Bempton Cliffs: a tale of gannets, guillemots and gurgling guts

An earlier post described how the bird cliffs at Sumburgh Head were the highlight of an otherwise miserable trip to Shetland.  Getting to Shetland from our home at Platypus Towers was a bit of a pain. The journey involved a drive of over 400 miles, followed by an overnight ferry crossing of around 12 hours. 

When we finally got to Shetland the puffins were great to see, but I do wonder why we bothered given that we have some excellent bird cliffs much closer to home.

Bempton Cliffs in the East Riding of Yorkshire

Bempton Cliffs are little more than 80 miles away from us, in the East Riding of Yorkshire.  This area of the Yorkshire coast hosts England’s largest seabird colony, and the Bempton RSPB reserve lies at its heart.  It’s always worth a visit, as we confirmed on our way back from Shetland in June. It was, to say the least, an eventful end to our long summer break.

So, for the record, here is our tale of gannets, guillemots and gurgling guts:

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We’ve left Scotland and its miserable weather far behind us, and as we walk out from the RSPB visitor centre on a gloriously sunny day our ears are assaulted by the calls of a thousand birds, and our noses detect the unmistakable aroma of a bustling seabird city.  We watch, transfixed, as squadrons of gannets patrol the towering cliffs, swooping and soaring along the sheer rock face, escorted from time to time by their loyal wing-men, the fulmars.

Squadron leader?

The Bempton area boasts one of the best wildlife spectacles in the UK.  Around half a million seabirds gather here between March and October to lay their eggs and raise their young on towering chalk cliffs overlooking the North Sea.

Gannets bang their beaks together and point them skywards to reaffirm their pair-bond

Within minutes we spot some puffins going about their business.  There are not nearly as many as at Sumburgh Head, nor are the views as intimate.  This is, however, our most successful puffin encounter ever at Bempton, and bodes well for the rest of our visit. 

Solitary puffin watching as the gannets swoop and soar

Bempton boasts sizeable colonies of razorbills and guillemots.  Most cling to the cliff face and are best appreciated through binoculars, but a few come close enough to enjoy with the naked eye.  Some of the razorbills are still sitting on eggs, but others proudly show off their chicks.

Razorbill adult and chick, with kittiwake behind

However, Bempton’s main claim to fame is its gannets.  The cliffs have the largest mainland gannet colony in the UK, boasting some 28,000 birds.  Each gannet jealously guards its own patch of rock, which it has carefully selected so it can just avoid the angry pecks of its neighbours.  Squabbles break out when a bird oversteps the mark and trespasses on a neighbour’s territory.

Gannets on the nest, and a solitary puffin

Meanwhile, other gannets swoop and dive beside the cliffs, and ride the updrafts to hang in the air just feet away from the cliff-top paths.  These are big birds, with a wingspan of over 6 feet, and when seen in large numbers flying along the cliffs or wheeling over the ocean they’re a magnificent sight.  We watch them for a couple of hours, mesmerised by their grace and elegance, and Mrs P is in danger of wearing out the shutter on her camera.

Gannets fills the sky at Bempton Cliffs

A visit to Bempton’s bird cliffs during the breeding season is a life-affirming and restorative experience.  It’s been a great day, and we round it off with dinner at a modest hostelry close to where we are staying for the night. I wrap myself around a gammon steak, and Mrs P gets up close and personal with lasagne.

The following morning, however, I awake to a gurgling from Mrs P’s guts loud enough to suggest Cuadrilla has opened a new campaign in its fracking business.  Within minutes a vile dose of food poisoning has set in.

Mrs P turns a whiter shade of pale, and spends an anxious hour locked in the bathroom. Finally she announces she’s fit enough to travel, but she has her fingers crossed as she speaks so we both fear she’s not going to make it back home with her dignity intact.  However, checkout’s at 9:30am, so we have little choice.

The 80 miles drive back to Platypus Towers is, inevitably, a nightmare, and the patient takes about three days to recover from her ordeal.

