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Report from the Field:Wild Britain
Published on Wednesday, June 11, 2008
London, England / Portsmouth / Embark Island Sky
Today we embarked the good ship Island Sky in Portsmouth for our voyage of discovery. Most of us had spent the previous night at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Buckingham Gate in London, and we took a scenic coach ride to reach the ship through some of the prettiest countryside in southern England.
Many of us were on deck as we left the historic dockyard. The most impressive sight was Lord Nelson’s famous flagship HMS Victory in which he defeated the French and Spanish fleets in the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805.
Peter Harrison began our lecture program in the afternoon with his talk, Facts and Figures of our Feathered Friends, and he was followed by Ian Cooke on English Horticulture: An Overview. In the late afternoon the sun shone and the sea was flat and calm—an excellent start to our adventure.
Isles of Scilly
Today we made two landings on the Isles of Scilly, the first on St. Mary. Here activities included a walk on a hillside to view ancient fortifications, bicycling around the island, guided walks in the Hugh Town area, and individual exploration. Everyone was impressed by the Mediterranean feel of the island. Both the wild and cultivated vegetation reflected the mild climate produced by the island’s southerly location and the action of the Gulf Stream.
On Tresco Island some of us visited the Abbey Gardens (now a private estate), while others explored the nearby wilder landscapes. The gardens are wonderfully arranged in a series of smaller spaces, each with its own character. Numerous introduced plants grow here in the frost-free environment, including many species from New Zealand, South Africa, and South America. In the adjacent farmland and beaches, we saw red-legged partridge and golden pheasant.
Sneem / Killarney (Ring of Kerry) / Cahirciveen, Ireland
The sea was flat calm in the morning, though the weather was foggy. As we approached the southwest tip of Ireland the captain navigated the ship between two famous off shore stacks called the Bull and the Cow, where we observed a myriad of seabirds nesting on them and plunging into the sea. Andrew Berry led the lectures with a talk on the famous evolutionary scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace. Later in the morning we landed by Zodiac close to the village of Sneem and boarded our coaches for a tour of the Ring of Kerry. The weather rapidly improved as we proceeded inland, showing off the lovely scenery and luxuriant vegetation, clear blue lakes, and towering mountains. Our first stop was at Muckross House, built by the Herbert family in 1843. Queen Victoria stayed there for one night in 1847—the costs of which attributed to the family’s bankruptcy soon after. Following lunch at a hotel near Killarney, we enjoyed free time in town, then drove to the port of Cahirciveen and re-boarded our ship.
With crystal clear weather in the evening, the captain decided to approach the Skellig Islands. The ship sailed close to Skellig Michael so that we could see breakers pounding the cliffs and discern the silhouettes of the igloo-shaped stone houses of St. Finnian’s Abbey, now a World Heritage Site, close to the top of the steep and rugged island.
Waterford / Great Saltee Island
The first event of our day was a lecture by Ian Stone entitled, Why Does the Cat Have No Tail?—a humorous introduction to the Isle of Man, tomorrow’s destination. After coffee we disembarked in Dunmore East harbor. Many passengers took coaches into Waterford, a town famous for its Viking origins, its medieval street plan, and its modern glass and crystal factory. Others took a coach ride to the lovely Congreve Gardens, situated some 20 miles inland. An ornithological highlight of Dunmore East was the colony of nesting kittiwakes situated near the quay.
In the afternoon we made a Zodiac landing on Saltee Island, the home of thousands of seabirds, including a large colony of gannets. The island is currently uninhabited and the old pastures are being taken over by bracken fern, which unfortunately obliterates any signs of prehistoric occupation of the area. A fine avenue of New Zealand cabbage palms leads over the island to the gannet colony.
Isle of Man
We landed mid-morning, in superb weather, at the charming little town of Port St. Mary at the southern end of the fabled Isle of Man. After a scenic bus tour we proceeded to board the train—the oldest steam railway in the world operating on a regular schedule. The gauge is 3-feet and we were impressed with the care that is lavished on the locomotives and carriages.
We also visited the old capital of the island, Castletown, including the Castletown Maritime Museum, and the 9th-century Castle Rushen, one of the best preserved medieval fortresses in Europe.
After dinner Ian Stone lectured on Northern Ireland: What’s Going On? with the aim of bringing us up to date for our visit the next day to the province.
Giant’s Causeway / Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland
We went ashore by Zodiac at Portrush this morning and were welcomed with tunes from a piper wearing a kilt. Coaches took us to Giant’s Causeway, a promontory of spectacular polygonal columns of basalt, which we explored on foot. On the way back to the ship, we stopped at Dunluce Castle, a fine medieval fortress situated on a small rocky peninsula that rises abruptly out of the sea. The lovely setting afforded great photographs.
In the afternoon we landed at Rathlin Island off the north Antrim coast, home of Northern Ireland’s famed seabird colonies. Near the old lighthouse, we saw literally hundreds of thousands of common guillemots and razorbills, along with puffins nesting on a gigantic flat-topped basalt column in the bay below. Before re-boarding the ship, many of us took the opportunity to stroll around the small, tidy community, which boasted a museum and the recently restored St. Thomas’ Church. Once we were all aboard, Island Sky sailed for Scotland.
