A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about wildlife

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

The Farne Islands

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.

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.

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

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.

Shag and Kittiwake on Inner Farne

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.


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!

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.

Path to the lighthouse

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

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.

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.



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.

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

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.


Big Harcar seals


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

The Pinnacles, off Staple Island

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!




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)

Wet and wild near the city

Druridge Bay

Panorama from the dunes - Druridge Bay

With a beach that stretches for seven miles, Druridge Bay feels wild and remote – until you look at the horizon to the south and see the signs of industry that remind you that you are only a few miles from urbanised Tyneside.

Blyth from Druridge Bay

But although you will see signs of industry close to here, on the beach itself you will feel pleasantly cut off from the modern world. There are rock pools to explore and some great views along the coast. It’s an excellent place for kite flying as it is nearly always windy, and when the sun shines, winter or summer, it makes for a wonderful walk, whether you just stroll a few hundred yards or walk the whole seven miles.

On the beach

Druridge Bay, looking north

And south

This is not a conventional seaside resort. There are no amusements, no restaurants or cafés, no deck-chairs for hire, etc. But the caravan sites at the bay's northern and southern ends, and a variety of B&B and self-catering accommodation in the area, make it a reasonably popular place for summer holidays. Visitors then can enjoy surfing as well as the traditional beach activities of ball games, kite-flying and of course building sandcastles. You need to be a bit hardy to venture into the chilly North Sea, but on a hot day many do so.

But we prefer to visit in the winter. This is the perfect spot to go for a long walk, maybe on Boxing Day or New Year’s Day, to clear the head and enjoy some fresh air and wonderful sea views. You can walk just a few yards, or do the whole seven miles (if you don’t mind walking another seven back to your car!) The light will almost certainly be lovely, whatever the weather, and while you won’t have the beach to yourself you will certainly have plenty of room should you want to warm up with a ball game or to fly a kite. It’s also popular with dog walkers as their pets are allowed to run free here (but please make sure you clean up after them and note that there are restrictions on the dunes during bird-nesting season).

Winter walks

This is a great time for photography too. The light as I’ve said is lovely, the views are extensive, but there are also lots of details in the plant life, rock pools (most only exposed at low tide) and among the dunes. I always come home with some images that really please me.




Low tide at Druridge

Rock pool detail

War-time defences

The bay is backed by a line of dunes. When you first cross these and arrive on the beach you’ll probably notice these large concrete blocks half-buried in the sand, parallel to the dunes. These are anti-tank blocks which were placed here during the Second World War when this was considered a probable spot for the feared German invasion.

Wartime defences

There’s an interesting photo in the visitor centre which shows how locals used to graffiti the blocks with messages such as ‘STOP!’ and ‘Hitler’s Christmas Box’ (with an image of a coffin!) Other defences included pillboxes (disguised as little huts and some still standing) and behind the dunes, minefields and an anti-tank ditch.

Pillbox in the dunes

Behind the dunes


Winter scene in the dunes

Behind the dunes is a series of lakes, the relicts of the former extensive open-cast mining that was once prevalent here. These attract a large number of sea-birds and waders and have hides for bird-watching.

The mining is long gone, and Druridge today is protected through a country park at its northern end and several nature reserves. Part of the beach is also under National Trust ownership, which affords the area a degree of protection.

Druridge is well-known for its birdlife and is a very popular spot for serious birdwatchers as well as those, like ourselves, who just enjoy seeing and photographing birds without really knowing a lot about them! There is a good variety of habitats, from woodland and scrubby to freshwater ponds, reed-beds and of course the beach and dunes.

Druridge Pools

About halfway up the bay is a nature reserve centred around a couple of the ponds formed in the former open-cast mining pits known as Druridge Pools (there are also pools further south, near Cresswell). The site consists of a deep lake to the north of the footpath and two wet fields to the south.

You can park on the road here and follow the path which leads beside the water to a couple of hides. Only the one that overlooks the fields was open when we were last here (December 2014) but it was enough to afford some cover and shelter from the wind while taking photos of the nearest pool, although we didn’t see much in the way of birdlife during what was, admittedly, a fairly short visit – just a flock of geese flying overhead and a cute stonechat who flew away before I could catch him properly on camera.

At Druridge Pools

If you’re able to gain access, the other hide appears to be larger and looks towards the lake. The Wildlife Trust website describes the bird-life as follows:

‘The lake supports large flocks of wintering wildfowl, mostly wigeon and teal but including goldeneye; wading birds feed along the shores. The two adjacent wet fields are very good feeding sites, especially for snipe, redshank and teal, along with occasional rarities such as pectoral sandpiper and black-winged stilt.’

