My first memories of Föhr lie right on the edge of certainty, the images so clouded I can’t be sure what’s real and what’s been constructed from fading photographs and old stories. This much I can say for sure: I first visited the German island in 1987 as a four-year-old, when my hair was as white as that of many of the local children, including the family friends who were hosting us. Beyond this, I recall being placed in the handle-basket of my uncle’s bike; visiting a long-forgotten Viking fort; and watching steam sashay from fresh bread that had been delivered to the windowsill of our thatched cottage.
Returning this spring, I wanted to believe that Föhr had remained largely unchanged, but as the Dreyers – still friends after decades – drove us to their village, Borgsum, we had a shock in store. The fairytale house I’d so long held in my mind had been replaced with something much newer.
“If you grow up in a house with a thatched roof, you never want to keep it,” said Peter Dreyer, who is from this island just off the west coast of Jutland in the North Sea. Along with his family, he’d taken the decision to replace the ancestral home with something more comfortable a few years previously. “They look nice from the outside, but inside …” His English faltered for a second but the revulsion on his face was easily understood.
In ridding themselves of the traditional Frisian dwelling, the Dreyers are not typical of those staying on Föhr today. Although new properties are built every year as second homes for the rich and famous while the number of permanent residents declines, the new homes are usually built with a thatched roof, especially in towns such as Nieblum, where local law has made them mandatory. Peter and his wife, Ursula, spend most of the year living near Lübeck on the German mainland, but their roots on the island run deep – they were married on Föhr, as was their oldest daughter. They used to run part of their family home as a B&B, but these days they’re content enjoying the island for themselves.
Föhr is the second largest, most agricultural, and perhaps most sedate of Germany’s four major North Frisian Islands. More famous is trendy Sylt to the north, which on a map looks like a bird tethered to the mainland, straining to fly into the North Sea. A train, connecting it to Hamburg, runs along that narrow strip, but getting to lesser-visited Föhr, Amrum and Pellworm has always required a boat.
We spent our days on the island as most people do, which is to say walking along its vital dykes, then heading to exquisitely twee cafes like Stellys Hüüs in Oldsum to eat vast slabs of cake, and washing them down with perhaps too much coffee. Fretting about sugar intake was about as stressful as things ever seemed to get on Föhr, a place where you can lose whole afternoons watching flocks of migratory geese silhouetted against the enormous 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 the islands have such a close relationship and why their dialects (Fering and Öömrang respectively) are so similar. Today the low tide is barely that; rising sea levels now make a once-practical journey a drawn-out mission reserved for hardy sorts looking for adventure. For the first time anyone can remember, it’s quicker to take a ferry between the islands. In any case, it was nice to arrive there dry, and even more pleasant to cycle the length of the island, glimpsing its broad white beach between pine trees.
All of the North Frisian islands are vulnerable to climate change – affluent Sylt perhaps most of all – but Föhr is sheltered a little by its neighbours. Despite their precarious status, the islands have always attracted incomers, whether they were Viking settlers or 17th- and 18th-century whalers, who returned from their bloody seasons and built large houses across the island chain. Later, their lives were written on imposing headstones, with none more famous than Matthias Petersen, known nationally as Lucky Matthias. A killer of 373 whales, he grew rich on the proceeds, only to see two of his sons murdered by pirates. The Dane, who is buried in Oldsum, has become a parable for money not buying happiness.
You can find fame of other kinds on Sylt, which is an island for being seen, but Föhr is an island for disappearing, for anonymous walks and bike rides, for fresh air, books and contemplation. It has none of the packed bars, boutiques and profusion of Michelin-starred restaurants of the more fashionable neighbour island, and while there are four golf courses on Sylt, Föhr only has one – its farmers wouldn’t let you waste much land on something so frivolous.
The town of Wyk is an anomaly, a recognisable northern seaside town, with a promenade, bandstands and plenty of ice-cream, no matter the weather. When we walked along the front, a group of men, backed by a hearty accordion, belted out sea shanties. Behind them on the beach some holidaymakers hid from the wind – and perhaps the music, too – in Strandkörbe, the distinctive beach chairs seen on much of the German coast. Here pubs 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. Yet life here feels like it moves no quicker than a pushbike, and, aside from the drink, New York City may as well be on another planet.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, gossip is rife, as is suspicion of the neighbours, even when they have so much in common. When I told my friends I was heading to Sylt next, they smirked, tilted their heads and touched the ends of their noses, another universal symbol, this time for something unappealingly posh. They admitted they didn’t actually know it too well, but they hadn’t liked what they’d seen – their island was naturally tranquil; on Sylt you had to pay for the idea of it.
Perhaps this was inverted snobbery, but it didn’t feel like there was any malice in it – the islands were together and apart, just as they had always been. Perspective usually alters with age: chocolate bars become smaller; your tall uncle turns out to be of very average height; your primary school shrinks to become a dilapidated, insignificant place. It was a relief, then, to see that the sky above Föhr was still as vast as I remembered; I’d grown, but it felt like it had, too. The island was as I had remembered it – just as peaceful, and just as loved.