Monday, 24 December 2012



I doubt few people from England spend their holidays in East Frisia. I had heard the area was noted for its melancholy expanses of peat moor and fen, interspersed with inhabited sandy ridges. As a visitor from East Anglia, I was keen to find out how this landscape related to the fens and heaths back home. There was also an historical dimension: parts of England had been settled by people from this area in the 5th and 6th centuries, so I hoped to encounter some East Frisians, whose language shares a common Ingaevonic root with Old English. I had pored over a few modern Frisian texts, glimpsing common ground with English; I had heard old stories that fishermen from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk and Harlingen in Frisia could understand one another. I had a few spare hours for a journey into this ancestral territory.

5th Century iconography from Gallehus in northern Frisia

I caught bus S90 from the Bahnhofplatz at Oldenburg, at 09.42 on a frosty morning. The sun seemed barely out of bed. My destination was the villages of Saterland, home to the last surviving speakers of East Frisian. Its four villages are strung out along a low sandy ridge about 10 miles long bordered by low-lying, peaty land. The journey would take over an hour, and I was not sure what I would see at the end of it, although heaths and moors figured in my imagination. The bus headed westward through a prosperous and well-kept  snowy landscape. There were no signs of wilderness; the landscape exuded an air of ordered employment. My map was rudimentary, but sufficient to track our progress from place to place: Friedrichsfehn, Hengstforde, Roggenmoor, Holtland - names which I could roughly translate into English. My destination was Ramsloh, the biggest village in Saterland.

I missed my stop. The bus had gone a mile beyond the town before I realised and pressed the red button...

The doors hissed open and I stepped down onto a frozen road. The bus drove away. I found myself suddenly alone in a bleached landscape of bare fields, woods and ditches, with a flock of black birds and a calvary for company. The moors lay somewhere to the east. Luckily, I was standing next to a signpost saying ‘Moors Experience Trail’.
"Wayfaring always overshoots its destinations, since wherever you may be at any particular moment, you are already on your way to somewhere else" (Tim Ingold: 'Being Alive'; Routledge 2011).

There is something numinous about alder trees: their bristly, purplish twigs, their watery habits and uncanny bleeding bark. They lined the road I walked along, and fringed the canal I crossed. Turbid water flowed under the bridge, stained a yallery-brown colour from ochre formed in oxidising peat. The peatlands and fens were evidently not far away, but they could not be seen through surrounding woodland. I came to a fork in the road, but frustratingly the trail sign was pointing back the way I'd come.

Woods, fields, a farm… after half a mile I began to sense I had taken a moorless road, and the map offered no clues to the local geography. Cold was clamped on the land. An enormous field a mile wide lay before me, and in the distance was the foggy shape of a village with a church spire. I decided to ask directions at a lone cottage, where a blue car had just driven up. A fair-haired young woman was handing over a packet to a short, bearded man at the gate. “I am lost; can you tell me where I am on this map, please”, I asked her in my best German. She laughed and said she spoke a little English. The two of them inspected the map, but could make no sense of it. He gesticulated and said the distant village was Scharrel. He spoke with a thick accent of some kind; his face was squarish and framed by masses of bristling, rusty brown hair; his manner was guarded. I was just thanking them and turning to go, when the front door opened and an aged man appeared in the doorway. His face was a remarkable sight: long and pale, with wispy hair like cirrus cloud, and eyes of a clear, rain-washed blue. An elaborate ceremonial wreath was leaning against the wall of the house beside him. I wanted to ask many questions, but feared intruding on their world with my anthropologist’s gaze. I guessed they were not used to strangers – particularly tall English ones. I reckoned it was time I was on my way. Thanking them for their assistance – especially the young woman – I turned and began the return journey from this, the Ultima Thule of my Frisian expedition.

The cold was beginning to bite before I had walked far; a fine hail was beginning to fall. Clearly I would have to visit the moors on some future day. Dejection was also beginning to bite. But as luck would have it I saw the blue car approaching, and my translator wound down the window to ask whether I’d like a lift. I needed little prompting to accept her offer; perhaps she could also answer some questions. This was the Feast of St Niklaus, she said, and her job was to deliver presents to old people in the district. (In England, she'd have been wearing red and white fancy dress, I reflected.) The old man and his wife at Firtree Way were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary; they spoke East Frisian at home. Would I like to visit the tourist office and get more information? She would drop me off there if I liked. When we arrived at the Council offices at Ramsloh, she reached into the back of the car and presented me with a chocolate figurine of St Niklaus - I was delighted.

The tourist office were having a quiet day at home. I was clearly pushing my German to the limits when I asked them about Ostfriesisch culture in Saterland. Luckily the man there spoke some English, and he said that his colleague, Frau Janssen, a striking, dark-haired woman, was a native East Frisian speaker. I asked why I had seen no bilingual street signs in Ramsloh. She explained that the language was dying out;  there were perhaps only 1,300 speakers left, amounting to less than 10% of the local population. Indeed, Saterland had appeared in the Guinness Book of Records, 1990, as the smallest ‘language island’ in Europe. She explained that a Saterland Alliance (the Seelter Bund) was working hard to keep the language alive, and it was taught from Years 1-4 at school. She said the East Frisians had a separate religious identity too, as Saterland was a Roman Catholic enclave in a predominantly Protestant community. I asked her if I could hear some spoken, and she kindly read me a poem. It began: Ljude rakt et fuul un Lounde / do ap Goddes Wareld stounde.  / Man wät gungt deer wäil uur Seelter, / un uur't litje Seelterlound?. Frau Janssen clearly felt passionate about her homeland. She gave me some leaflets and the contact details of a person who could tell me more about the Ostfriesen people.

