Coordinates: 55.335N 1.539 W
Saturday 30th September
Just off the Northumbrian coast, less than a mile from the town of Amble by the Sea (‘Britain’s friendliest port’) is the small island of Coquet. It has an area of about six hectares or fifteen acres, wee enough to see the sun rise over the sea on the east, to wait a few hours and walk twenty paces and watch it set over the sea on the west. Coquet Island has a lighthouse, an adjoining cottage and – in breeding season – thousands upon thousands of nesting seabirds, including 90% of the UK’s roseate tern population. It is a sanctuary, protected by U.K. and EU law. Only a very few may land.
And I! – I wriggle with excitement – I am one of them, for a week’s residential volunteering with the RSPB. Bundled up in layers of waterproofs and a life jacket, I hoist my rucksack, sleeping bag and a week’s worth of provisions into the rib (named Puffling!) before sitting on the inflatable side of the boat and holding on tight. Leaving Amble harbour, we pass people fishing, working, messing around in boats; cormorants stretching their wings out to dry, oystercatchers calling. I can’t stop smiling.
The island grows bigger as we approach (though not very much). I focus upon the jetty, which seems – to my untrained eye – quite far up from the water level. W clambers up with well practiced ease. I eye the rock, looking for footholds. This week on the island will go so much better if I can actually get onto the island. An attempt! – and at first it seems as though I have it, I swing myself onto the side of the jetty – then lie there, wriggling, grasping feebly at the rock, not quite balanced. W hauls from above, H pushes from below – and eventually I roll over onto safety, feeling like a beached whale, and laughing with embarrassment. ‘I’ve made much worse landings,’ H lies kindly. It is not an elegant beginning.
H waves goodbye, heads back for the mainland. We wheel our things and several containers of fresh water up to the lighthouse in barrows. I look around the island, which will soon become familiar, and follow W. I remind myself of a patiently waddling duckling.
At the lighthouse, divested of waterproofs, we make our way to the kitchen. W makes tea, while I read through the health and safety handbook. ‘The whole island may be regarded as a hazard,’ I read. Sliddery rocks, puffin burrows, sick seabirds carrying disease… Over a brew, we discuss which of the diseases we would opt for, if we had to make the choice. It is a strange conversation in a strange place. Fortunately, it’s the kind that I enjoy.
After unpacking my food supplies, I take my things to my room. A single bed, a chest of drawers, a wardrobe and a wood burning stove with instructions, leather gauntlets and a box of matches. There are two pillows and two blankets folded beneath them. I will be grateful for these.
There is a small Tupperware box on the wardrobe. It contains ear plugs, safety pins, sanitary products, toilet roll and sundry other useful things. On it is written ‘Coquet Island comfort box :-)’. I smile back.
On the cork board on the wall, someone has placed drawing pins in the familiar shape of the Plough.
This, for the week, is home.