MFöhr’s earliest memories are borderline certain, the images are so jumbled I can’t be sure what is real and what has been constructed from faded photographs and old stories. What I can say with certainty: I first visited the German island in 1987 at the age of four, when my hair was as white as that of many local children, including family friends. who welcomed us. Beyond that, I remember being placed in the basket grip of my uncle’s bike; visit a long-forgotten Viking fort; and watch the sashay steam from the fresh bread that had been delivered to the windowsill of our cottage.
Returning this spring, I wanted to believe that Föhr had remained largely unchanged, but as the Dreyers – still friends after decades – led us to their village, Borgsum, we had a shock in store. The fairy tale house I had kept in mind for so long had been replaced by something much newer.
“If you grow up in a house with a thatched roof, you’ll never want to keep it,” said Peter Dreyer, from this island just off the west coast of Jutland in the North Sea. Together with his family, he had made the decision to replace the ancestral home with something more comfortable a few years earlier. “They look good on the outside, but on the inside…” His English faltered for a second but the revulsion on his face was easily understandable.
Getting rid of the traditional Frisian dwelling, the Dreyers are not typical of those staying in Föhr today. Although new properties are being built every year as second homes for the rich and famous as the number of permanent residents dwindles, new homes are usually built with a thatched roof, especially in towns like Nieblum, where local legislation made them mandatory. Peter and his wife, Ursula, spend most of the year near Lübeck on the German mainland, but their roots on the island run deep – they married in Föhr, as did their eldest daughter. They used to run part of their family home as bed and breakfasts, but these days they are content to enjoy the island for themselves.
Föhr is the second largest, most agricultural and perhaps quietest of the four main North Frisian Islands in Germany. More famous is the Sylt branch in the north, which on a map looks like a bird attached to the mainland, struggling to fly in the North Sea. A train, connecting it to Hamburg, runs along this narrow strip, but getting to less-visited Föhr, Amrum and Pellworm has always required a boat.
We spent our days on the island as most people do, that is, walking along its vital sea walls and then heading to exquisite cafes like Stellys Hüüs in Oldsum to eat vast slices of cake and wash them down with maybe too much coffee. Worrying about sugar consumption was about as stressful as ever in Föhr, a place where you can waste entire afternoons watching flocks of migrating geese silhouetted against the vast sky.
Not so long ago it was possible to walk from Föhr to Amrum at low tide in about half an hour, part of the reason why the islands have such a close relationship and why their dialects (Fering and Öömrang respectively) are so similar. Today, low tide is barely that; rising sea levels are now making a once convenient journey a long-term mission reserved for the bold in search of adventure. For the first time, everyone remembers, it’s faster to take a ferry between the islands. In any case, it was pleasant to arrive there in the dry, and even more pleasant to cycle along the island, seeing its wide white beach between the pines.
All of the North Frisian Islands are vulnerable to climate change – rich Sylt perhaps especially – but Föhr is somewhat sheltered from its neighbours. Despite their precarious status, the islands have always attracted newcomers, whether Viking settlers or 17th and 18th century whalers, who returned from their bloody seasons and built grand homes across the chain of islands. he is. Later their lives were written on towering headstones, none of which is more famous than Matthias Petersen, known nationally as Lucky Matthias. A killer of 373 whales, he grew rich off the proceeds, only to see two of his sons murdered by pirates. The Dane, who is buried in Oldsum, has become a parable where money doesn’t buy happiness.
You can find other celebrities on Sylt, which is an island to be seen, but Föhr is an island to disappear, for anonymous walks and bike rides, for fresh air, books and contemplation. It has none of the crowded bars, boutiques and profusion of Michelin-starred restaurants of the more fashionable neighboring island, and although there are four golf courses on Sylt, Föhr has only one. ‘un-his farmers wouldn’t let you lose much ground on something so frivolous.
The town of Wyk is an anomaly, a recognizable northern seaside town, with a promenade, bandstands and plenty of ice cream whatever the weather. As we marched along the front, a group of men, backed by a hearty accordion, sang sea shanties. Behind them on the beach, holidaymakers hid from the wind – and possibly the music – in STrandkörbe, the distinctive beach chairs seen along much of the German coast. Pubs here are more common than bars, but curiously many sell Manhattans, the cocktail having been brought to the island by returning emigrants in the middle of the last century. Still, life here doesn’t seem to go any faster than a push bike and, drink aside, New York might as well be on another planet.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, gossip is commonplace, as is distrust of neighbors, even when they have so much in common. When I told my friends I was heading to Sylt next, they smiled, nodded and touched the tip of their noses, another universal symbol, this time for something uninviting. They admitted they didn’t know too well, but they didn’t like what they saw – their island was naturally quiet; on Sylt you had to pay for the idea.
It may have been backward snobbery, but it didn’t sound malicious – the islands were together and apart, as they had always been. The perspective usually changes with age: chocolate bars get smaller; your great uncle turns out to be of very average height; your elementary school shrinks into a rundown, insignificant place. It was a relief then to see that the sky above Föhr was still as wide as I remembered; I had grown up, but it felt like it was too. The island was as I remembered it – just as peaceful and just as loved.
Fohr can be reached by train from Hamburg and by ferry from Dagebull. The thatched roof Landhaus Altes Pastorate hotel offers double from £135 Guest rooms