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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face
books
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' is based on historical events
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
filmSir Ian McKellen will play retired detective in new film
Life and Style
tech
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
'Molecular Man +1+1+1' by Jonathan Borofsky at Yorkshire Sculpture park
tv
News
Glamour magazine hosts a yoga class with Yogalosophy author Mandy Ingber on June 10, 2013 in New York City.
newsFather Padraig O'Baoill said the exercise was 'unsavoury' in a weekly parish newsletter
Extras
indybest
News
people'She is unstoppable', says Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris show
Sport
Alexis Sanchez and apparently his barber Carlos Moles in Barcelona today
football
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil