Travel special: Texel, Holland

Never mind the Devon coast - if you're really serious about beachcombing, the place to go is the tiny Dutch island of Texel, where two tonnes of flotsam is washed ashore every day. Norman Miller went to meet its most famous forager, Cor Ellen

Flotsam lines the path to Cor Ellen's cottage in the village of Oosterend, a half-mile back from the sea dyke guarding the east coast of the Dutch island of Texel. Ellen greets me, wearing an ensemble of red, white and blue trousers, brown check shirt and cap. I suspect, from talking to other islanders, that everything apart from the shoes has come out of the sea. My hunch turns out to be right.

Last week's Lyme Bay shipwreck may have inspired a short-lived enthusiasm for beachcombing among the inhabitants of Devon, but here, on this North Sea outpost, 80-year-old Cor Ellen has spent a lifetime trawling the sands for loot. He's the most famous modern beachcomber on an island where such activity was for centuries driven by necessity. Largely bereft of trees, wood was always needed on Texel to stoke stoves and for building. The cargoes of vessels wrecked by storms and treacherous currents further supplemented the islanders' frugal existence.

Though modern life has done away with the search for basics, beachcombing retains a special place in the identity of an island boasting no less than three museums displaying the eclectic accumulations of those the Dutch call jutters.

At around 25 miles long and seven miles wide, Texel is the largest and southernmost of the Wadden islands, dividing the North Sea from the shallow inshore waters of the Wadden Sea. In the 17th and 18th centuries, up to 3,000 ships gathered at what was called the "Texel Roads" to await winds north to the Baltic or south to France, Spain and England. And though turbines and steel have replaced sail and timber, the sea lanes around Texel still provide grist for the jutters.

Over 2,000kg of sea-offerings are cast up on Texel's shores each day. Rich pickings for someone with an eye on the currents, a knowledge of the beaches plus an ear on news from out at sea. A sophisticated maritime radio scanner stands out amid the clutter of beach finds in Cor Ellen's cottage, along with weather gauges and detailed charts.

Among the more intriguing treasures that Ellen has found in his decades of searching the shore are over 500 messages in bottles, a hoard exhibited earlier this year at Texel's main maritime museum in the fishing port of Oudeschild.

"Henk" from Germany is a typically optimistic example from the collection, expressing the hope his bottle will be found by someone "very pretty". "Then they get a letter from me and must think 'What a pity, it was found by an old man,'" says Ellen with a wry smile.

I ask about a picture of a young airman displayed prominently on his wall. Ellen is silent, his mood suddenly reflective. "It was December 1943," he says finally. "I was on the beach when I saw a man drifting down from the clouds. He called to me - 'Help, help' - but he missed the dyke and went into the sea." Ellen pauses again then spreads his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "I can swim but the water was too cold and he was too far out. I watched him die in front of me."

After the war, Ellen saw a letter from America in the local paper from the airman's brother asking for any information about how he died. "I contacted him, and we are friends now too," says Ellen.

Ellen tells me he still has dynamite and ammunition from the occupation. "Some people don't like it." He shrugs. "Always in the war there is a lot of danger. But I am lucky. I still have my two hands and two eyes. There are other people on Texel who found these kind of things - one who lost a hand, one who is blind."

Leading me into a yard made almost festive by brightly coloured buoys, he explains how the British, when they departed after a brief occupation in 1945, left behind their Army-issue bikes - sturdy contraptions that were manna to any self-respecting Dutchman. Ellen points proudly to the platforms he has added for carrying beach finds, jury-rigged to an already amazing structure with a mass of metal tubing.

The years after the war saw a return to beachcombing for life necessities as Texel tried to recover from Nazi occupation. "A lot of people came down to the beach looking for food and also oil," remembers Ellen. "People found 20- or 40-litre containers sometimes. You could get a lot of money for it."

Though Ellen still sells scavenged wood to Texel farmers as cheap timber, modern jackpots come via containers lost from passing cargo ships. His largest recent haul came from a container of cigarettes helpfully ripped partly open by a collision with the ferry that links Texel to the mainland port of Den Helder. Despite a dousing with seawater, Ellen salvaged hundreds of packets to sell to Texel puffers.

This seems the moment to raise the subject of the strandvonden - the island "beach police" whose job is to ensure all significant shore finds are handed over to Texel's mayor in return for a small bounty. Aren't Ellen's activities highly illegal?

He gives a derisive laugh. "I don't trust the mayor and his law. I think it is better to take the cigarettes and don't say anything. Anyway, I sold them for half-price," he says with a chuckle, before launching into a story about the container of Italian umbrella handles that he did report to the mayor. "You see, I had no use for them," says Ellen with a shrug, "so I preferred to get my bounty."

I ask Ellen about beachcombing rivals on the island - such as Maarten Boon, who augments his income by taking Dutch-speaking tourists on scavenging excursions along the island's north shore. The two men are not friends, though Ellen stresses that he and Boon's father get on well. "But the son is not like the father," he says with finality. Trying to track down Maarten the next day, all his wife can tell me is that "he is on the beach" - though after a bike ride up the spine of the island, I appreciate a chance to rest and take in the flotsam gallery which surrounds Boon's house as it does Cor Ellen's.

Before we part, we talk about the island's youngest jutter, a nameless "boy" whose father helps run the museum in Oudeschild. "I think he goes out to get things for the museum but I hope he carries on," says Ellen with a quiet forcefulness.

As I watch the island recede from the ferry back to the mainland, I throw my own message in a bottle into the sea - "halfway across on the port side" as Ellen had advised, hoping to drift it past Texel into open ocean. In an instant the bottle is far astern, a tiny glint on the waves. I think of the young boy from the museum combing the Texel shores today at the behest of his parent, just as Ellen did 70 years before. It's a reassuring image of a timeless pursuit.

Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths surrounding the enigmatic singer
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Life and Style
life
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Christian Benteke of Aston Villa celebrates scoring the winner for Aston Villa
football
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
News
Bill O'Reilly attends The Hollywood Reporter 35 Most Powerful People In Media Celebration at The Four Seasons Restaurant on April 16, 2014 in New York City
media It is the second time he and the channel have clarified statements
News
people
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Restaurant Manager / Sommelier

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Receptionists - Seasonal Placement

    £12500 - £13520 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced Hotel Receptionists...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Receptionists - Poole

    £12500 - £13520 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Recruitment Genius: Lifeguards / Leisure Club Attendants - Seasonal Placement

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Qualified Lifeguards are required to join a fa...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn