On the Friday, the tides allowed for a return ferry trip to Spiekeroog. Leaving Neuharlingersiel in the morning, the boat followed a wall of brick, which I’m not sure what to call: maybe a groyne or a boom. This separated a deeper channel from the tidal flats and seemed to lead the whole way across to the island.
I was interested to visit Spiekeroog, as it was the East Frisian island with the most historical structures, and its traditional village is still largely intact. The string of barrier islands are gradually shifting eastward, and it is rare for old buildings to survive. There were once three islands here, the two smaller of these, Lütjeoog and Oldeoog, have since been joined to the rest of Spiekeroog. Maps from the early 19th century, show the island a radically different shape with its village to the east; today the village is in the west of the island. I read that despite efforts to protect the western end of the island by groynes and banks, erosion is still a problem, and I assume the village will eventually succumb to the sea.
I had hoped to visit the late-17th-century church but was disappointed to find that it only opens between 4 and 5pm on Fridays, after the return ferry was due to leave in the afternoon: I wonder why German churches are so often locked up.
The village contained a number of old, pretty, brick-built houses. Most of these were used as guesthouses and shops catering for tourists, among many of whom we thronged along the narrow clinker lanes; “clinker” perhaps being too fancy a term for concrete-block paving. As there are no cars on the island, we noticed that the only means of motorised transport was by electric buggies, making the place even more reminiscent of The Prisoner than it had been to start with.
As we moved further toward the beach, the vernacular remained constant, but the buildings were more modern, consisting predominantly of holiday homes.
After a kilometre or so, we could see that the island was made almost entirely of wooded dunes. These were crossed by designated pathways, and signs instructed visitors not to walk on and therefore damage the dunes, as they were there to protect the island. Spiekeroog is known as the “green island”, after the planting of trees in the twentieth century to stabilise the shifting sand. I learned later that rabbits had been entirely exterminated from the island, replaced by hares, which are apparently less destructive to vegetation.
We wandered quite a distance along the beach, but we only had a finite time before we needed to get back to the harbour. We retreated over the dunes, stopped briefly for beer, before walking back to the village. The weather by this point had improved markedly.
On the way, we came across the Drinkeldodenkarkhof, the cemetery of the drowned, which commemorated the victims of the sunken barque, the Johanne, which got caught in a storm off the coast of Spiekeroog in October 1854. The ship’s maiden voyage was carrying emigrants from Bremen to New York but barely made it into the North Sea when it run aground; the islanders had no lifeboats so just had to watch as each of the passengers and crew were tossed into the freezing water.
Returning through the village, we had time to look at the old island house from 1705. The house is said to be typical of its period and is noteworthy because of the construction of its roof; this is built in such a way that its inhabitants could climb into the attic in the event of a flood, detach the roof from the walls of the house and float it to the mainland as if it were a boat.
At a restaurant, I had breaded plaice and Tom had an assortment of pickled herrings. We then boarded the ferry and crossed back to Neuharlingersiel. The water was notably deeper than on the way over. From the sea, we could view the entire breadth of the island, across the Harle-Seegatt to the West Tower on the end of Wangerooge. This reminded me of the following passage in The Riddle of the Sands:
“The naked spots of the two islands are hideous in their sterility: melancholy bits of wreck-wood their only relief, save for one or two grotesque beacons, and, most bizarre of all, a great church-tower, standing actually in the water, on the north side of Wangeroog, a striking witness to the encroachment of the sea.”
The original tower was destroyed in 1914, to prevent it being used as a beacon in the event of a Royal Navy assault. The tower visible today is a reconstruction built in 1932 and operated as a youth hostel.