Even if you don't see many birds this is an excellent place for photography, especially on a bright winter's day.

Plant life at Druridge Pools, December

Druridge Country Park

At the northern end of the bay lies a country park (incidentally, the only part of Druridge where you have to pay for parking your car). It has a small visitor centre which provides information about the area in the form of quite simple display boards and a good range of leaflets. There are local interest books for sale, some child-friendly gift items and a friendly but far from fancy café, Cuddy’s.

Visitor centre, inside and out

There are also the essential toilets, and plenty of picnic tables, some with views of the nearby lake, where you can take out items from the café or bring your own supplies to enjoy an al fresco meal or snack. Note though that the café and shop are only open at weekends and during school holidays, while the toilets and information area are open daily from 9.30am to 4.30pm. The visitor centre is wheelchair accessible, apart from the upper viewing floor which promises extensive views of the park but which we found disappointing.

Ladyburn Lake

By Ladyburn Lake

Also in the country park is what I believe to be the largest of the string of lakes that lie just behind Druridge Bay, all formed from what were once open cast mining pits. This is Ladyburn Lake – not suitable for swimming but popular for boating (windsurfers and non-motorised boats only, for which permits are required, available at the visitor centre). Sailing, windsurfing and canoeing courses are held here in summer. No watersports are allowed in the autumn and winter to protect the birds.

Black-headed gull (winter plumage)

Swan, and Black-headed gull


You can walk right round the lake (approximately 2km or 1.5 miles). We haven’t done this yet (we ran out of time on our visit to this part of Druridge) but hope to do so soon. But we did spend some time down by the water photographing the very many birds which tend to congregate near the jetty, where they have learned to expect that visitors may feed them. On our visit here we saw swans; black-headed gulls (in their winter plumage so without the black heads that give them their name); coots; moorhens; mallards; Canada and white geese (and one Greylag); and wigeon.


Posted by ToonSarah 06:04 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged lakes beaches birds wildlife views weather photography seas seabirds Comments (13)

Man-made landscapes

Kielder Water

View of Kielder Water

Set in one of the more remote parts of Northumberland, this lovely stretch of water is surrounded by forest (at over 250 square miles, the largest working forest in England) and is a great place for a day trip or longer visit.

Activities on offer include miles of trails through the forest and beside the water, boat trips on the lake, wildlife spotting (this is one of the few places in England where you can see red squirrels), mountain biking, and even star-gazing.

There is an excellent Birds of Prey Centre and very good Visitor Centres, with lots of information to enhance your visit, as well as several places to eat and to shop.

Or you can simply relax, take in the scenery and appreciate being somewhere so relatively accessible and yet so tranquil.

The dam that Jimmy built

The dam

Kielder Water is a man-made reservoir – the largest artificial lake in the UK (by capacity of water held). It was first conceived of in the 1960s when it was anticipated that the demand for water, especially by heavy industry in the north east region, would put a lot of pressure on the system. The decline in such industries meant that this never happened, and some questioned whether Kielder was necessary at all, but in recent years water shortages in the UK have seen the south of the country experience restrictions on use (such as banning the use of hose-pipes) while the north east, thanks to Kielder, has had plenty of water for all.

Another reason for controversy surrounding Kielder’s construction was the loss of several farms in the valley, and even of a school. So at the time it was a far from universally welcomed project. But today it seems that all controversy is at an end and the project is generally considered a success, both for the water it supplies and the tourism it brings to the region. Certainly we found on our recent visits that it has been very sympathetically and creatively designed, with lots to do for visitors, especially families, but also plenty of unspoiled countryside and “off the beaten track” areas to explore.

Another view of the dam

Construction of the huge dam took place between 1975 and 1981. The Queen officially opened Kielder the following year, and the valley took another two years to fill with water. This water now supplies the region through regular discharges into the North Tyne River, and is also used to generate electricity.

And why ‘The dam that Jimmy built’? Well, it is simply that my husband's Uncle Jim worked on the construction of this dam, so we have a family connection to Kielder!

Elf Kirk

The view from Elf Kirk

The steps up to the viewpoint,
Elf Kirk

If you want to get a great view of Kielder Water from a bit higher up than the lakeshore, take the turning you will see on your left not long after entering the park. A short gravel track (passible with care in any vehicle) winds upwards to a small parking area, from where you need to walk up a few steps to the viewpoint itself. The minimal effort required will be rewarded with one of the most expansive views in the area. You can see a large stretch of the lake including Whickhope Anchorage, Bull Crag and across to the Belling, a spit of land on the north shore. On a clear day you can see right to the Scottish Border.