Mrs P swears she will never eat lasagne again

The NHS and me: An unhealthy interest

Worryingly, in my 64th year the NHS has started to take an unhealthy interest in my health.  For example, on my birthday in March they sent me a bowel cancer screening pack, though to be frank if they were going to give me a gift I’d have preferred a pair of socks or something else vaguely useful.  And then, a couple of months later, they packed me off to our local clinic for a blood test in preparation for a full health check down at the surgery.

PHOTO CREDIT: From Pixabay via Pexels

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no problem in principle with preventive medicine, and of course as you get on in years the need for it is greater than ever as your body slowly falls apart. 

My body is a case in point: I don’t think there’s been a day in the last ten years when part of it hasn’t hurt, and there have been plenty of times when pretty much all of it has been giving me grief.  But hey, pain is just nature’s way of telling you you’re not dead yet, and so is definitely to be welcomed as the lesser of two evils.

I’m in the waiting room at the surgery, playing the game we all play, checking out the other people sitting there and speculating on the nature of their afflictions.  Most of them look younger and healthier than me, which only serves to increase my sense of unease.

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At last my name is called.  The practice nurse must be less than half my age, and is friendly in a brisk and efficient kind of way.  She ushers me into a consulting room, then starts taking measurements and asking questions. Nursie feeds all the data into her computer, alongside the results of my blood test, hits the enter key and sits back to await the official NHS verdict on my prospects.

I watch Nursie’s face carefully, hoping for some reassurance that I’m not about to drop dead before finding out who’s won this year’s Strictly Come Dancing.  But she is expressionless, inscrutable, and panic sets in. It’s bad news, isn’t it? I think to myself. My blood pressure is rising dangerously, which seems to defeat the object of my being here.  Finally, after a pause long enough to plan my funeral, she speaks.

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“Well, Mr P” she says calmly, “I’m pleased to tell you that you’re classified as low risk.”

Relief surges through me, but Nursie’s still looking serious, thwarted even.  She returns to her computer screen, studying my results thoughtfully.

“But, of course, your cholesterol is a bit high.  You really should do something about that.”

Nursie smiles at last.  She’s on firmer ground now: the person sitting in front of her needs sorting out, and she’s just the person to do it.  We talk about my diet and agree that I need to make some adjustments. 

Then she asks about exercise and I admit that I don’t do any, partly because I’m worried about aggravating my chronic lower back problem, but mainly because I’m an idle bugger.  In a moment of madness I also confess that there’s an exercise bike, abandoned and unloved, in our spare bedroom. Nursie’s eye’s light up.

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“That’s your answer,” she says triumphantly, “get on your bike and ride.”  I respond by pointing out that I’ve not been near the exercise bike for years, and will need encouragement to take to the saddle again.  I suggest she gives me a stern telling off, and she happily obliges.

By the end of the session I’ve agreed to cut down on cheese and butter, to get on the exercise bike five times a week and to read “How I’ve reduced my blood cholesterol,” an 80 page booklet produced by the British Heart Foundation and handed out free of charge to sinners like me. 

As I leave the consulting room I thank Nursie for her time, and promise to be a good boy in future.  Then I scuttle off to drown my sorrows at the local coffee shop by drinking something unhealthy, with a monstrous slab of cake on the side.

PHOTO CREDIT: Abhinav Goswami via Pexels

A couple of months later, progress is slow.  I’ve read the British Heart Foundation booklet, but if you tested me on it I’d get a D-minus at best.  I’ve given up butter in favour of margarine. And I’ve logged 3.7 miles on my exercise bike. OK, I admit that’s not great, but even Chris Hoy, Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish had to start somewhere, didn’t they? 

However, cutting down on cheese is a real struggle.

Silver Knife on Brown Surface

PHOTO CREDIT: From Pixabay via Pexels

You can keep your nectar and your ambrosia, in my book cheese is the real food of the gods.  In the end, maybe, Stilton will be the death of me. But if it is at least I’ll die with a smile on my lips, and cracker crumbs on my chin.

