Last Friday, we decided that we would get up early the next day, catch a train to Den Helder, hire bikes, hop on a ferry and spend the day cycling round Texel (pronounced Tessel). Why? Because Texel is an island and isn’t that reason enough?
Texel is part of the Frisian Islands – a chain of islands that stretches from the Netherlands up along the coasts of Germany and Denmark. Before I moved to Amsterdam, I loaned of a guide book to the Netherlands from the library. I remember flicking through it and coming across a section on the Frisian Islands. I’m not even sure what it said about the islands – perhaps just that they existed – but whatever it was, the idea of visiting them was lodged in my head.
I have always found the idea of islands compelling. I remember one summer spent trying to make it across to the island in the middle of my local park’s duck pond. My best friend and I came up with a number of different schemes – all of them thwarted – and even took a few accidental dips in the rubbish filled water. What did we expect to find there? It was overgrown and inhabited by Canada geese that would probably have been less than impressed by our presence. But that probably wasn’t the point. It was the promise of islandness that drove us that summer – something ineffable but very real.
It was that same insular impulse that had me answering to my alarm clock on a Saturday. After making sandwiches and eating a hurried breakfast, we walked through the quiet streets of our neighbourhood to the train station. I spent most of the train journey reading or simply looking out of the window at the passing fields – some of them decorated with ribbons of brightly coloured tulips. At Den Helder, we hired bikes and cycled up to the ferry. During the short crossing, we sat out on deck, which was busy at first, but soon cleared as we got moving and the wind picked up. Since I tend to get a bit seasick, even on large ferries, I suffered the cold and sat shivering as we ate our elevenses of hagelslag (chocolate sprinkle) sandwiches.
We knew very little about the island and didn’t even have a proper map, so when the ferry pulled into the harbour we hopped on our bikes and headed in what seemed like a good direction.
At first our surroundings were mainly flat fields and busy roads, but as we took more turns and followed cycle paths in the general direction of the coast, the roads got quieter (though the fields were no less flat). We passed through Den Hoorn – a small village of painted, wooden houses, with the ubiquitous church spire and surrounding fields of tulips. We passed a house that had a large front window and I could see through to the back of the house, where a family was sat around a table. I’m filling in missing details here, but I’m assuming newspapers and coffee, maybe even bread and hagelslag. The table was in front of another large window, beyond which stretched fields of horses. I couldn’t help but put myself in that sun-filled room, in that life.
As we left the village and headed towards the island’s dunes, the land took on an unexpected quality – three dimensions. It started to rise and fall as we cycled through a marshy landscape where geese and ponies dotted the long grass.
Then – suddenly – sea and sand. I forget about the sea sometimes, but returning to it always makes me feel as though something vital has been restored. As though some part of me that needed to hear waves has been reassured.
We walked along the beach and then lay down by the dunes for a while, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the sound of the waves – like a drum full of stones. It took some will power to get moving again. On the way back to our bikes, we passed a stretch of rock that looked to be an old jetty that has since been worn away. I picked up a small piece of rock from the sand and put it in my pocket. The rock is sitting on the desk next to me as I write this. It is smooth and dark, filled with small holes – a moonscape worn by the sea.
After the beach, it was time for a new landscape – forest. We cycled along trails, through forests carpeted with bluebells and ate lunch in the shade of the trees. I don’t feel as much of a connection with forests as I do with beaches and the sea, but Spencer, who grew up surrounded by forests, reminisced about childhood summers as we cycled along.
After the forest we cycled through the island’s largest town, Den Burg, and on through more farmland to the island’s east coast. We pushed our bikes up over a large dyke and cycled back to the ferry along a path that skimmed the beach. Along the way we passed a field with some lambs in it and stopped to look at them and (in my case) make aww sounds. In amongst the lambs I spotted what I first thought was a White Stork, until it lifted up its bill from under its feathers. Holy crap that’s a Spoonbill! Spoonbills are a reasonably rare sight in the UK. My copy of British Birds (which has served me surprisingly well in the Netherlands) shows a thin shading of yellow along the north-west, east and south coasts of Britain, so it made the Spoonbill sighting even more exciting. I love the way birds have the power to surprise, to show up when you least expect them and knock you for six.
After a week of being off Texel, I am finally back on mainland time, but it has taken a while. Last Saturday seemed to stretch out into an impossibly long day, so that all the days following felt cramped and small. It’s an experience I’ve felt before. On Aran, the days seemed to spill out, they seemed big and loud and demanding – and the days after the island were closed-in, bounded and short. I quite like the idea of being able to visit islands and recapture some of that lost time: the minutes that slip away between commuting, washing the dishes and checking Twitter; the hours that go by when I don’t appreciate the fact that it is spring and I am here; those island days, a stock of time stored up against an imprecise clock.
Watch this short documentary about the beachcombers of Texel: Flotsam and Jetsam.
Dutch conservationist and botanist, Jac. P. Thijsse wrote an illustrated book about the flora and fauna of the island. Thijsse was also the visionary behind Flevopark, my local nature spot. I love the way the dots sometimes unexpectedly connect.