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
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The Independent Travel

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.