(This post serves simply to tell you what I did on my holidays and to sing the praises of my favourite place in the world.)
Travelling usually involves going out of my comfort zone. I do it because the payoff makes the investment of stress and anxiety worthwhile. This happened last year when I went to New York, which was very stressful, but it was also a dream come true, and I treasure the memories now. It also happened on a smaller scale a few weekends ago, when I went to Lichfield for a couple of days. Lichfield is a small town with a large cathedral, in Staffordshire here in the UK. The preparation included several days of choosing the type of accommodation, followed by a couple of days hesitation before I had the courage to phone up the B&B. It also involved a week of agonising whether to drive or take the train, either option having a whole trail of consquences – you know how it is. By the way, I went on the train – absolutely the right decision, it took a lot of stress out of the enterprise. I chose Lichfield, because it is bound up with a former special interest of mine, 18th century literature, science, enlightenment etc. Lichfield is the birthplace of Samuel Johnson and the place where Erasmus Darwin lived, two personalities of that era, and there are two museums dedicated to them which I had wanted to see for a long time. It is also bound up with my current special interest: my number one favourite fictional character at the moment, Matthew Shardlake, grew up on a farm near Lichfield and went to the cathedral school. So with that sufficient motivation I worked through my anxiety and went, and I definitely had a good time. But it was out of my comfort zone.
For my summer holidays, however, I travelled into my comfort zone. I met up with my parents, and together we went to the island of Spiekeroog. If you look at a map of Europe, zoom in on the northern part of the European mainland. There, off the west coast of Germany and the Netherlands, you will see a string of small islands. Spiekeroog is one of them. It’s a tiny place. There is only one village, and no cars allowed. People get around on foot or bicycles, and any transport is by battery powered cart. There is a lovely beach on one side, with fine white sand, and undulating dunes further inland. There are small clumps of trees, oak, birch and pine. There are saltmarshes and mudflats on the other side. The whole place is so small you could probably walk around its edge in a day. There is not much in the way of entertainment either. Of course there are cafes and restaurants, and shops. There’s a community hall with maybe an art exhibition, lectures, music performances and twice weekly film showings. There are three churches. Otherwise what you do is basically walk around and enjoy the fresh air. And that is what we did. We walked here:
You can also spot a lot of wildlife: birds, many waders of course. Oystercatchers congregate in large numbers, and you can hear them squawk and squabble late into the night. The island is so small that even when they sit on the mudflats, you can hear them in the village. There are pheasants, skylarks everywhere, terns dive-bombing the waves. Occasionally you can spot a seal. There are crabs and jellyfish on the beach and hares in the dunes.
Despite the lack of conventional entertainment the place is incredibly popular. To get accommodation for the summer, you have to book the previous autumn – by Christmas it might be too late!
So why is the travel there not outside my comfort zone? Because Spiekeroog is possibly my favourite place in the whole world. The first time I went there I was 18 months old. I’ve been going ever since, every few years. It’s a bit of a family tradition. My mother went there when she was a child in the 1950s. She introduced my father to it, and the whole family came to love the place. Now my sister is going there with her husband and children.
Part of the appeal is of course that the place hasn’t changed much since I was a child. Of course there have been some changes: new houses built, shops closed and re-opened as something else, pavements renewed. The landscape changes as well. As the dunes age, they change colour, get different vegetation growing on them. The beach changes as well, some years it’s very wide, when a sandbank has moved close and attached itself to the island, some years it’s much narrower. The whole island actually gradually moves, with ground being eroded at one end and added at the other. But because I’ve visited the place every few years, the changes have been gradually for me as well. It’s not like re-visiting a childhood favourite after 30 years and being horrified at how it’s not the same place you remember. Spiekeroog hasn’t been exactly the same each time I went there, but in essence it has stayed the same. The sights, the smells, the landscape – it all means home to me.
I was there for two weeks, treading many of the footpaths multiple times, and I was happy. I was so relaxed that the permanent ache in my jaw vanished and the tension in my neck and shoulders lessened. It was absolutely blissful.
I had hoped for three things in particular I wanted to see: one, the hen harriers. There are some on the island. I’m not sure they nest there, but there is usually one pair, maybe more. I did see the male once, close enough to recognise him as the male without binoculars. Another time both the male and female were circling over my head in a brilliant blue sky. It was magnificent.
Two, I wanted to see the common terns diving into the waves. And I did!
Three, I wanted to see the long-eared owl that lives on the island. I have heard about this owl for years, and I’ve seen photographs, but I never managed to see it for myself. And I didn’t this year either. Oh well, two out of three ain’t bad.
There were plenty of bonuses as well. Lots of oystercatchers – my favourite wader! I saw a small group of eider ducks – my favourite duck! Also some ringed plovers, a kestrel, some hares – and those are just those animals that are special to me. I found an interesting pellet on the beach, produced by something that had eated a lot of crabs, but also fish (the vertebrae were in there). I don’t know what it was – do gulls produce pellets? I’m so ignorant about gulls!
Anyway, for someone who loves nature like I do it was paradise. It was otherwise blissful as well, the quietness, the sounds of the sea, the smell of the dunes, the beautiful sunsets, the equally beautiful clouds…it was simply an absolutely brilliant holiday. I’m sure I will go back again in two or three years’ time.
On the last day, already back in my hometown, I got another bonus. Walking through the local park I spotted a red squirrel. This is not a rare animal as in my country all squirrels are red, but I don’t see one every time I go back, and they are so nice to see, so I was happy.
Shame that only after a few days back at work, it felt like I’d never been on holiday. All the tension is back, and my life feels just as meh as it did before, unless I can escape into my special interest. Oh well, I guess that’s just life for you.
I’m sure there will be other great holidays to come. I’ve already got a germ of an idea where I might want to go next…
And I know that Spiekeroog will always be there for me, in my memory and in reality, just waiting for me to come again.
Image: one of my holiday snaps, the setting sun peaking out from behind the clouds – like looking into a furnace!