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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

A Wadden Sea Guide and His Twelve Disciples

For those outdoor enthusiasts who consider hiking the mud flats of the Wadden Sea, it is essential to know that this is not just a worldly journey but a spiritual one. The entire Frisian Coast is, in a way, a spiritual belt, protecting the southern coast of the North Sea against northern darkness, according to medieval sources. In October 1143, the bishop of Utrecht, Hartbert of Bierum (originating from Bierumen, a medieval ribbon settlement on the coast near modern Sexbierum), expressed his amazement that so many relics of saints, apostles, martyrs, and virgins were being kept at these outer rims of the world. Therefore, before considering walking over the seabed from the coast to one of the Wadden Sea islands, read this post in order to have the real spiritual experience.

A Spiritual Outer Rim

Indeed, as Bishop Hartbert noted, the dunes and adjacent geests or geestlands (i.e. sandy soils) of Frisia, in what is today the provinces Zuid Holland and Noord Holland, are rich in holy places and shrines that can be traced back to the earliest Anglo-Saxon missionaries arriving in this area at the end of the seventh century. Maybe it is an area of religious significance dating back to even pagan times.

The name of village Hargen in province Noord Holland derives from Old Germanic *harguz and is comparable to Old High German harug, Old Norwegian hǫrgr, and Old English hearg. It means something like pagan sanctuary or idol. Also, along the coast, in province Zuid Holland, the old name of village Kethel used to be Harga (Van Renswoude 2021). In the south-west of province Friesland the village Harich exists.

But more along the coast of province Noord-Holland too. Think of the former artificial cone-shaped mound at the village of Oesdom near the present town of Heiloo. But also the toponym Schepelenberg near the town of Heemskerk, and the toponym Sommeltjesberg near the village of Den Burg on Wadden Sea island Texel, were probably of religious significance. All three mounds, probably dating from the Bronze Age, have been excavated. Proof again, in the Netherlands they prefer to have everything as flat as possible. But this aside. Lastly, the name Heiloo itself might refer to an old pagan sanctuary.

A bit more to the north, the Wadden Sea coastal zone is imbued with religious history as well. Today, nowhere in the world you can still find as many high-medieval churches as in the part of former Frisia bordering the Wadden Sea coast. Stretching from the port town of Harlingen in province Friesland in the Netherlands, to the city of Wilhelmshaven in Landkreis Friesland in Germany. And then, on top of these antique churches, once this area was dotted with abbeys, monasteries, and other religious houses too. Most of these, however, have been demolished after the arrival of Protestantism in the sixteenth century. For hikers it is instructive to know that in provinces Friesland and Groningen in the Netherlands more and more churches are turned into refugios where pilgrims ánd hikers can stay the night for a bit of money. Great initiative we think!

The north of the Netherlands, adjacent to the Wadden Sea, is also home to several pilgrimage trails. In the southwest of province Friesland the Saint Odulphus Path exists. Odulphus was a ninth-century, Frankish missionary who worked from the town of Stavoren. Stavoren itself, by the way, is an ancient place of heathen worship with temples and all, according to legend that is. Then there is a journey of Abbot Emo who travelled in the beginning of the thirteenth century from the village Wittewierum in the northeast of province Groningen to Rome, and back again. Interesting detail, Emo was the first foreign scholar to study at the University of Oxford. Lastly, we mention the Pieterpad trail. This is a long-distance path of about 500 kilometres, starting from the village of Pieterburen in province Groningen near the Wadden Sea coast to Mount Saint Peter in province Limburg.

Well out with it, no modesty anymore! In fact, the Wadden Sea coast is the start of the camino Santiago de Compostela. It is according to legend that the Milky Way Galaxy begins at the Wadden Sea and ends at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. This was revealed by an angel to none other than Charlemagne himself when he was in Frisia and standing on the shores of the Wadden Sea. Like a dome bridge, the stars of the Milky Way lighten the path for pilgrims, all the way to Santiago. Read our post Legend of Esonstad, the mythical town that was lost to the Wadden Sea, and in which this saga of Charlemagne and the Milky Way dome will be revealed to you.

Check the website Santiago aan het Wad. Camino der Lage Landen. The foundation that works on expanding the network of churches as refugios.

Hiking the Mudflats

Entering the endless mudflats must be done with the greatest of care. This is an area which can be considered both sea as land, or, if you like, neither sea nor land. Twice a day the mudflats are exposed during low tide. The difference between low and high tide is about two metres. Imagine, an area as large as about 10,000 square metres is emptied and filled twice a day. If you cannot imagine it, trust us it is massive.