A display board here explains about the plans for future forestry at Kielder. Most of the trees visible from here were planted in the years following World War II, when the country urgently needed reliable sources of timber. Large areas such as this were quickly planted with fast growing trees such as sitka spruce. The resulting forest is highly productive but not very interesting to look at nor varied enough to support a really wide range of species of flora and fauna. The plan is to gradually replace the spruce, as it is felled, with a wider variety of trees. A drawing shows what the forest should look like when the plans are fulfilled.

Kielder Forest

Although the main focus of activity is the water, the surrounding countryside is also attractive, and there are several forest walks to be had near the shore. One path, the Lakeside Way, encircles the whole reservoir largely among the trees, but you can also make shorter forays into its depths.

The Forest totals over 250 square miles and is the largest working forest in England. Some may bemoan the introduction of these conifers into what was once mostly open moorland, but there is a mysterious quality to their darkness that appeals to me. You might almost imagine Little Red Riding Hood to walk out of their depths!

In Kielder Forest

The trees were introduced in the 1920s and 1930s, with much of the planting work being undertaken by unemployed miners and shipbuilders from the north east’s urban areas. They were housed in a camp on site – a camp which is now under the waters. I wonder what they made of their work in such an alien (to them) environment? The wide open moors must have seemed a long way from the pit and the shipyard. Today the Forest is managed by the Forestry Commission who state as their aim ‘to create and sustain forests and woodlands which are attractive as well as productive, useful to the community and pleasant places for people to visit, rich in wildlife, both plant and animal, and where the natural and cultural heritage is safely conserved.’


In Kielder Forest

In some parts of the Forest, conveniently near the main activity areas, you will find hides where you can wait in the hope of seeing red squirrels. This was something we’d planned to do but ran out of time for; however, I understand the chances of seeing one are good, as this is the largest concentration of these cute creatures in England – over 50% of the population live here. Oh well, something for next time ...

Tower Knowe

Tower Knowe panorama


Tower Knowe is the first visitor area that you come to on arriving at Kielder. This is a good place in which to get your bearings in the park as it has a very good visitor centre with lots of information about everything you can do and see here, and very informative displays about the history of Kielder Water.

Also here is a good shop selling high quality souvenirs, a café and a boarding point for the Osprey Ferry. On a recent day trip we bought a coffee in the café on arriving at Kielder (good cappuccinos) and enjoyed relaxing on the terrace with our drinks, a view of the water and the company of the inquisitive chaffinches. Later we called in again on our way home and enjoyed even more a scoop of the delicious local north-east Spurelli’s ice cream.

Osprey ferry

If you prefer not to drive around Kielder, or if you simply want to get out on the water and see the views from there, you can take the Osprey ferry to travel around, although it only visits three points on the shore – Leaplish Waterside Park, Tower Knowe Visitor Centre and Belvedere on the north shore. Of these, the latter is inaccessible by car so this is a great option for those not able or willing to hike or bike any distance to see another side to Kielder.

The Osprey Ferry

Osprey Ferry approaching Tower Knowe jetty

The jetty at Tower Knowe

You buy your ferry tickets at Tower Knowe or Leaplish and must have a ticket to board (no paying on board). The timetable varies so check at one of those visitor centres for details of this and of the fares. And make sure you note the time of the last ferry, especially if you plan to visit Belvedere, as there’s no possibility of hitching back from there so you could find yourself stranded! Also, note that the ferry only runs from late March to late October so isn’t an option for an off-season visit.

Leaplish Waterside Park

View of Kielder Water from Leaplish

We spent a large part of a recent visit to Kielder here at the busiest of its visitor complexes. There is a lot to do here, although this range of activities means that this is not the most tranquil part of the park.

On the Leaplish site you will find a good visitor centre with lots of information about the park, a shop selling both souvenirs and practical items (such as picnic food, insect repellent and waterproof clothing), a restaurant/pub, children’s play areas, miniature golf, an indoor pool and sauna (for which you need to book in advance according to the website), boats for hire, and a hide from which to look for red squirrels. There's also an old farmhouse, Otterstone Lee, with an interesting and informative sign about life here prior to the flooding of the valley.

Otterstone Lee Farmhouse

And if you tire of the ‘crowds’ (in reality, even in August when we visited, no more than a dozen or so family groups), it is easy to take a short walk into the forest, or to use this as a starting point for a longer hike.

