Bempton Cliffs Nature Reserve: A Visitors Guide
I've been birdwatching or birding for almost my entire life, and in close to 30 years I have been to some amazing places and seen my fair few of weird and wonderful species. But there are few places that can compare with Bempton Cliffs. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) manage the reserve, that covers just a few miles of coastline and yet, between February and October the stunning 400 feet high white chalk cliffs play host to one of the Earth's greatest wildlife spectacles. Each spring more than half million seabirds flock back to the cliffs after a winter spent out at sea to breed. The sights, sounds and yes the overpowering smell are all a joy to behold.
I live approximately 3 hours away from the cliffs in a landlocked part of the UK, so to be able to come and witness and revel in such a spectacle is a rare treat for me, and one that I never tire of. Bempton is one of those truly wonderful places in which you don't necessarily have to be a birdwatcher to marvel at its sheer abundance of life and biodiversity.
Where Are Bempton Cliffs?
Bempton Cliffs are roughly 20 miles down the coast from Scarborough and approximately 40 miles up the coast from the nearest city, Hull.
How To Get There?
Bempton is very easy to find. Regardless of whatever direction you're travelling from, the best bet is to follow signs for Bridlington, the nearest large town. If you're coming from the north or the south, then the M1 is the road to follow, before hopping onto the M62 East and then finally the A165 towards Bridlington and Scarborough. Once you're within a few miles of 'Brid' as its known to the locals, you'll see the brown tourist signs directing you to Bempton Cliffs, so all you have to do is follow those. If you have a Sat-Nav and are comfortable using one, then finding it is even easier, as punching in the postcode will take you straight to the car park.
The roads in the village of Bempton itself are very narrow, and in places only wide enough for one car, but there are passing places, so there's no need to worry too much, but I would still drive fairly cautiously, especially if visiting for the first time. The village is typically quaint, and home to some wonderful pubs, although if you happen to visit on a Monday, bear in mind that The White Horse Inn on Cliff Lane does not serve food. It does serve food every other day of the week, and it is a wonderful establishment to eat, but just something to be mindful of. If you're visiting at the weekend during the peak season, then expect the car park to get busy quickly, so I would recommend getting to Bempton as early as possible.
Bempton's Official Website
- Bempton Cliffs Nature Reserve, East Riding of Yorkshire - The RSPB
The official RSPB website for Bempton Cliffs- includes all useful information including recent sightings.
The Visitor Centre
Once you're parked up, you then walk down a sandy pathway to the visitor centre. If you're already a member of the RSPB then you just simply flash your membership card and walk on in. If not, then there is an entrance fee of £5 for adults and £2.50 for children, although if you have more than one child with you then the first one goes free. Personally, I would recommend becoming a member, especially if you plan on visiting regularly. Its just a few pounds a month, and believe me there are no shortage of volunteers willing to sign you up. If you decide to sign up on the day, then the RSPB will refund the admission fee that you paid on the day.
The visitor centre itself is very clean, swish and has almost every amenity that you could ask for, from toilets to refreshments to gifts and even the chance to hire a pair of binoculars just in case you need them. You can even watch live footage of the seabirds going about their daily lives on the cliffs. For serious birders like me, there is a sightings board with detailed list of species and numbers, so as to give people an idea of what to look out for.
The gift shop always has the ability to pull you in, even people like me who aren't normally interested in such things. You'd never catch me buying the many cuddly puffin toys on sale, but I am a bookworm, and the shop does have a huge selection of bird and wildlife books, as well as magazines.
Visitor Centre Delights
What You Will See
As nice as the visitor centre is, the main reason why most people come to Bempton are the birds. Even upon arrival you are greeted by some wonderful species. Once you're finished with the visitor centre, you walk out into a picnic area, which in turn overlooks a bird feeding station. It's here that one of Bempton's most charismatic species thrives, the nationally scarce Tree sparrow, a close relative of the more familiar House sparrow. Tree Sparrows resemble the male house sparrow but have a brown rather than a grey cap.
Once away from the picnic area, you'll walk down a windy trail towards the cliffs themselves. The trails cut through large swathes of unspoilt grassland and wildflower meadows. Its here that you may catch glimpses of skylarks, meadow pipits, yellowhammers and reed buntings. Although, you'll more likely hear them and see then. At certain times of the year, during the migration season, you may also see northern wheatears, yellow wagtails, whinchats and maybe even a ring ouzel. If you happen to visit during the winter months, you may also see flocks of wild geese passing overhead, as well as short-eared owls and barn owls at certain times of day.
