hidden europe 39

Life on a mound: visiting Hallig Hooge

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: The Hilligenlei car ferry arriving at Hooge (photo © hidden europe).


At the eastern margins of the North Sea, in the shallow waters hard by the German coast, are a series of islands that are seasonally flooded. Human settlement on these islands is a fragile thing. These special islands (called Halligen in German) have their own distinctive cultural landscape. Join us on a day trip in deep mid-winter to Hallig Hooge – where it happens to be dustbin day.

From time to time in hidden europe, we report from remote island communities around the coasts of Europe. In this issue’s ’Message in a Bottle’, we recount the tale of a day visit to the island of Hooge, located in the shallow (and often stormy) Wadden Sea. The Wadden Sea (Wattenmeer in German) is the geographical name for the inshore waters of the North Sea where they reach the coast of Germany. This maritime region, including the local shorelines and islands, is home to some very distinctive cultural landscapes that in 2009 were inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

The wind gusts in from the west, bringing sharp squally showers in from the sea. The high dyke is no place to be in such weather. To the east are the scattered farmsteads of the polders — land reclaimed from the sea. Here, as throughout Frisia, these fragile wetlands and meadows are protected only by the huge sea dykes from inundation by the tides.

In Ockholm, we had stopped at the bakery and asked for directions to the boat. “Easy,” said the baker, as he counted loaves of dark Frisian rye bread. “See the dyke over there,” he said. “Just follow that north for four kilometres, and you’ll not miss the pier at Schlüttsiel.”

So we did as the baker suggested and endured the windiest four kilometres on the planet. We mused on the way of the lavish facilities that might await us at Schlüttsiel. This was but a dream for when we arrived, battered and windswept, at Schlüttsiel, it was immediately obvious that this little fleck on the map boasts a permanent population of approximately zero.

Schlüttsiel has an information centre run by the Verein Jordsand, a voluntary association of conservationists that in its name recalls the lost island of Jordsand — a tiny fragment of land in the Wadden Sea that eventually succumbed to the waves in the 1990s. (We told the story of how Jordsand disappeared from the map in hidden europe 26).

Jordsand is a reminder that settlement in this region can only ever be provisional. Everyone in these parts knows the story of the Grote Mandrenke (the great drowning of man). That was way back in 1362 when, on the Feast of Saint Marcellus, over 30,000 Frisians were swept to watery graves. Fifty parish churches disappeared in one storm.

These are matters to ponder while we survey the pier from the dyke. The Hilligenlei is chugging through the rain and preparing to stop at the Schlüttsiel pier. For the offshore island of Hooge, a tiny fleck of land in the Wadden Sea, this sturdy ferry is a lifeline. Were it not for the Hilligenlei, Hooge would for months of the year be entirely cut off from civilisation. Other ferries and tourist boats call during the summer season, but the Hilligenlei is the winter mainstay.

Across the Wadden Sea

Dustbin day on Hooge is the highlight of the week. For it is only on Thursdays that the Hilligenlei makes two trips from Hooge to the mainland, a little curiosity of the timetable that exists only to permit the dustbin men (and their vehicle) to make an out-and-back-in-a-day journey to Hooge. For the residents of Hooge, Thursdays are something special too.

Related blog post

Escape from the world: the fascination of islands

What is it about islands that so powerfully fuels our imagination? Paul Scraton ponders the question while on an excursion off to the Farne Islands. In his bag is a trio of island-themed articles published in hidden europe magazine of which the full text is made available on this website today.

Related article

Making Tracks for Sweden

As winter slipped slowly into spring in 1917, Lenin passed through Berlin on his journey back to Russia from Switzerland. His onward route from Berlin took him by train to Sassnitz, then on by ferry to Trelleborg in Sweden. These days it's still possible to follow the route taken by Lenin, using the occasional direct trains from Berlin to Sweden.

Related article

An Essex backwater: Discovering Harwich

The old town of Harwich, a port in the county of Essex on England's North Sea coast, is tucked away on the end of a peninsula. Maritime connections have shaped the development of Harwich. It's a place for sea breezes, rock oysters and watching the ferries come and go.