The Village Lime Tree (Dorflinde)
outside Ramsloh Church.

Walking to the bus-stop, I considered what I had found out about Saterland. Its wild landscape had eluded me, but its human landscape had come alive in a special way. I had met Saint Niklaus and had been initiated into the matter of East Frisian cultural survival. I had found a mundane world touched with small acts of consecration.

Thankful for the kindnesses I had received, I wondered whether there was a future for linguistic tourism here. I somehow doubted it - but if anywhere deserved its benefits then the shrinking ‘language island’ of Seelterlound did. Perhaps UNESCO could help.

My biggest regret? Not having photographs of the people I'd met. My trip to Saterland had become a human story.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Doggerland's ghost


A train is taking me northwards to the island of Sylt in North Frisia. A spindrift of powdery snow flies past the windows as we speed through the level, desolate landscape of Schleswig-Holstein. Scattered farmsteads with long buildings and knots of bare trees are set in a geometry of ditches and banks; numb-looking sheep pull at frozen mangolds and bales of hay; towering wind turbines revolve in an easterly wind.

The North Sea is an invisible horizon ahead.


It is the weekend of Christiane's birthday, and her friend Stefi's house at Tinnum is alive with pleasurable activity. There are cakes and presents, cards and decorations; there is wine, tea and warmth. The neighbourhood is one of low Frisian houses, some thatched, some with garden walls made of boulders. Beyond them, the countryside begins: an expanse of damp fields bounded by reedy ditches and clusters of sallow and fir; to the south-westwards lies a rumpled line of dunes, like distant hills seen through a haze. A profound chill grips land and sea.

The biggest town on Sylt is the chic holiday resort of Westerland. We walked through it last night on our way to watch the sunset. It would be alive with people in summer - certainly enough to fill the Strandhotel, a colossal, 12-storey block of flats overlooking the beach, and throng the holiday shops of the Friedrichstrasse. Two hardy surfers were catching a few waves in the twilight, otherwise we had the beach to ourselves. The sand underfoot was frozen.

Die glühend rote Sonne steige
Hinab ins weitaufschauernde,
Silbergraue Weltenmeer;


Like all the Frisian islands, Sylt is one breath away from submergence. Its long, crescent shape is actively being moulded by wind and waves. Recurved 'ness' promontories are forming at its northern and southern ends, and its highest ground is a crest of frail, impermanent dunes. Sylt is a barrier island backed by the tidal mud flats and saltmarshes of the Wadden Sea, and only joined to the mainland since 1927 by the slender Hindenburgdamm causeway. 

Local stories say that Hengist and Horsa set out from the now-vanished port of Wendingstedt on their way to invade England in the 5th century. If so, they must have been desperate men, driven out by water levels rising across their territory. Historians say that Sylt only became an island since the Grote Mandrenke (literally 'The Great Drowning of Men'), a storm surge of the 14th century. Before that, it would have been part of the mainland. Going further back 10,000 years, it would have been many miles from the coast. With so much water locked up as ice during the last Ice Age, sea levels were over 100 m lower than today in the North Sea basin, and there was a plain connecting Britain and Europe, known as Doggerland.

Progressive sea-level rise in the North Sea basin: 9600 and 7200 years BP showing Doggerland
and the position of Sylt. From a display panel at the Landesmuseum Natur Und Mensch at Oldenburg.

No Mesolithic folk tales have survived about the drowning of Doggerland. Many people are likely to have been killed by the tsunami from the Storegga slide which swept over the land about 8,100 years ago. Over the generations, people would have watched their ancestral hunting grounds and sacred places being invaded by water; they would have become separated by widening tidal channels. Evidence for their camp sites, flint and bone tools now lies under the sea. Birds migrating to Britain would have found the task more challenging with each passing year. Driven by an enduring geographical instincts, we see them today clinging to the decks and masts of seagoing ships and offshore rigs, rather than to the twigs and branches of old Doggerland. 

Evidence from seabed investigations tells us something about this vanished landscape. Like the lands bordering the North Sea today, it had low rounded hills made of sandy glacial debris and wide river valleys with meres and fens. There were forests of willow, birch, alder and pine, and reedbeds. As the tide rose -  maybe a few centimetres each year - the land areas would have become fragmented into low islands fringed by dunes and saltmarshes, to be followed by tidal sandbanks and mudflats. Finally it was the gannet's bath.

Three-metre high pillar at Tinnum
showing the levels reached by sea floods

Like all the Frisian islands, Sylt is Doggerland's ghost. Standing on top of a dune and looking out to sea, I feel its impermanence beneath me. To landward, there are houses and roads, and willow trees and reeds growing in the lee of the dune belt. Beyond them, saltmarshes and mudflats breathe in and out with every tide. A few centimetres of elevation makes the difference between land and sea, but with sea level projected to rise another metre before the end of this century, I wonder how much of Sylt will survive the next great Mandrenke.

Hörnum beach