However, I would personally recommend visiting the cliffs anytime from early May to the end of July, as this is when the cliffs are at their best, and all members of Bempton’s ‘Big 8’ are present. Once you’ve walked down the trail, you come to the cliffs themselves. Straight ahead of you is the vast expanse of the north sea. The next bit of land across the water is Denmark and no matter how hard I strain my eyes through my telescope its too far away to see. The end of the trail is marked by a T-junction, allowing you to walk up and down another trail ‘the cliff trail,’ which in turn lead to 5 viewpoints along the cliff edge. From here, you can get fantastically close views of birds that you would normally never be able to get close to. This is where Bempton’s star species are to be found, the ‘Big 8’.
The Big 8
The Big 8
The African Serengeti may have the ‘Big 5’ but Bempton can go 3 better, with the ‘Big 8’, so without any further ado, I shall profile them.
- Northern Gannet: In no particular order, we start with the Northern gannet, the largest seabird in the Northern Hemisphere and the sight of them gliding past your head close enough to see their eyes move is a truly awesome sight. They are the most abundant birds at Bempton with some 11,000 pairs choosing to make their homes there. They return to the cliffs each spring after spending the winter in West Africa and amazingly, the same pairs return to the same little bit of cliff year after year. Gannet pairs are very affectionate to each other when reaffirming their bond. I once saw a gannet present its mate with a necklace of Red Campion flowers, as part of a courtship ritual. Red Campion flowers create a beautiful red blanket along the cliff tops during May. On the flip side though, gannets can be quite uncompromising, especially if a neighbouring pair happens to get too close. When you watch them on the cliff edge, you cannot help but wonder how such a large bird can actually find a foothold on the ledges. Another highlight worth looking out for is watching the gannets’ leave the cliffs for their frequent fishing trips. Their feeding strategy is truly amazing with the birds flying up to a great height, before plummeting down straight as an arrow into the sea below. However, don’t expect to see them actually feeding, as gannets rarely feed close to shore. Their preferred prey are fish such as Cod, Mackerel and Herring, which are found far from the coast in deeper water.
- Atlantic Puffin: Puffins are a favorite of the majority of the visitors to Bempton and are undoubtedly the most sought after species. With visitors often scrambling to get the best positions in order to get that valuable photo. Puffins have natural charisma on account of their somewhat clownish appearance. To me though, they are just beautiful with their rainbow colored bills and bright orange feet. Interestingly during the winter, their bills transform from being brightly colored to a rather dull monochrome. Of course, most of us don't get to see puffins in this state, as virtually all of them have departed from the cliffs by the beginning of August. When you watch them for any length of time, you cannot be amazed at their flying ability. It looks labored and compared to the majestic soaring gannets like a lot of hard work, but somehow the pigeon sized puffin can cover great distances. Young puffins have a rather cute sounding name, pufflings.
- Common Guillemot: This is one of those birds that has several different names across the English speaking world. If you're British like me then its simply a guillemot, but if you are American then it is either a common or thin-billed murre. Irrespective of name, this is another must see bird that breeds in great numbers on the cliffs. Be sure to watch out for the fledgling chicks launching themselves off the cliff and clumsily fluttering their way down to the sea, where one of their parents wait patiently for them. This is probably the most precarious time of its life, as the chicks are vulnerable from predators such as herring gulls, great black-backed gulls and sometimes even a great skua or 'bonxie' to give it its a folk name.
- Razorbill: Like puffins and guillemots, razorbills are members of the Auk family. They have a rather menacing appearance with its like large razor bill, hence the name and its black and white plumage. These birds always fascinate me with the way they re-approach their cliff ledges, often hurtling in at what seems like 100mph, before slowing down at the last minute, extending their short wings and making an always perfect landing. Like most seabirds, they pair for life and lay just a single white egg with brown blotches. I've often seen them balancing precariously on the tiniest of ledges, and quite how they stay put is a marvel of nature.
