luxury food. In a rather nifty bit of thinking, as creatures of the sea, they were considered to count as fish and therefore could be eaten on a Friday when meat was forbidden.

Staple Island and the Pinnacles

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The Pinnacles, off Staple Island

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The Pinnacles

Alongside Inner Farne, Staple Island is the main focus for bird-watching trips in the Farnes. This is one of the rockiest islands, noted for its vast seabird colonies, especially those of the Auk family such as Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins. During the season, May-July, you can land here as part of an all day bird-watchers’ tour with Billy Shiel’s, or make a visit just to Staple. Visiting in August however, this island was closed to us, but a sail-past was included in our tour and provided some of the best photo opps for both sea-birds and seals, in particular at the Pinnacles, isolated rock stacks situated off Staple Island. These were liberally spattered with rather smelly guanao, and even late in the season had plenty of birds perched on their highest points – mainly Kittiwakes and Shags. We also saw a few Gannets flying past the boat and even a Puffin!

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Kittiwakes

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Shags at the Pinnacles

If you time your visit better than we did and want to land here, note that as with Inner Farne you have to prepay a National Trust landing fee (unless you are a National Trust member) of £8 for adults, £4 for children. The island is quite exposed, so not accessible in bad weather, and its rocky nature makes it less suitable for disabled visitors than Inner Farne.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:42 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged boats islands wildlife history ruins lighthouse photography seas chapel seals seabirds Comments (9)

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