Whin Sill: Backbone of Fire

Hot, hot. The grass is brown, skies soft and deep, and the river rolls on slowly. A Met Office warning of extreme heat has been announced for a large slice of England, and having worked in 40c+ abroad, I hope that people realise that this isn’t the kind of friendly sunshine that invites sunbathing on the beach.

But there is another type of hot, and it underlies northern England like the blackened bones of an old dragon. Back in the spring, I travelled up to it, and saw what both people and nature have built on its back.

Bambough castle

Whin sill: leftovers from yesterday’s cauldron. It is volcanic rock that bubbled up as magma, cooking its neighbouring limestone into marble, and contracting into columns as it cooled. It props up the northern Pennines and holds aloft Bambaugh Castle, as well as Hadrian’s Wall.

Whin means dark and hard in old local dialect, and tough it certainly is: eons of glaciers, plants, rain, waterfalls and even the sea itself have struggled to scratch it.

Farne Islands

But life, as usual, sees an angle to exploit. What was once glowing and molten is now bright with puffins instead.

Puffin2 Farne

And a few other birds. The Farne Islands are in a class by themselves for seabirds, supporting an internationally significant frenzy of guillemots, puffins, kittiwakes and many other species.

Farne Islands2

You do not simply see the Farne Islands. You hear them, and smell them, and watch in disbelief as the sea crashes helplessly against the whin sill while tens of thousands of living things raise their voices.

This is a razorbill, otherwise known as the lesser auk.


And these, Arctic terns, famed as the greatest travellers on Earth. Some migrate each year from the Arctic to the Antarctic Circle, an annual mileage of 30,000.

Arctic terns

A northern gannet, our largest seabird.

Northern gannet

Grey seals rest on the island edges.

Grey seals Farne

Keeping cool, whatever the fires that birthed these rocks.

Hope we all do the same.

18 thoughts on “Whin Sill: Backbone of Fire

  1. We are dealing with temps over 100degrees Fahrenheit, so the cooling virtual birdwatching was quite welcome. Just amazing that so many different bird species dwell together. Thank you, Adele.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you can keep cool. It looks likely that SE England will be joining the 100F club next week but hopefully it won’t last too long. Monday’s forecast is grim reading!


    1. Thanks Anneli. I had a lovely few days in Northumberland back in May. It has some of the most beautiful coastlines in Britain, miles of sandy beaches, with castles dotted about on outcrops of whin sill. The Bamburgh site has been a fortress of one sort or another for at least 1,400 years, and possibly much longer than that.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I was photographing from a smallish boat in windy conditions, so was shooting at ridiculous speeds in the hope that some pictures would be non-blurry! A very enjoyable day out though.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Adele, we returned from the Lake District End of June. There it was all green and fresh, as we had some rain in the first week of our visit, even few rain in the second. But like here in Germany, different areas look very different.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you had a good visit. Interestingly, the Lake District is another part of the UK with ancient volcanic geology.

      Yes, it is a varied picture. Cambridgeshire and the Brecklands have less moderation from the sea than the rest of the UK and if we’re going to reach 40c, it’ll probably be there. Kendal’s forecast looks much better! I hope it isn’t too hot and dry in your part of Germany.


  3. Thank you Adele, your post brings back some happy memories of a great place to visit. Hopefully the avian flu epidemic won’t cause too many problems. I was at the Global Birdfair over the weekend, and there were some sombre accounts of the impact on a number of coastal bird populations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes indeed. Avian flu is yet another sad reminder of how rapidly diseases can spread. It seems that the Farne Islands is now closed to landing visitors (although you can still view the birds from a boat) but it is hitting birds all round the eastern coast at the moment.

      Liked by 1 person

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