As you’ll have gathered by now, wtak is not a ‘quick, pass me a dolphin so I can swim with it’, bucket list sort of a thing. Not wanting to panic my way through middle age ticking things off and anxiously scuttling onwards, I didn’t Make A List. I have known, though, of a few things I wanted to feature in my fifty, and seeing puffins was one of them. No idea why. It just was. And today, all being well, was the day.
Suan and I drove to Seahouses and parked near the harbour, whence Billy Shiels was going to sail us round the Farne Islands. We collected our tickets from the office and walked to the quayside kiosks, where we paid the National Trust landing fee for Inner Farne and stood with a small group of others waiting to be taken to the boat (there was some work going on at the harbour and we’d be entering a Hard Hat Area through which we must be escorted). Said area featured much big-tyred, shiny yellow machinery and men in hats and hi-vis jackets. The usual law was in operation, whereby for every task actually being done by, say, one or two of the men, at least four or five other men had to be standing watching the doing thereof, silently, with hands in pockets and an air of great sagacity. A big-bearded, twinkly-eyed 20sish man was cramming the last of a bacon stottie into his mouth as he helped us aboard the St Cuthbert, a small vessel, part-covered, with tyres lashed round the gunwales, seating for perhaps 30 people, and the usual cunning storage bins of stowed-away, boat-y, safety stuff (bit outside my knowledge zone here, as you see) tucked here and there around the deck. There were about 15 of us on board, and the sun shone on us and on the calm, deep blue water as the ropes were untied and we chugged slowly away from the quayside. I looked at Suan. ‘I’m happy. Right now, right this minute, I’m happy’. Her eyes smiled back into mine, which were full of joyful tears.*
We weren’t far out from Seahouses when we started to see birds: gulls, guillemots, cormorants, shags, sitting on the water in that strangely comfortable-looking way or skimming along just inches above its surface. The informal and informative live commentary nudged us to look this way and that, and Billy (or whoever was at the helm) skilfully held the boat in various positions just offshore so we could see the crowds of kittiwakes and others crammed improbably onto ledges or ranged in ranks along the cliff edges. Then Billy said, ‘There’s a really good raft of puffins’—how fab is that?: a raft of puffins—and we were suddenly alongside a large crowd of the birds, which were just as endearing as I’d been led to believe, as they rose from the water and wheeled around us in great groups of smile-inducing loveliness. Magic. We also saw a few mating pairs—they mate for life, apparently—who were at it in the water. You’d want to be the one on top.
I was mildly interested to see the lighthouse from which Grace Darling rowed out to Big Harcar Rock to rescue survivors of the 1838 shipwreck. What she did was astonishing, but (as they say) I wasn’t feeling it. I had a quiet enjoyment, too, in seeing the colony of grey seals, draped magnificently, indolently, over shingle and rocks, looking sated and content, like over-indulged sultans. Some of them plopped inquisitively into the water to check us out, their grey heads sleek and glinting amongst the sparkling waves, and this was lovely; but it was all about the puffins for me. They even obliged with that ludicrous, splay-footed, coming-in-to-land thing which seems like the stuff of cartoons but which was actually happening, all about me. It was the very definition of delight.
We landed for an hour or so on Inner Farne, where we got to see St Cuthbert’s Chapel, furnished with hand-me-downs from Durham Cathedral, and learned from the NT Wardens about how Cuthbert miracled some freshwater springs into existence. At a cliff edge we enjoyed some amazing close-up views of sitting pairs of shags and guillemots, then strolled around the flat top of the island where the puffins were starting to gather. I often think birds walking with folded wings look as though they’ve got their hands clasped behind their backs, à la Prince Charles, and this was particularly so with the puffins: they reminded me of earnest toddlers, mimicking the way the grown ups might walk, slowly and with assumed seriousness. This early in the year there was still quite a lot of real estate on the island, and there were only a few kerfuffles about territory; but all about us we could hear the puffins’ strange call** and see the entrances to burrows where young pufflings would soon be living.*** How glad I felt to be alive, here, seeing all this.