- Black-legged Kittiwake: Kittiwakes are a personal favourite of mine, purely on account of their unforgettable call, which lends the species its name. Whenever I hear it, then I know I've truly arrived. Along with the gannets, they are the most numerous of all the birds to be found at the cliffs, and you'll often find them breeding not only at Bempton, but at nearby towns like Bridlington and Scarborough, where they use the cliffs created by man for men, our buildings. Kittiwakes are our smallest species of gull, and each spring they return to British shores from the high Arctic. Its a true pleasure watching them twist and turn in the air, as they call out for a mate.
- Northern Fulmar: Fulmars' are about the closest you'll get to seeing an albatross at Bempton, as they are close relatives. Although in albatross terms, its a minnow. Even so, when you watch them soaring past your head with effortless ease you cannot help but think of their larger cousins. They form devoted pair bonds and are equally devoted parents. In fact, any predator thinking of taking on a fulmar may do well to think again. The birds have a tubernose bill with two large nostril, through which they squirt a thick oily substance that is normally effective enough to deter even the most determined predator.
- Eurasian Shag: The name may sound a little comical, but this close relative of cormorants gets its name from the shaggy tuft of feathers on its head. Unlike the other member of its family found in the UK, the great cormorant, this is a purely coastal species, and while it is by no means abundant on the cliffs, if you look closely enough you’ll see a few pairs dotted around. However, the best way to view them is to watch them bobbing on the surface of the sea through binoculars or a telescope. Alternatively you’ll often see them flying to and from fishing trips, they keep low to the surface, so that they can easily escape any aerial predators by diving into the sea.
- Great Black-backed Gull: Bempton is home to two large gull species, the archetype ‘seagull’ otherwise known as the herring gull, which are a common sight in coastal towns up and down the country. These are the gulls that you have to be wary of, as some of the bolder ones may steal your sandwich if you’re not looking. However, its much bigger and bulkier relative, the great black-backed gull is a truly awesome sight to behold. It is instantly recognizable on account of its sheer size, dark grey wings, pink legs and heavy bill. These are the pirates of Bempton and on many occasions I’ve witnessed them chasing and harassing other seabirds. I’ve seen them taking on the much larger gannets and I have even seen them forcing puffins into the sea, where they then kill and even consume them.
Why Visit There?
Well if the ‘Big 8’ aren’t enough to entice you, then the simple reason is the accessibility. It doesn’t matter whether you have kids or not, whether you are mobile or not, or if you have a dog or not, everybody and anyone can get up close and personal to birds most of us never see over the course of our daily lives. You don’t even have to walk for miles, just a simple amble down easy to traverse trails and you are there. Contrast it to something like an African safari, where you have to pay an absolute fortune, travel for miles in a jeep, and of course there is the fact that you cannot get too close to the animals due to the danger they pose. At Bempton you can get close to animals every bit as interesting and charismatic as a lion; moreover, you can simply watch and marvel as they live out daily lives. The sheer abundance on show at Bempton is also a stark contrast to what we experience in our daily lives. On any given visit during the peak period you will see up to 20,000 individual gannets, over 10,000 kittiwakes and 1000s of auks including guillemots, razorbills and the charming puffins. All children have an instinctive love of the natural world, so a trip to Bempton may ignite an interest that may last for their entire lives.
The Best Place For A Bite To Eat
- HOME - The Ship Inn Sewerby | Yorkshire Pub
The Ship Inn is my personal recommendation for good food, drink and a friendly atmosphere. Its just a short drive from Bempton and additionally offers stunning views of the coast from the Beer garden.
Where To Eat And Drink?
Bempton does provide refreshment, but no hot food, so if you fancy a bite to eat, you’ll have to look elsewhere. The White Horse Inn down the road is a wonderful establishment, although as mentioned earlier, they do not serve food on a Monday.
My personal recommendation is The Ship Inn at nearby Sewerby, a small village on the outskirts of Bridlington. Its a charming family run business, with friendly staff, good food (especially the Haddock & Chips/Fries with garden peas) and good beer- although I tend to stick to non alcoholic drinks mostly. It has a general friendly atmosphere, with the locals readily striking up conversation with you, especially if you happen to have a dog. Most of the pubs in the area are dog friendly and The Ship Inn is no exception. They do an excellent carvery (buffet) on Sundays and if you fancy taking in some sport, then you can kick back and watch the football on a large screen TV near the bar. There’s even a pool table and a fruit machine for people who fancy something a little more adventurous.
