We’ve come to the Farne Islands expecting to see seals – lots of them – but not for a performance. At least that’s what it looks like. The cutest young seal, with huge liquid eyes and a heart-achingly doleful expression, lifts his little flipper in what looks for all the world like a staged farewell as our boat sails away. He may be one of literally dozens of white and brown-spotted youngsters flopped all over these rocks, but his appealing ‘gesture’ is etched in our memories.

These seals seem almost used to the attention and not afraid of us at all. It’s not surprising really since our small boat full of excited children and their parents is one of seven similar vessels operated by Billy Shiel. All are called Glad Tidings, though each one is numbered to save confusion. These boats make frequent year-round trips to see the seals and all the other wildlife on these rocky islands off the coast of Northumberland.

Andy, one of the National Trust rangers resident for nine months of the year on the largest island, Inner Farne, describes it best. He tells me that living here is “like being on a David Attenborough film set”. He’s not exaggerating. In the summer the island becomes home to thousands of nesting seabirds including puffins, guillemots, razorbills, terns, shags, cormorants and eider ducks. The best time of year to see baby Atlantic and grey seals is in the autumn when around 1,000 are born. At other times there’s a virtual carpet of birds.

Andy reels off a few statistics for this ‘hotspot’; 30,000 redwing in a day, 6,000 British birds per hour, 1,000 goldcrest on the island at once. And the best piece of advice that the rangers can give visitors? Bring a hat! In the spring you’re almost guaranteed to get divebombed by Arctic terns and very likely to be pecked or pooped on. “Probably both,” Andy laughs.

He points to just outside the draughty stone building which serves as the information centre. Around late May/early June we’d have to watch our steps here as chicks would be running around all over the place.

Inside the 14th century St Cuthbert’s chapel is a plaque in memory of Grace Darling, the legendary lighthouse-keeper’s daughter who helped to rescue nine survivors from the wreck of the supposedly unsinkable Forfarshire. Our boat has followed part of the route Grace rowed with her father through the raging seas, taking us out to Longstone in the outer group of the Farnes where she lived.

As the weather changes suddenly, bringing stinging rain, all the other families off our boat hurry in to the shelter of the chapel. We wander around in our waterproofs, absorbing some of the away-from-it-all atmosphere that these islands exude. We may be just a couple of miles off the coast of bustling Seahouses, with its very popular fish and chip shops, but the feeling is of being in a far more remote spot.

ESSENTIALS www.visitnorthumberland.com www.lindisfarne.org.uk