The sail back was choppier so I looked hard at the horizon and thought about anything but food; but by the time we were back at the cottage I was ready for lunch. It was guest changeover moment: Suan ate a hasty lunch and headed back towards Kendal, while Hazel arrived from Kendal and ate a more leisurely lunch, with me. It was a bit odd, moving so seamlessly from one friend to another, but after digestion and adjustment time, and some consulting of the map, Hazel and I took ourselves out to walk from Craster up past Dunstanburgh castle and along Embleton bay. But first, a café (we wanted cake and tea) where we had huge wedges of blueberry and lemon sponge, luscious and tart and stained with deep blue splodges of fruit.
This deliciousness turned out to be a great contrast to the café experience the following day. Waking to a cold and greyer world, we had a relaxed morning with magazines and coffee and the kind of extended reconnection with each other’s lives that it’s so hard to get in the everyday world of telegrams and anger. Then we headed out for the Rocking Horse Café and Gallery, being led astray by the satnav which directed us down a fair few unmetalled lanes and private driveways, but eventually arriving and—rather assertively I thought—resisting being squeezed onto a knee-cramping teeny table-for-duds in the corner. I pointed to a newly vacated, prime table. All right here? I wanted to ask, but managed not to. We sat down.
But, oh dear. Despite describing itself as veggie friendly, the Rocking Horse only offered us cheese sandwiches, allegedly home-made quiche and bland, under-seasoned soup. The service was incredibly slow, the food unimaginative and ungenerous, the ambience dull. When I caught myself thinking But even getting lost/having a poor meal out can be fun with the right company, I winced at how clichéd that sounded, fearing I was being infected by all the inspirational mottos around the cottage. ‘Twas true, though. It was still a delightful day out in the country.
Check out was hard, the next morning. We did the leave-one-car-at-the-far-end-of-the-walk thing so that we could wander along the beach from Beadnell to Seahouses one last time. The sky was blue and lovely again, the water sparkling, and the sound of the sea so steady and soothing I wished I could hold onto it all somehow, take the space and calm and big-sky-ness home with me. At Seahouses we got a table in the bakery for what I can only call a caffeinated beverage (just don’t go to Seahouses for the coffee) and a penultimate cake. Deciding to get some more carbs in for the journey home, we looked at the many treasures ranged behind glass, then noticed a distinctive-looking, home-made quiche. Hmm. We exchanged frowns, tutting anew. Then I spotted a pineapple melba (I think that’s what it’s called), which I hadn’t seen since my childhood in Aberdeen: a round pastry case filled with some kind of sticky pineapple-y goodness, topped with a blob of some kind of syntho-cream, the whole being draped in a thick layer of icing so deeply, brightly yellow it could probably function as hi-vis equipment. Bloody marvellous. Chemicals and sugar. I was having that.
I took Hazel back to her car and we set off, separately. The holiday was over. There was no more time. I had my usual wrenchingly, disproportionately horrible sense of loss as I left, and by the time I got back on the A69 the pineapple melba was history and I was bawling in an abandoned, child-like way. (Cars are a good, private space for a cry, I find.) Transitions are hard for me at the best of times; and right now I was returning to all sorts of fears and frustrations—battles with the NHS and you’re through to the wrong department and press 9 if you want to talk to an actual human before you get to retirement age—which were sitting queasily atop a sense of irrevocable, painful change coming upon me, and those whom I love. Not good.
In The Matrix, the rebels get around by means of a dark, complex network of tunnels, which they navigate in ships which have no jets or other obvious means of propulsion. Instead you can see coming from the ships many great, branching arcs of energy, which move constantly, like lightning bolts, flickering and searching out points of contact with the wall, floor and roof of the tunnels. This seems to be how they keep themselves in motion. Something about those ships has always resonated with me; and I thought of them now: how it’s only by finding places to connect, to earth, to be received, that carrying on seems possible at all.
*For more on the nature of joy and sorrow have a look at ‘Ode on Melancholy’, here on wtak.
**You can hear the noise here on youtube.
***You can see a live stream from inside a burrow here at explore. The interweb is (sometimes) a mighty fine thing!