‘Am I sitting on a rock? Would I be seen on a poster stealing a child’s face? Do I feed my family on my own regurgitated vomit? Do tourists fear for their chips when I’m around? If I died in the woods and you had forgotten you gloves…Yes. Hmm… Squirrel, Herring Gull, Fulmar, Guillemot or Puffin… The RSPB version of ‘Guess Who?’ is actually more fun than you might think. My friend, Zoe, who is an avid bird watcher is annoyed that me and Lindsey don’t seem to be taking this on as the important learning opportunity that it could be, and has banned questions like ‘In the picture, can you see my feet’ or ‘In the picture, am I looking sideways’. Normal Guess Who? questions like ’Am I wearing glasses?’ or ‘Do I have a beard?’ don’t work either. It had been a favourite game in our house at Uni and I once went to a party dressed as Bernard, with a big cardboard placard strapped to my back, so I’m no stranger to the game. My knowledge of sea birds, however, is poor, but with a few rounds of this, I’m getting better.
It’s too windy to go kayaking and after perhaps the worlds shortest surf session at Filey, we have spent the day at Bempton Cliffs near Flamborough Head in Yorkshire. A few days before, we had decided to walk across the causeway to Lindisfarne accompanied by the sounds of Cerlews and Oyster Catchers as we crossed the salty marshland. The sun was low in the sky and there was a pinkness softening the otherwise steely blue grey tones. It seemed so hard and flat that if you hit it with a stick, you would hear a resounding clang. A light breeze carried the sulphurous smell of rotting seaweed and tousled the crops of hairy yellow grass as if in a swooshing shampoo advert.
The red pan tile roofs of the village came into focus and we amble around, arriving at the priory without really thinking about it. A small chain fence swings in the wind, doing little to protect the building that has stood here for almost 1400 years. The pitted red sandstone, has eroded in places to a knife edge thinness but the carved Celtic patterns are still visible. It looks skeletal in places with bonelike qualities to the surface. There is a stillness about the place. Even the gravestones in the churchyard seem to have succumbed to it and are lazily lying down or at least finding it hard to stay awake. A couple of grand tombs stand out, their ornate silhouettes in contrast to the simple blocky church. Rich green yellow and orange lichen decorates the grey stones in the dying light of the day.
There is a highpoint on the island, near the priory and an inevitability that our meandering stroll will end up there. From this blustery lookout, we can see the Farne Islands and Bamburgh Castle along the coast. We can also see the solid lump of Lindisfarne Castle growing out of its rocky base with a filigree scattering of scaffolding wrapping its flank. It looks bit like the head of a seal popping out of the water or perhaps I’ve just seen so many seals in the past days that everything looks like one. The westerly wind is blowing the surface of the water, deceptively making it look like the tide is going out, when we actually know there are only a few hours before the causeway is submerged. We can hear the distant fuzz of the smooth swell breaking on the beach, mixed with the hum of a chiller unit on the nearby pub.
Walking back through the small harbour with its stacks of lobster pots, mooring buoys a coloured colourful plastic crates, the detritus of a working fishing community mixes with the sharp smell of wet sand, tarred timber warmed in the sun and a bit of fishy residue. Intricate handwoven tubes inside the lobster pots create stringed hyperboloid, mini cooling tower forms that Barbara Hepworth would have been proud of. We know we need to leave soon and as we repeatedly fail to find any food on the island, a loud cackling call follows us through the sky. The birds are laughing at us and we’ve no idea what they are.
Back at Bempton Cliffs, I’ve just demolished a huge piece of cake and feel slightly sick. People are hanging around nervously inside the visitor centre, daring themselves to go outside again as if queuing for a theme park ride. There is a cluster of people hanging around between the binoculars and bird books, sharing stories of lesser and greater spottings. The wind is forecast F4-5 gusting 7 (38mph) The sea is suitably churned up with hard grey waves peaking to breaking point and white crests way out to the misty horizon. We haven’t seen the sun for a few days as a low cloud has descended on there East Riding of Yorkshire ever since we dallied with leaving Whitby harbour, returning soon after, tails between our legs. The forecast was not improving and we knew it could be a few days before we were back on the water again. Bempton Cliffs is billed as one of the UK’s top wildlife spectacles. There are walkways leading to a series of timber platforms cantilevering off the cliff edge, to give a view of the huge sea bird colonies that have made it their home.
We trudge out through the boggy ground. At times it is difficult to stand up. A sign designating a ‘picnic hotspot’ is slammed and battered by the lashing rain. Looks lovely. Claggy, sticky and slippery chalk mud puddles are scattered across the waterlogged fields as the rolling arable farmland drops down to an abrupt end at the cliff edge. The wind is pushing upwards, whooshing, tearing and ripping gusts making it hard for the birds (mainly gannets and fulmars) to fly into it. Clusters of birds are dotted around the cliff face like decorations on a cake. Bright white feathers standing out against the mud stained crags. The Gannets are easily recognisable by thier yellow heads, distinctive wing shape and precise line of black feathers on their wing tips, as if they’d been dipped in ink. Astonishingly they can dive from 30m and at speeds up to 60mph. To my untrained eye, the Fulmars look like seagulls.
We leave the cliff edge with a feeling of the kind of startled, wily excitement that being battered by a strong wind can bring. I glance back at the ragged arch and wonky doorway with its top sliced off at a jaunty angle. The guidebook and promotional pictures of boat trips in blue, calm waters around this forbidding chalky headland, looming below us seem a world away. In the gift shop, I deliberate over the bird Top Trumps game and RSPB Guess Who? opting for the latter, I do actually feel like I’ve leant something. The box says ages 6+ and I already knew that badgers don’t live by the sea and can’t fly either.