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White chalk cliffs descending to a blue sea at Bempton, Yorkshire
Bempton Cliffs, East Yorkshire. Photo © C.J. Schüler

For the past few years, we’ve taken a summer break at Bridlington, on the coast of the East Riding of Yorkshire. From the harbour, you can see a long line of white cliffs to the north. This is Flamborough Head, a lighthouse-topped promontory projecting into the North Sea, where the chalk hills of the Yorkshire Wolds crumble into the waves. On its north coast is the RSPB Reserve at Bempton Cliffs, home to one of the largest seabird colonies in mainland Britain.

Bempton station, a small halt on a single-track railway, is one stop from Bridlington. Bempton village, with its low, grey 13th-century church and White Horse pub, is a quarter of a mile to the north; the cliffs are a mile further, along Cliff Lane, a narrow, up-and-down road running between fields, bounded by hawthorn hedges. Its verges are fringed with cow parsley, nettles, celandine and herb-robert, and here and there the earth has been turned up by moles. A drift of feathers is evidence of a sparrowhawk’s lunch. Butterflies dance amid the roadside vegetation: ringlets flutter restlessly, while red admirals spread their wings on the path as if waiting to be admired.

On entering the reserve, you reach the cliffs across swaths of chalk grassland and scrub dotted with blue cranesbills, field vetch and bird’s-foot trefoil, that shelter tree sparrows, skylarks, linnets and small mammals such as stoats and weasels, while peregrines, kestrels and short-eared owls patrol the sky in search of prey. Several wooden observation platforms have been built along the cliff edge, which descends a dizzying 400 feet to the sea. There is nothing between here and the North Pole but water. The chalk is striated with horizontal lines of sediment and fissured with deep vertical crevices; in places it has fallen away leaving tall stacks and even an arch.

A razorbill (right) and puffin (left) on the white chalk cliff at Bempton.
A razorbill (right) and puffin (left) on the cliff at Bempton. Photo © C.J. Schüler

Along its ledges perch thousands of seabirds: herring gulls (Larus argentatus), kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis), puffins (Fratercula arctica), razorbills (Alca torda) and guillemots (Uria aalge), and – ruling the roost – gannets (Morus bassanus). The largest seabird in the North Atlantic, with a six-foot wingspan and formidable beak, they glide and bank above the waves like jet fighters, and manoeuvre on to their cliffside perches. The air is thick with their guttural cries, somewhere between the football rattle of a magpie and the churr of a nightjar. The juveniles are blotchy grey and black, which gradually fades until they reach maturity at five years, leaving only dark wingtips and the characteristic blond cowl on their heads.

Three puffins perch on the white chalk cliff at Bempton. To their right is a kittiwake.
Three puffins on the cliff at Bempton. To their right is a kittiwake. Photo © C.J. Schüler

The central viewing platform, Grandstand, offered a close view of a chalk outcrop, on which a small group of puffins perched near a hole in the rock that formed their burrow.

A puffin investigates its burrow in a hole in the chalk cliff.
A puffin investigates its burrow in the cliff. Photo © C.J. Schüler

Like razorbills and guillemots, they are members of the auk family, and spend most of the year at sea, only nesting in the cliffs in March or April to breed and rear their young. By the end of August they will have gone, shedding the bright orange covering of their beaks once the breeding season is over. All three auk species fly rapidly if awkwardly above the water, hunting for sand eels, their paddle-like wings – better adapted for swimming than flight – flapping frantically, in contrast to the few lazy, powerful wingbeats that propel the gannets into an elegant glide.

Many gannets sitting in the grass on top of the cliffs at Bempton, while others fly overhead
Gannets on the cliff at Bempton. Photo © C.J. Schüler

Near the easternmost platform, Staple Newk, a large colony of gannets were roosting in the vegetation at the top of the cliff, while others hovered above, jostling for position or snatching clumps of dry grass to build their nests. There is also a significant population of jackdaws, which swoop over the waves with the seabirds. They are not aquatic feeders, so I can only imagine that they do this purely for fun.

Despite their appearance, fulmars are not actually gulls, but related to albatrosses and petrels. Their name derives from the Old Norse fúll, meaning foul, and már, or gull, and refers to their habit of spitting a foul-smelling oily liquid when threatened. In the past two years they have been joined by an actual, black-browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophris).Blown thousands of miles off course from its natural habitat in the South Atlantic, it seems to have found a congenial home among the gannets, though it did not put in an appearance the afternoon I was there, to the disappointment of a small crowd of expectant birders armed with telephoto lenses the size of artillery pieces. For me though, the gannets and puffins were enough excitement for one day.

C.J. Schüler’s most recent book, The Wood That Built London: A Human History of the Great North Wood, is published by Sandstone Press, and is available in paperback from 1 September 2022.