Finding your way on the seabed through the gullies and creeks at low tide is impossible without thorough and up-to-date knowledge of the area. Maps and GPS are of limited use. So, you do not want to wander out there alone. It will mean certain death. Even forbidden by law to do so alone. Indeed, if you want to hike to one of the islands, you must do so with an official agent, with a licensed guide.

Hiking the Wadden Sea becomes ever more popular, so book far in advance. Licensed guides can be found all along the Wadden Sea coast between the town of Den Helder in the Netherlands to that of Esbjerg in Denmark. Consult our post Walking the Sea to find some of their addresses.

guide (late) Peter Rozema explaining the path by Hans Faber

One of the bastards of the Frisia Coast Trail hiked last summer (2020), in the month August, the Wadden Sea. The bastard walked to the island of Schiermonnikoog. His guide was Peter Rozema of Wadloopavonturen (‘Wadden Sea Walking Adventures’), from the village of Wehe-Den Horn in the north-west of province Groningen. As a licensed guide, you must be very experienced in walking in the area. Different regional government ordinances regulate the qualifications and examination of Wadden Sea guides. It means, among other, having crossed the seabed to island Schiermonnikoog tens of times, being able to find your way without GPS and map, purely on sight. Besides finding your way, guides are being trained in safety, in first aid, and in environmental aspects too.

The hike to island Schiermonnikoog is nicknamed Tocht der Tochten ‘Hike of Hikes’ since it is one of the longest walks of the Wadden Sea. The crossing is about twenty kilometres and you will be walking on the flats for about five to six hours. Along the way you must ford quite a number of gullies, several as deep as your chest. Six hours is almost exactly the time between low and high tide. That means you start at the break of dawn, when it is still not fully low tide.

The critical part of the trip is to ford the final deep gully near island Schiermonnikoog, when the flood has started already but the gully is still fordable. If you arrive too late at this final deep gully, you cannot ford it because the flood is already too high and the current too strong. Then you are trapped, because turning back is hopeless. It means a rescue team must be send out to save the group from drowning. In other words, being reasonably fit is a pre-condition to participate in this route. And, it underscores a knowledgeable guide is not a luxury.


The Postman from Pellworm – Heinrich Liermann (1882-1974) from the island Pellworm, was postman for the Halligs: the salt-marsh islands of the Wadden Sea in the region Nordfriesland in Germany. Delivering mail at the Halligs in Nordfriesland was done by walking the seabed at low tide. In 1917 Liermann started with his job as postman and he did this for forty-six years. It has been calculated he walked about 100,000 kilometres for his job. In summer, he walked barefoot. In winter, in heavy waterproof clothing. It was during the Second World War that he rescued two Canadian air force pilots from drowning. So, a hero twice!


Divine Signs

So far, for the worldly aspects. Now let’s turn to the spiritual signs which are so obvious once they have pointed out to you.

The first sign. You start walking just north of village Kloosterburen, not far from village Pieterburen, as said the start of the Pieterpad hiking trail. Kloosterburen is translated as ‘cloister neighbourhood’. Once, two Premonstratensian monasteries were located here. The oldest founded in the second half of the twelfth century. It is, together with the monastery in Ter Apel, one of the last strongholds of Catholicism in province Groningen after the arrival of Protestantism. The Anglo-Saxon monk Saint Willibrord, who did a lot of work in spreading the Gospel in Frisia at the end of the seventh century, albeit with limited success, is being worshiped at Kloosterburen to date.

Furthermore, we must mention the Hermitage of Our Lady of Garden Closed in hamlet Warfhuizen. Also nearby the starting point of hike to island Schiermonnikoog. Really a fascinating place! Do visit it when you are in the hood. Wadden Sea guide Peter Rozema lives in village Wehe-Den Horn, also located in this same area. The part wehe stems from the morpheme wîha meaning holy place, idol, or altar. The Old English language has a similar word, namely wēoh, which can also be found in the epic poem Beowulf. So, no coincidence but a clear sign too. Think also of the village of Wijhe in province Overijssel, and of Herwen in province Gelderland, even more to the south in the Netherlands. The latter, Herwen, is composed of harh-wiha meaning 'temple' or 'consecrated sanctuary' (Kerkhof 2022). At Herwen a unique, complete Roman temple complex has been found in 2022.

