• Hans Faber

A Wadden Sea Guide and His Twelve Disciples

For those outdoor freaks who consider hiking the mud flats of the Wadden Sea, it is essential to know this is, in fact, not a worldly journey but a spiritual one. The whole Frisia Coast in a way is a spiritual belt, protecting the southern coast of the North Sea against the northern darkness. Already in October 1143 it was Hartbert of Bierum, bishop of Utrecht, (Bierum being a terp village in the northeast of present-day province Groningen) who expressed his amazement that so many relics of saints, apostles, martyrs and virgins were being kept at these outer rims of the world. Hence, read this post if you want to receive the deepest experience when joining a party to walk from the sea shore to an island.

Indeed, as Bishop Hartbert noted, the dunes and adjacent geest soils (i.e. sandy soils) of what is province Noord Holland today, is rich of 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 an area of religious significance even dating back deep into pagan times with e.g. the toponym Hargen and also the former artificial cone-shaped hills in Oesdom near present Heiloo and the Sommeltjesberg near Den Burg. Both hills, probably Bronze Age, have been excavated. Proof again, in the Netherlands they prefer to have everything as flat as possible. Also, the Heiloo Woods were considered holy for the Frisii tribe during Roman times. The morpheme ‘harg’ indicates a spot of pre-Christian sacral relevance, meaning temple or hilltop sanctuary. Like the villages of Hargen but also the village Harich in province Friesland. Old English has a similar toponym, namely ‘hearg’. Read more on the pagan and religious history of province Noord Holland in our post The Abbey of Egmond and the Rise of the Gerulfing Dynasty.

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 find as many high-medieval churches as in the coastal strip of the Wadden Sea, stretching from the town of Harlingen in province Friesland, the Netherlands to the city of Wilhelmshaven in Landkreis Friesland, Germany. And then, on top of these churches, once this area was dotted with abbeys, monasteries, and religious houses too. Most of these, however, have been demolished after the Reformation. For hikers interestingly to know is that in province Friesland more and more churches have become refugio’s for hikers to stay the night.

And then 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 of Friesland, who travelled in the beginning of the thirteenth century from the village of Wittewierum in the northeast of province Groningen to Rome and back. Interesting detail, Emo of Friesland 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.

In fact, the Wadden Sea coast is the start of the Santiago de Compostela. It is, again, according to legend that the Milky Way begins at the Wadden Sea and ends at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. This was revealed by an angel to non-other than Charlemagne when he was in Frisia. Therefore, like a dome bridge the stars of the Milky Way lighten the path for pilgrims, all the way to Santiago. Check the website Santiago aan het Wad. Camino der Lage Landen, the foundation that is also working on expanding the network of churches as refugio’s.

Hiking the mud flats

Entering the endless mudflats must be done with the greatest care. This is an area which can be considered both sea as land, or, as you like, neither sea nor land. Twice a day the mud flats 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. And finding your way on the sea floor 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.

One of the bastards of the Frisia Coast Trail hiked last summer, 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 northwest of province Groningen. As a licensed guide he 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 Guide explaining the Path

The hike to Schiermonnikoog is named the 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 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 the island of Schiermonnikoog when the flood has started already, but the gully is still fordable. If you are too late you cannot ford this last big gully because the flood is already too high and the current too strong. Then you are trapped. It means a rescue team must be send out to save the group from drowing. In other words, being reasonably fit is a pre-condition to participate. And it underscores a 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 Nordfriesland. Delivering mail at the Halligs in Nordfriesland was done by walkin the sea floor by low tide. In 1917 he started with his job as postman and did this for forty-six years. It has been calculated he walked about 100,000 kilometers for his job. During summer he walked barefoot, during winter in heavy waterproof clothing. It was during the Second World War that he rescued two Canadian airforce pilots from drowning.

So far for the worldly aspects. Now let us turn to the spiritual aspects, that are so obvious once they have pointed out to you.

You start walking just north of the village of Kloosterburen, not far from the village Pieterburen, as said the start of the Pieterpad 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 Reformation. 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 here to date. And, of course, we must mention the Hermitage of Our Lady of Garden Closed in the hamlet of Warfhuizen. Really a fascinating place. Do visit it when you are in the hood. Wadden Sea guide Peter is from the village Wehe-Den Horn. Wehe stems from the morpheme ‘wîha’ meaning holy place, idol, or altar. Old English has a similar word, namely ‘wēoh‘ which can also be found in the epic poem Beowulf. So, no coincidence here too.

Lastly, the maximum size of the group that may wander with a guide, namely twelve. That is no coincidence either. Twelve being the holy number of the twelve Disciples of Christ. When the Anglo-Saxon monk Saint Willibrord went from England to cross 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. He 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 the saint, namely the Brandaris.

Furthermore, there is an early-medieval legend preserved in Old Frisian law, and in which the number of twelve again is holy. It is the story 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 asegas was a kind of judge annex law expert. After they were unable to do so, as punishment Charlemagne put them on an uncontrollable little boat out at sea to perish. They were rescued by Christ, who guided the twelve asegas back safely to shore. Also, they received the new laws for Frisia from Christ. This legend is codified in the Codex Unia from ca. 1650, the Jus Municipale Frisonum from ca. 1350, and in a codex from 1484-1486. The saga is considered as old as the thirteenth century. For more details about this legend check our post In debt to the beastly Westfrisians.

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. And then we still have not spoken yet about the parallels with Peter the Disciple and the guide’s last name Rozema, which corresponds with Rosary.

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

fording one of the gullies

PS. For more pics of this hike, click this link.

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)

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

  • Penning, Y., Emo’s Labyrint (2010)

  • Rozema, P., Wadloopavonturen (website)

  • Rijke, de P.J., Frisia Dominium. Kaarten van de provincie Friesland tot 1850. Geschiedenis en cartobibliografie (2006)

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

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

  • 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)