Friday, 14 December 2012

Doggerland's ghost


A train is taking me northwards to the island of Sylt in North Frisia. A spindrift of powdery snow flies past the windows as we speed through the level, desolate landscape of Schleswig-Holstein. Scattered farmsteads with long buildings and knots of bare trees are set in a geometry of ditches and banks; numb-looking sheep pull at frozen mangolds and bales of hay; towering wind turbines revolve in an easterly wind.

The North Sea is an invisible horizon ahead.


It is the weekend of Christiane's birthday, and her friend Stefi's house at Tinnum is alive with pleasurable activity. There are cakes and presents, cards and decorations; there is wine, tea and warmth. The neighbourhood is one of low Frisian houses, some thatched, some with garden walls made of boulders. Beyond them, the countryside begins: an expanse of damp fields bounded by reedy ditches and clusters of sallow and fir; to the south-westwards lies a rumpled line of dunes, like distant hills seen through a haze. A profound chill grips land and sea.

The biggest town on Sylt is the chic holiday resort of Westerland. We walked through it last night on our way to watch the sunset. It would be alive with people in summer - certainly enough to fill the Strandhotel, a colossal, 12-storey block of flats overlooking the beach, and throng the holiday shops of the Friedrichstrasse. Two hardy surfers were catching a few waves in the twilight, otherwise we had the beach to ourselves. The sand underfoot was frozen.

Die glühend rote Sonne steige
Hinab ins weitaufschauernde,
Silbergraue Weltenmeer;


Like all the Frisian islands, Sylt is one breath away from submergence. Its long, crescent shape is actively being moulded by wind and waves. Recurved 'ness' promontories are forming at its northern and southern ends, and its highest ground is a crest of frail, impermanent dunes. Sylt is a barrier island backed by the tidal mud flats and saltmarshes of the Wadden Sea, and only joined to the mainland since 1927 by the slender Hindenburgdamm causeway. 

Local stories say that Hengist and Horsa set out from the now-vanished port of Wendingstedt on their way to invade England in the 5th century. If so, they must have been desperate men, driven out by water levels rising across their territory. Historians say that Sylt only became an island since the Grote Mandrenke (literally 'The Great Drowning of Men'), a storm surge of the 14th century. Before that, it would have been part of the mainland. Going further back 10,000 years, it would have been many miles from the coast. With so much water locked up as ice during the last Ice Age, sea levels were over 100 m lower than today in the North Sea basin, and there was a plain connecting Britain and Europe, known as Doggerland.

Progressive sea-level rise in the North Sea basin: 9600 and 7200 years BP showing Doggerland
and the position of Sylt. From a display panel at the Landesmuseum Natur Und Mensch at Oldenburg.

No Mesolithic folk tales have survived about the drowning of Doggerland. Many people are likely to have been killed by the tsunami from the Storegga slide which swept over the land about 8,100 years ago. Over the generations, people would have watched their ancestral hunting grounds and sacred places being invaded by water; they would have become separated by widening tidal channels. Evidence for their camp sites, flint and bone tools now lies under the sea. Birds migrating to Britain would have found the task more challenging with each passing year. Driven by an enduring geographical instincts, we see them today clinging to the decks and masts of seagoing ships and offshore rigs, rather than to the twigs and branches of old Doggerland. 

Evidence from seabed investigations tells us something about this vanished landscape. Like the lands bordering the North Sea today, it had low rounded hills made of sandy glacial debris and wide river valleys with meres and fens. There were forests of willow, birch, alder and pine, and reedbeds. As the tide rose -  maybe a few centimetres each year - the land areas would have become fragmented into low islands fringed by dunes and saltmarshes, to be followed by tidal sandbanks and mudflats. Finally it was the gannet's bath.

Three-metre high pillar at Tinnum
showing the levels reached by sea floods

Like all the Frisian islands, Sylt is Doggerland's ghost. Standing on top of a dune and looking out to sea, I feel its impermanence beneath me. To landward, there are houses and roads, and willow trees and reeds growing in the lee of the dune belt. Beyond them, saltmarshes and mudflats breathe in and out with every tide. A few centimetres of elevation makes the difference between land and sea, but with sea level projected to rise another metre before the end of this century, I wonder how much of Sylt will survive the next great Mandrenke.

Hörnum beach


  1. Lovely post, the spirit of the landscape in perpetual flux is brilliantly captured in that neon lost world!

  2. Great story...I can imagine hw much of this beautiful history has been lost beneath the waters of the rising north sea...too bad many more beautiful islands as Sylt have become vulnerable to the venom of global warming. And since Silt is more like a shadow of the surmerged Doggerland, by the time Sylt is finally gone, I guess nothing at all will probably be remembered of Doggerland itself.


Please email me your comments here. Thanks.