Another sign that gives away the spiritual significance, is the size of the group. The maximum size of a group that may wander with a guide on this route is twelve. That is no coincidence either. Twelve being the holy number of the twelve Disciples of Christ. When Saint Willibrord crossed the North Sea to Frisia around the year 690, he was part of a group of twelve monks. The famous, fifth-century Voyage of Saint Brandon the Navigator, likewise. Saint Brandon too was part of a group of twelve monks who set out to sea to preach the Gospel in foreign, unknown and heathen lands. The oldest lighthouse of the Wadden Sea stands at island Terschelling and is called after this saint, namely the Brandaris. It is dated end sixteenth century.

Furthermore, there exists an medieval legend, preserved in Old Frisian law texts, in which the number of twelve is holy. It is the saga how the Frisians received their laws. According to this legend twelve asegas from the Seven Sealands of Frisia had to choose the new laws of Frisia. It was Charlemagne himself who had ordered them to do so. An asega was a kind of law expert who moderated the trials during assemblies of the thing or ding. After they had been incapable to choose the new laws, as punishment Charlemagne put them on an uncontrollable little boat out at sea to perish. At sea they were rescued by Christ, who guided the twelve asegas back safely to the shores. Also, the asegas received the new laws for Frisia from Christ. This legend is codified in the Codex Unia of ca. 1650, the Jus Municipale Frisonum of ca. 1350, and in a codex dated 1484-1486. The saga itself is considered to be as old as thirteenth century.

In other words, when you go out to sea to walk to island Schiermonnikoog, be mindful of the fact you resemble the Twelve Disciples being guided by their Teacher. A guide who will steer his followers through hazards and danger to the safety of dry land. And, we still have not spoken yet about the parallels of the guide's first name Peter with Peter the Disciple, and his last name Rozema, which corresponds with a rosary.

Enjoy your walk at and in the mire of the Wadden Sea. For sure it will be a beautiful, thrilling experience. One the world’s most unique day hikes. One that must be on your list!

fording one of the gullies

Note 1 – On 11 November 2021, the gentle guide Peter Rozema passed away. Post-mortem we like to dedicate this post to him. The picture, with Peter walking on the seabed, explaining the trail, was already our cover and trademark, and received even more meaning now.

Note 2 – For more pics of this hike over the sea, click this link.

Suggested hiking

Although the crossing to island Schiermonnikoog is called Tocht der Tochten, crossing to island Terschelling is also possible. This one is considered much tougher, and only allowed if you are in excellent condition. They will ask for it, and you must make reservation far in advance.

Further reading

Eijnatten, van J. & Lieburg, van F., Nederlandse religiegeschiedenis (2006)

Jacobs, A., Friese Vorsten (2020)

Karstkarel, P., Alle middeleeuwse kerken. Van Harlingen tot Wilhelmshaven (2007)

Karstkarel, P., Alle middeleeuwse kerken. In Friesland (2010)

Lasance, A., Wizo van Vlaanderen. Itinerarium Fresiae of Een rondreis door de Lage Landen (2012)

Middag, I. & Schuttevaar, C., St. Odulphuspad. Wandel in de voetsporen van de heilige Sint Odulphus en ontdek al het moois van Zuidwest-Friesland! (2018)

Mol, J.A., Vechten, bidden en verplegen. Opstellen over de ridderorden in de Noordelijke Nederlanden (2011)

Moolenbroek, van J., Nederlandse Kruisvaarders naar Damiate aan de Nijl. Acht eeuwen geschiedenis en fantasie in woord en beeld (2016)

Nijdam, J.A., ‘De gemaskerde Wizo: vervalsing, mystificatie of pastiche?’. Bespreking van: Wizo van Vlaanderen, Itinerarium Fresiae (2012)

Nijmeijer, B., Noord-Nederland is een schatkamer van oude kerkjes, maar ze worden in hun voortbestaan bedreigd (2020)

Penning, Y., Emo’s Labyrint (2010)

Renswoude, van O., Hof, harg en hal: het heten van heiligdommen (2021)

Rozema, P., Wadloopavonturen (website)

Schroor, M. (ed), De Bosatlas van De Wadden (2018)

Schuyf, J., Heidense heiligdommen. Zichtbare sporen in een verloren verleden (2019)

Steensen, T., Nordfriesland. Menschen von A-Z (2020)

Thiers, O., ’t Putje van Heiloo. Bedevaarten naar O.L. Vrouw ter Nood (2005)

Vries, O., Asega, is het dingtijd? De hoogtepunten van de Oudfriese tekstoverlevering (2007)

Wiersma, J.P., Friesche sagen (1934)


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