Isle of Iona / Staffa, Inner Hebrides, Scotland
The first event of the day was an early lecture by Andrew Berry on Evolution and Islands. When we arrived at Iona in mid-morning the weather was beautifully clear and bright. Local guides accompanied us to the famous Abbey, an active, deeply-rooted church which played a key role in the dissemination of Christianity throughout the British Isles. We also saw the 8th-century Celtic crosses of St. Martin and St. Matthew and a nunnery from the 12th Century. The birders conducted a comprehensive search for the elusive corncrake, and fortunately they were successful, including a rare sighting of one in flight.
In the afternoon we landed by Zodiac at Staffa Island with its impressive basalt columns. The weather had turned grey and it started to rain, but this did not dampen our enthusiasm. Some of the columns have been eroded by the sea to form caves including the famous Fingal’s Cave. Our Zodiac drivers were able to bring us right into the cave and those on foot were able to photograph this impressive maneuver. Climbing up to the plateau of the island we were rewarded with good views of puffins and other sea birds. With great satisfaction we hummed a little Mendelssohn whose Hebrides Overture was inspired by the island.
St. Kilda / Flannan Islands, Outer Hebrides
We landed early in the morning on the remote island of Hirta, the largest of the St. Kilda archipelago, and were welcomed ashore by the island rangers who gave us a guided tour of the village. The settlement existed for several thousand years until the last islanders were removed to mainland Scotland, at their own request, in 1930. We admired the skill with which they had constructed houses, walls, and cleits (structures for storing food, hay, etc.) out of the irregularly shaped boulders strewn about the island. We also studied the unique Soay sheep and were entranced by the music made by the St. Kilda wren.
The largest of the Flannan Islands is a small, steep-sided rocky plateau capped by grassland and a functioning, but unmanned, lighthouse. Our afternoon expedition aimed to scale the cliffs of Flannan in order to see puffins, the lighthouse, and a pre-Viking chapel. It was a daunting prospect; the stairs from the small, rocky quay were steep and badly eroded. The expedition staff arranged a system of ropes, towels, and helping hands, which enabled everyone who attempted it to reach the summit successfully. The other passengers surveyed the island on an exhilarating Zodiac tour.
Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland
Our first activities for the day were two lectures: Ian Stone’s, The History of St. Kilda and the Flannan Islands and Rick Price’s, Underwater Britain.
After lunch we reached Kirkwall and for the first time in our voyage we came alongside a pier. We drove through the town of Kirkwall, through Finstown, and out into the countryside to see three major historic sites: Skara Brae, a stone-age coastal community of interconnected almost-subterranean houses; the Ring of Brodgar, a stone circle reminiscent of Stonehenge, but slightly older and with a greater diameter (300 feet); and Maeshowe, a large neolithic burial mound with a low, long tunnel entrance. We also had some free time in Kirkwall itself to explore the capital of the Orkneys on foot. The most important building is St. Magnus Cathedral, but the buildings on the waterfront are also impressive.
Mousa, Lerwick, Shetland Islands, Scotland
Mousa Broch is a well-preserved, cylindrical-shaped, stone tower built by the Picts on Mousa Island about 2,300 years ago, presumably for defence purposes. We were surprised to hear the calls of storm petrels nesting in the walls of the tower. There were many seals in the bay situated over the saddle of the island and we noticed a small, blue flower called spring squill.
After lunch the ship pulled into Lerwick harbor, the most northerly port of our voyage. Our first land activity was a coach trip to the Jarlshof archaeological site, which has important early iron-age, Viking, and medieval remains. We also visited Sumburgh Head, a rocky cliff, which, despite the mist, afforded great views of seabirds.
In the evening, and under blue skies, Island Sky sailed by Noss, an almost inaccessible plateau of grassland surrounded by steep cliffs. Noss is a national nature reserve and a spectacular seabird breeding area. More than 160,000 pairs of birds, including 6,000 gannets, breed there. Captain Fielding was able to bring the ship near the rocks so that we could get good pictures.
Fair Isle, Shetland Islands
In the morning we landed at Fair Isle, the most remote inhabited island in the British Isles. Everyone was glad to walk in the sunshine. We enjoyed good birding and the friendly hospitality of the local people. The cliffs and caves fringing the island are quite dramatic and the sea was clear enough to see urchins on submerged rocks. In the beautiful light, photographers had a field day.
Isle of May / Bass Rock / Leith / Edinburgh
Many seabirds nest on the Isle of May, including kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots, shags, and puffins, but the most immediately obvious were Arctic terns, which had nests near the quay and made aggressive displays as we walked past them. We saw several puffins carrying fish to their burrows, indicating that they already had young ones to feed. Flower lovers noted the presence of huge tracts of sea campion, and there was henbane near the visitors centre.
After lunch we circled Bass Rock several times for good views of Britain’s second-largest breeding colony of gannets (44,000 pairs). Flocks of these birds circled the rock, which is the plug of an ancient volcano and white with guano. In the afternoon sunlight, the lighthouse stood out beautifully against the harsh rocks and white-capped waves. It was a dramatic end to our voyage.