Birds of Prey Centre

The highlight of one of our trips to Kielder was definitely our visit to this small but well-run birds of prey centre near the shore at Leaplish. There are a good variety of birds to see, many of them easy to photograph which we enjoyed a lot. Their enclosures seem small but as they are all tethered I guess that is immaterial and they all get to fly regularly in the various demonstrations. Make sure you time your visit for one of these (every day between March and October, weather permitting, at 1.30pm and 3pm) as you will get to see these magnificent birds as they should be seen and will learn a lot about them.

Harris Hawk, and Peruvian Striped Owl

Peregrine falcon

The demonstration that we saw was led by the man who runs the centre, Ray. He was very knowledgeable and informative, and was also great with the children, allowing them all to have a go at handling all of the birds and encouraging any who were nervous. Luckily for me, any adult who looked keen was singled out for a turn too, which is how I came to find myself with my left hand sheathed in a thick leather glove while first a barn owl, and later a Ural owl, flew towards me and landed there.

With the barn owl

Ural Owl

As well as the two owls we saw a comical ‘performance’ by a young Yellow-headed Caracara who showed us how easy it was to get to a piece of chicken hidden under several plastic pots in the bottom of a dustbin (apparently these intelligent birds are considered a real nuisance by householders in their native South and Central America). We were also persuaded by Ray that a black vulture was beautiful (hmm, I wasn’t convinced) and loveable (well, yes, maybe), and saw a kestrel put through his paces.


Little Owl

Each demonstration involves different birds, so they all get a turn, so if you’re able to stay for both (or return – your ticket is valid all day) do! Unfortunately we had to leave before the second one, as were invited to dinner with friends that evening and had to get back to Newcastle. But we did linger long enough to visit some of the smaller owls on their perches by the keepers’ work rooms, and were able to stroke a little screech owl – very cute and soft!

By the way, all these birds were bred in captivity, none were taken from the wild (which is against the law and would be cruel). The centre aims to educate children in particular about the birds – its website describes its “mission of publicising the plight of many Birds of Prey in the wild, allowing the general public (particularly children) close access to the birds in order that they will learn to appreciate the need for the species to be protected in their natural habitat for future generations.” The centre is licensed by DEFRA, the Department for Farming, the Environment and Rural Affairs.

There is also a paddock with two fallow deer and (somewhat incongruously) some wallabies. As well as regular visits and the demonstrations, you can book a one to one photography experience, an introduction to falconry or even a full bird management course.

Lewis Burn inlet

On our most recent visit to Kielder we stumbled across a really tranquil spot. Taking the track to the parking place at Lewis Burn (just to see what was there) we spotted an opportunity to pull over soon after leaving the main road and did so. We never got to the end of that track, as what we found here was a lovely stretch of the lakeside way which here leaves the shore of the lake to turn for a short distance up the burn, before crossing it via an elegant suspension bridge and returning through forest glades to the water’s edge.

Views from the suspension bridge

On the day we visited this was a magical place. The inlet was almost completely still and reflected the surrounding trees and blue sky perfectly, apart from when on occasion the reflections were disturbed by a leaping trout. There were beautiful wild flowers – foxglove, rosebay willow-herb, thistle and many I couldn’t name.




Flora on the walk

Part of the path

We walked from our parking spot to the large deck among the trees that used to be the site of an art installation, Mirage. Disappointingly this has been removed (one of the staff in the Kielder Castle Visitor Centre later told us that it was proving too expensive to maintain) but it didn’t really matter as the walk had been so enjoyable and packed with great photo opportunities. We then took the side path signposted to the Mirage jetty, where we walked out to the end to get some great views of Kielder Water itself.

Kielder Water from the Mirage jetty
(the photo at the top of the page was also taken here)

We reckoned we had probably walked a little over a mile to this point (hard to estimate when you stop so many times for photos or simply to enjoy the view). We could have returned by the same route but chose instead to climb the low barrier by the road and follow this back to our parking place which at this point was just a couple of hundred metres away – we had come full circle.

An evening at Kielder Observatory

Kielder Observatory

Friends had told us about the evening events at Kielder Observatory and how much they had enjoyed them, so one year on our usual August visit to the North East we decided to spend one night in Kielder (which we normally visit just on a day trip from Newcastle) so we could go along to an event. These take place on most evenings and must be booked in advance – numbers are limited and places fill up fast, especially for the more popular special events. We booked our August ‘Shooting Stars’ one, timed to coincide with the Perseid meteor shower, in February and were told that they could have filled it 20 times over! During the day you are free to drive up to see the observatory, but in the evenings access is only permitted if you have booked, so don’t try to go there on the off-chance.