What makes The Ship Inn special is that it is perched almost right on the coastline, so once you’ve had your meal or spent some time relaxing in the beer garden, you can take a leisurely stroll down the sea front. The only thing I would say is that when entering the car park, be careful of the raised bump. I once drove over it too fast and thought I’d ruined my suspension.
An Unforgettable Experience
The Yorkshire Belle is the RSPB'S very own pleasure cruiser operating out of Bridlington, East Yorkshire. For just £6 you get the experience of seeing Bempton Cliffs and its amazing birds from the sea.
On Board The Yorkshire Belle
A Few More Pictures of Bempton Cliffs
The Best Places To Stay
- Thornwick Bay Caravan Holiday Park | Haven® Official Site
I've never stayed at Thornwick Bay, but I have visited it and I must say that I was very impressed with the wide range of facilities and amenities available. This option is most suitable for visitors with children.
- Bed and Breakfast Flixton, Scarborough with Tea Rooms 01723 890202
Orchard Lodge was my choice of accommodation for my most recent visit and is set in the sleepy village of Flixton. The owners Andrew, Lucinda and their two dogs are very welcoming, and like The Village Farm offers a cheap away to get away from it all
- Bed and Breakfast East Yorkshire Coast | Village Farm Band B - East Yorkshire Bed and Breakfast | Vi
The Village Farm B&B is a beautiful old farmhouse tucked away from the hustle and bustle. I've stayed there a few times now and it never disappoints.
Where To Stay?
If you fancy a real holiday in the area rather than just a day out, then are a wealth of accommodation options. You could stay in Bridlington itself in one of the many hotels that dot the seafront. You could opt to hire out a static caravan (trailer) in one of the many holiday parks in the area, this could be a good option for those of you who have large families. I’ve personally visited Thornwick Bay Holiday Camp at nearby Flamborough Head, and to say they have everything covered is an understatement. On the site, they have playgrounds, playing fields, swimming pools and even a shopping complex, so that you don’t have to leave the site to pick up your essentials. They even have on site 24 hour security so you needn’t worry about anybody breaking in.
However, if you fancy somewhere quieter than the best bet is the many Bed & Breakfast establishments in the area. Many of them are former farm cottages that have been modernised but still retain their quaint charm. I can personally recommend two that I have stayed at recently. Firstly, there’s the Village Farm B&B, set in the nearby village of Skipsea and a place I have stayed at a few times. Like many of the B&B’s in the area its a converted farm and the rooms are set in the old farm buildings. I believe that the room I stayed in was an old stable, but you would never have believed it. It was clean, cosy and above all warm. As well as its peaceful setting and quaint appearance, above all the Village Farm was cheap, just £85 a night for 2 adults and a dog. Contrast that to accommodation in somewhere like London where just for one night you may pay double or three times that amount. At the Village Farm its affordable and being able to wake up to just the sounds of nature is something that you cannot put the price on. They include a free fresh breakfast, where you can order locally sourced food and Chrysta, the friendly proprietor will even prepare your dog a fresh sausage if you ask her nicely. The village of Skipsea is charming place, and worthy of being known as a ‘chocolate box’ village, in other words its one of those sleepy places where life moves 10 times slower than everywhere else. I highly recommend a walk to the church and back, especially early in the morning, where no doubt you’ll be the only person about.
On my most recent trip, my girlfriend and I decided to try somewhere different. Venturing further north, we opted for a charming former farmhouse called The Orchard Lodge in the village of Flixton near Scarborough. Flixton is roughly half an hour away from Bempton and an ideal place to stay for anyone seeking peace and quiet. Like The Village Farm, Orchard Lodge is easily affordable with rooms being typically £90 a night and the owners Andrew and Lucinda are probably the friendliest people you’ll come across. Upon arrival, they’ll have tea and cake ready for you and they’ll even help you carry your luggage up to your room. The lodge is set in the midst of a gorgeous orchard, hence the name and at breakfast you’ll discover that the apple juice is homemade. The eggs too are locally sourced, coming from the dozen or so chickens they keep on site. The honey, jam and jelly are all locally sourced too. They absolutely love dogs, and like The Village will prepare your canine friend some breakfast. They have a couple of dogs themselves, two black Labradors, both of which are very friendly and affectionate.
So there it is, hopefully I’ve inspired a few you to pay Bempton a visit. If any of you do visit Bempton or anywhere on the East Yorkshire coast. I’d love to know how you get on so feel free to comment below or send me an Email.
© 2018 James Kenny