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‘Blissfully unhurried’: hopping around Germany’s ‘forgotten’ islands

on the Halligen Islands houses are built on manmade mounds to keep them above the waterline.
Higher ground … on the Halligen Islands houses are built on manmade mounds to keep them above the waterline. Photograph: Alamy

‘And here are the beds,” said Alina, guide at the Kapitän Tadsen Museum, pointing to some tiny wooden cots built into the wall like cupboards. “They’re so short because the people slept sitting up.”

I raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “Well,” she said, “they thought that if they slept lying down, the devil might think they were dead and steal their souls.”

Had I not been on the Halligen Islands for 24 hours already, this detail might have surprised me, but this old-fashioned world view seemed perfectly in tune with the place. All but unknown outside Schleswig-Holstein (and dubbed the “Forgotten Islands” as a result), the Halligen are 10 extremely low-lying islands off the north-west coast of Germany. So low-lying, in fact, that every winter the highest tides bring the Wadden Sea flooding in, inundating the pancake-flat salt marsh. Each house, however, is built on a warft, a manmade mound that (usually) keeps it safely above the waterline. With each winter flood – or landunter – each mound becomes its own island, a tiny outpost in the foaming brine.

Halligen map

It’s a way of life unique to this corner of Europe and, with rising sea levels, its future is uncertain – several uninhabited islands have already vanished beneath the waves. In a bid not to hasten the drowning of the remainder of this Unesco reserve, I’d followed my usual no-flying practice and taken the train from London, in summer.

A little ferry conveyed me from the harbour at Schlüttsiel on the mainland to Langeness, the largest island, a slender six-mile-long affair. Alighting alongside a tractor pulling a wagon containing the island’s post, I checked in at the Hilligenley hotel – a rangy farmhouse-style building typical of the islands, and marched off in search of the museum and its short beds.

In spring and autumn the islands are awash with migrating birds, but even in summer they’re alive with avian life. A tame redshank assumed the role of guide and minder, leading me along the empty single-track road, while Arctic terns and black-headed gulls tussled noisily for supremacy of the skies.

Sea level … aerial view of Norderoog, one of the 10 Halligen Islands off the coast of Germany.
Sea level … aerial view of Norderoog, one of the 10 Halligen Islands off the coast of Germany. Photograph: Alamy

Next day I hopped on a ferry for the half-hour voyage to Hooge, made somewhat circuitous by the need to avoid a number of sandbanks, on one of which a pod of seals was enjoying the afternoon sun. Hooge is the bustling metropolis of the Halligen Islands: its two square miles contain 10 warften, homes to a population of about 100. A very friendly population as it turned out. The standard greeting here, whatever the hour, is Moin! (pronounced Mo-een), and I found myself exchanging this salutation all day.

Pension Hus Waterkant, a short stroll from the dock, was my base for four nights. Cheery owner Karen had thoughtfully placed a pair of binoculars and some laminated wildlife-spotting cards in each bedroom. These helped me identify the many flowers – hello, purple halligflieder and yellow strand-salzmelde – on salt marshes which support species not found anywhere else on the planet.

The Kapitän Tadsen Museum on Langeness island
The Kapitän Tadsen Museum on Langeness island

Low tide exposes huge mudflats on which visitors can take guided walks. I was taken far out on to this ephemeral desert by volunteer rangers Charlotte and Ella. They introduced me to a tiny mud snail, the wattschnecke (“you get about 100,000 of these to every square metre of mud,” Charlotte informed me), and a curious worm called a sand mason (“basically, a long tube with a mouth”). We also played a game called “sea fog”, in which I had to don a white blindfold – replicating a dense sea fret – and try to walk 100 paces in a straight line back towards Hooge. Despite my airy confidence beforehand, when I took off my blindfold I found I was blithely walking out to sea again.

I’m something of an aficionado of small islands – I’ve even written a book about them – but I’ve never been anywhere like the Halligens, with their broad horizons in practically every direction, huge bird-filled skies and odd little hillocks – each a hamlet unto itself – almost complete lack of motorised vehicles and blissfully unhurried and seemingly precarious way of life.

As the days passed, I cycled happily about on my hire bike; walked miles of low sea wall; waved to the drivers of horse-drawn carriages; inflicted my fanciful German on restaurateurs and the staff at the Halligens’ only grocery shop; picnicked in strandkorben – canopied wicker seats – with a local Flensburger beer; visited the two tiny museums; and watched a film in the world’s only Sturmflutkino (Storm Flood Cinema), which shows dramatic footage of recent inundations (“Last year it flooded on Christmas Day,” one local later told me ruefully).

And on one memorable afternoon I took the ferry to the minute island of Gröde. There, a murmuration of silver-grey knots (a type of wading bird) flew so low over my head that I could hear the collective whoosh of their furiously fluttering wings.

Way to go

Getting there
Rail travel was provided by Voyages-sncf.com, which has returns from London to Husum (35km on public transport from Schlüttsiel) from £342 return. Hamburg airport is 180km from Schlüttsiel.

Where to stay
Accommodation was provided by the Germany tourist board. The Hilligenley hotel, Langeness, has doubles from €74 B&B and singles from €50. Pension Hus Waterkant, Hooge, has doubles from €56 B&B and singles from €29.

This article titled "‘Blissfully unhurried’: hopping around Germany’s ‘forgotten’ islands" was written by Dixe Wills, for The Guardian on Sunday 11 February 2018 10.00am

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