Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2011/3 posted by hidden europe on

There is something definitive, something final, about a long spit that juts out into the sea. Be it sand or shingle, vegetated or barren, you know you have reached the end of the world when you reach the end of the spit. Tennyson said as much in his poem 'Crossing the Bar', an elegiac piece that uses the image of a sand bar to chart the boundary between life and death. Beyond the bar lies only the ocean, only the boundless deep.

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Dear fellow travellers

There is something definitive, something final, about a long spit that juts out into the sea. Be it sand or shingle, vegetated or barren, you know you have reached the end of the world when you reach the end of the spit. Tennyson said as much in his poem Crossing the Bar, an elegiac piece that uses the image of a sand bar to chart the boundary between life and death. Beyond the bar lies only the ocean, only the boundless deep.

Shake off Tennyson's gloomy imagery and sand spits are still fabulously liminal places. We headed out to the very end of the Ellenbogen last Saturday. Ellenbogen means 'elbow' and this really is a narrow elbow of land several kilometres long that projects into the sea off the North Frisian island of Sylt. It is a classic spit landscape. We skirted shifting dunes and salt marshes along the way. These are young landscapes, shaped by the sea and the wind. There are two lighthouses on the spit, each a reminder that the waters around the northern edge of Sylt can be formidably dangerous. Sandbanks and shallows, and here and there fast flowing currents that sweep the changing tides through narrow gaps between islands.

Spurn Head

Europe has some superb sand and shingle spits. These are places to be alone in a crowded continent, so no surprise perhaps that they have attracted the attention of poets, artists and composers. Vaughan Williams captured moody Spurn Point in one of his Studies in English Folk Song, and for most people that piece for cello and piano is all they know of the great spit that juts into the North Sea just north of the Humber estuary.

The journey to Spurn Point from nearby Hull is exotic and wonderful, the landscapes becoming ever more dramatic as you head out along the narrow finger of sand. Yorkshire has only the most tenuous hold on this little fragment of land. At one point the spit is less than fifty metres wide. This is more a place for whinchats and wheatears than humans.

Guarding the spits

One hundred years ago a railway was constructed to an old military fort on Spurn Head to alleviate problems of access. The trolleys that carried soldiers and workers along the spit were creatively powered by wind, with great sails mounted above the wagons. Sail bogies were also used on the other side of the North Sea on the island railway on Sylt. But sadly the old rail route to Spurn Head and the island railway on Sylt have long since closed.

Forts and spits go naturally together. Governments like to mark the boundaries of their territories and show some symbolic presence there. So it is no surprise that Europe's longest spit has a magnificent fortress. The Arabat spit in the Sea of Azov is over one hundred kilometres long and is not merely the longest spit in Europe but anywhere in the world. Today Ukrainian territory, but over the last four hundred years the Arabat fortress has been occupied by Turks and Tatars, Russians and Germans. It is not merely the winds and waves that fight for possession of Europe's spits.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.