It’s time we switched from beating about the African bush, and started making some noise about the great place we live when we’re at home in the UK. Northumberland National Park in the north-east of England’s not a bad gaff, if you can’t be in the Kgalagadi 24/7, and in the last couple of weeks we’ve had good reason to be reminded of the fact. We’ve been working on a couple of photo jobs out at the coast, cherry-picking precious sunny days to celebrate what Northumberland has in abundance including an unspoilt shoreline and amazing wildlife; not too mention scrumptious seafood.
I’m not sure we’re doing ourselves any favours spreading the word though. Northumberland’s still off the beaten track. It’s said to be the most tranquil county in Britain, has some of the darkest skies and is the most sparsely populated region in England. Just how we like it. Which is why we’re not banging the drum loudly, but simply whispering quietly, about a couple of the region’s highlights we’ve had fun rediscovering recently.
Our assignments included an early season boat ride to the world-famous Farne Islands a few miles offshore (boats go there from the harbour at Seahouses) where during the spring/summer breeding period you’ll find 150,000 pairs, give or take a few, of noisy, hyperactive seabirds. Some days it feels like there might be this many photographers too, but with about 40,000 pairs of photogenic puffins zooming about the skies like wind-up toys, and some 20 or so other bird species, there’s probably enough subjects to go round.
An early visit beats the crowds and although we couldn’t access both of the two islands visitors normally land on, and avian activity was only just warming up, it still proved a good way to kick-start our summer season of wildlife photography. There were certainly plenty of puffins. National Trust head ranger David Steel confirmed they’d returned to the Farnes early this year which we hope augurs well for another strong breeding season. This would be really great because seabirds have been suffering elsewhere in the UK.
To find yourself slap bang in the middle of so many seabirds is a full-on sensory experience, with splashes of guano for added authenticity – whether you pack full camera gear for the boundless photographic opportunities or just a picnic.
In addition to our own photo projects we were testing out the new Tamron SP AF 150-600mm f/5.6-6.3 zoom lens for a photography magazine – bracing to photograph curious seals from a swaying boat and action shots on dry land of whizzing puffins in flight. We found the lens a bit too slow to handle fast moving wildlife, though with a lot of perseverance we did eventually manage a couple of sharp shots of flying puffins. But the optical quality was extremely good for the price point (less than £1,000), and for a 600mm lens it’s relatively compact and lightweight. We won’t be replacing our EF 500mm with it any time soon, but if you’re looking for an affordable general wildlife lens, that’s hand-holdable at a push in tight situations, and you’re not too bothered about action shots, it’s worth considering.
Another coastal excursion found us on Bamburgh beach one misty morning for some scenics of that much-framed view of the sweep along the sands to the castle. The castle’s well-known outline was shimmering mysteriously in the hazy sunshine when we were there, which was pretty awesome. We’re not landscape specialists, but needed a quintessentially Northumberland coast shot for a particular job we were doing. Bamburgh’s one of our all-time favourite beaches – up there with the best we’ve encountered on our travels. It always blows us away – often almost literally.
Finally no visit to the North-east coast is complete without tasting the seafood – even if it’s just a humble bag of fish and chips. We stopped by this time at The Ship Inn at Low Newton – our idea of a perfect smuggler’s cove pub – for beautiful crab sandwiches, scoffed by the sea. The on-site micro-brewery brews 26 ales exclusively for the pub. They have the best names – like Squid Ink, Sea Coal and White Horses.
And if this al fresco seafood theme is starting to give you an appetite we should give a name-check to the innovative and quirky Riley’s Fish Shack, a mad, but brilliant, bicycle-powered pop up seafood barbeque which will be appearing once again at weekends on the beach at Tynemouth this summer. Not strictly Northumberland, but it’s worth stretching a point for their mackerel wraps. Well us wildlife photographers have to eat…