Getting older: An unwelcome milestone

Our last day in Cambridge has not gone according to plan.  Although the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built around the year 1130 and generally known as The Round Church lives up to expectations, the Fitzwilliam Museum does not.  The museum’s neo-classical exterior is magnificent, but isn’t the real point of a museum to go inside, wander around a bit to take in a few of the exhibits in a cursory sort of way, and then have a large mocha and a slab of cake in the café? 

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as the Round Church

Who in their right mind would close one of the country’s great museums on a Monday at the height of the summer tourist season?  Ah, silly me, that would be the management of the Fitzwilliam Museum, I suppose. Disappointed, we decide to leave Cambridge and return to Platypus Towers on an earlier train.

*

We’re standing on the platform at Cambridge station.  The train is due in about 20 minutes, and we’re both a bit knackered.  The weather’s hot and humid, and we’ve spent a good part of the last three days trudging the streets, doing the tourist thing. 

Inevitably there are very few seats on the platform, and all but one is taken. I encourage Mrs P to grab it – I’m a proper gentleman, don’t you know – and I’m left standing next to her, looking tired and miserable.

The Fitzwilliam Museum

Time passes.  Eventually the guy seated next to Mrs P tears himself away from his mobile phone and looks around him.  He’s in early twenties and, unlike me, is appropriately dressed for the weather in sandals, shorts and a lightweight shirt.  He spots me and a caring expression crosses his lightly bearded face. He stands, looks me straight in the eye, then smiles encouragingly and politely asks, “Would you like a seat, mate?”

Would I like a seat? I ask myself.  WOULD I?  Of course I would, pal, only I don’t want you to offer me one, thank you very much!  You think I’m old and past it, don’t you? Well I’m not! I’m not old at all, I’ve just got a lived-in kind of face, like Mick Jagger but with regular lips.  I’ve had one hell of a life and if you’d done half of what I’ve done you’d look a damned sight older than me!

I don’t say any of this, of course.  I just smile sweetly at my new-found knight in shining armour, and say “Thank you, I think I would.”

Cambridge railway station

PHOTO CREDIT: “Cambridge railway station” by hugh llewelyn is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

My saviour returns to his phone, probably fixing a hot hook-up on Tinder, the fit young bastard that he is, leaving me seated next to Mrs P to ponder what has just happened.  I’m in my 64th year, having worked over 40 years and travelled the world, and this is the first time anyone has ever stood up to offer me a seat. 

What an unwelcome milestone this is, another waymarker on the inevitable journey to decrepitude.  God, I feel old.

At last the train arrives.  Even though half the population of Cambridge appears to be travelling west today it’s only three carriages long, so I don’t get a seat. 

I end up standing in the area where cyclists stow their bikes, next to the disabled persons’ toilet. There are just two seats in this part of the carriage.  On one of them sits another young, bearded, shorts-wearing man, but this one won’t meet my eye. 

Cambridge (Mainline)

PHOTO CREDIT: “Cambridge (Mainline)” by Sparkyscrum is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the last 20 minutes I’ve grown accustomed to the good manners of the younger generation towards their elders, and am therefore incensed by the brazen effrontery of this new guy.  He knows I’m standing here and badly need a seat, but he just keeps playing with his phone, swiping right furiously. I hope when you get a date she doesn’t turn up, you ignorant slob, I think to myself.

The other seat is occupied by an older woman, elegant, grey-haired and immaculately dressed, library book on her lap.  She glances up and sees me leaning uncomfortably against the side of the carriage. A look of genuine concern crosses her face. 

“Would you like this seat?” she asks, oh-so-kindly.

I look at her carefully.  In her left hand she’s clutching a Senior Citizen’s Railcard.  For god’s sake, she’s as old as me, possibly older, and here she is offering me a seatJust when you think life can’t get any worse, it bloody well does.

I quickly regain my composure and politely decline her offer.  You see, I still have my pride, and in any case as I mentioned earlier I’m a proper gentleman. 

But we reach an agreement, that kind lady and me.  She’s getting off at Ely, and when she does she’ll make sure I’m able to slide on to her seat before anyone else grabs it, so I can do the rest of the journey sitting down.  It’s a good arrangement, and satisfies both parties. 

After all, when the going gets tough us old fogeys need to stick together.