Kielder Observatory

Of course, booking so far in advance means taking a gamble on the weather. Events go ahead regardless (except when snow makes the track impassable) but if the skies are cloudy you won’t see much. Our friends tell us that the visit is still enjoyable however, as you learn a lot from the talks and from touring the observatory. Nevertheless, we had all our fingers and toes crossed for clear skies as the date of our visit approached, and we were not to be disappointed – it was a beautiful evening, if a little chilly for August.

Evening view from the observatory car park

One of the telescopes

As requested we arrived 15 minutes before the 20.00 start time and were checked in at the gate. We then drove up the rest of the track and parked in the car park just 100 metres or so from the observatory. There we were welcomed into the ‘classroom’ area. There were about 30 people there that evening I think, with quite a lot of children. The latter were mostly about 9-12 and all keen and well-behaved apart from one toddler who was unsurprisingly fractious and disruptive – I couldn’t understand why her parents could have thought she would be anything else! They took her out after the first few minutes and must have missed most of the event they had paid for and travelled to see!

Once everyone had arrived the director, Gary, introduced himself and gave an interesting talk, illustrated with slides. We learned a bit about the observatory which was clearly a labour of love on his part and was created not for research but to introduce people to the wonders of astronomy and enthuse them (judging by the numbers who visit it is definitely succeeding in its aim). We also learned what to expect of the evening, and a little bit about the origin of the meteors we would (hopefully) see. Gary adapted his talk well to the very mixed audience, but later we were split into three groups so that an adults-only group could hear more about the science while the families toured the observatory. We then followed them and got an introduction to the workings of the two main telescopes.

All this took place before it got dark, but eventually we started to see a few stars appearing in the deepening skies. By this point everyone had been left free to wander where they wanted, checking out what the staff and volunteers were focusing on through each telescope, or settling into the chairs out on the deck to look for the first shooting stars. The first excitement for us came when we were able to see Saturn through the telescope, just before it set, with the rings and even one of its moons very clearly visible. We also later saw the Andromeda Galaxy and a few other things.

Sunset in the forest

But the main point of the evening was the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, which happens every year in mid-August. Kielder is the third largest protected Dark Sky reserve in the world, and the largest in Europe, so it would be hard to find a better place to watch this spectacle. Sightings are pretty much guaranteed on clear nights anywhere in the park, but the advantage of coming to the observatory is in having experts on hand to guide your viewing and explain the science. I’ve always been interested in astronomy and learned quite a lot that evening.

The observatory at nightfall

Oh, but you want to know if we saw any shooting stars, do you?! OK, I can tell you – the answer is yes, lots! And with the sky so clear and dark here they really stood out, with the tails of the brightest lingering briefly after they shot past. We also saw the International Space Station pass overhead at one point, and a couple of satellites, as well as having various constellations pointed out. It was a fabulous evening and we came away very keen to visit again one day, which I fell we surely will.

Prices for these events vary – check the website for details. As well as the tickets, we paid £1 each for a mug of hot chocolate, and an extra £3 each to be able to keep the mug as a souvenir. The observatory is run as a charity so any money you spend there is ploughed back into developing the facilities – well worth supporting as they’re doing a great job.

Morning at Matthew's Linn

Morning mist on Kielder Water

Any photographer knows that light is everything, and that the best light is often found at the beginning or end of the day. All of our previous visits to Kielder had been day trips from Newcastle, meaning that we had only ever been here during the middle part of the day (it’s pretty much a two hour drive from the city). But on this occasion we had stayed overnight, to visit the observatory, and as we left the village the next morning and started to skirt the lake I spotted that the early morning mist was still drifting among the hills on the far side and the water itself gleamed silver. Luckily I also remembered that we were just coming up to one of the waterside parking areas so I quickly alerted Chris who was driving, and he turned off into the car park at Matthew’s Linn. We grabbed our cameras and hurried down to the jetty.


Morning at Matthew's Linn

Truly a serendipitous moment! The light was perfect, we were on the spot, and what is not always the case, had been able to pull over in the car and capture it. Of course I took far too many photos and had to do a serious weed of them later, but the joy of digital photography is that we can all afford to do that – and the joy of photography itself is being, from time to time, in just the right place at just the right moment.

Morning at Matthew's Linn

Posted by ToonSarah 09:05 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged landscapes lakes trees birds night boats water wildlife hiking views national_park stars Comments (12)

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