Living on the West Coast of Denmark


The wild geese fly high and fast, in a V-formation and come from the land of the ice bear, if you are watching the sky for their arrival, they may well suddenly appear low, then turn sharply, their wings changing their beat and shape and then often in a cacophony of sound, they splash and touchdown. A spiritual symbol of freedom, the wild geese of the North - Greylag, Brent, Barnacle, Pink-Footed and even sometimes the Snow Goose, some from Svalbard and Novaya Zemlya north of Siberia, have landed, to join the Bittern and Marsh Harrier at Tipperne, a shallow water and marsh land at the southern end of Ringkøbing Fjord, Denmark. 


I live on the West Coast of Denmark, just south of Hvide Sande, which in English means White Sand, on Holmsland Dune, an isthmus some 40 kms long and 1-2 kms wide. My house is built of wood and has a thatch roof and lies amongst the sand dunes, some five minutes walk from the Vesterhavet - Western Ocean, in English the North Sea.


The ocean is in front of me to the west and behind me to the east is Ringkøbing Fjord and to the south is the village of Nymindegab. South East is the old Viking village of Kirkehøj, now called Bork Havn, in English - Bork Harbour, from where the Vikings set sail to explore the world. Tipperne lies to the south east of Hvide Sande.

The high dunes just back from the sea-shore protect my home from the ocean storms and the high tides. Denmark, is on the whole a very flat and low lying country and my house is only a few metres above the ocean. During the winter, hurricane force winds can strike the west coast and at night I can feel the whole house shudder, as gusts sweep in over the ocean and sand dunes.

The house is unusual in that it has two storeys, but with a traditional steeply sloping roof. The lower part of the house to the west is behind a rising dune, so the incoming high winds are deflected up over the thatched roof and the house is thereby protected from the full ferocity of the winter gales.

In the 17th Century, Ringkøbing Fjord was eventually entirely cut off from the sea, due to the wind, tide and shifting sand. In the early part of the 20th Century it was decided to create an artificial entrance through Holmsland Dune and create the harbour of Hvide Sande, linking once again the Western Ocean to Ringkøbing Fjord.

The west wind blows nearly constantly, although much less in the summer months and its salt laden air, from the ocean means I must continuously oil all the metal workings of my house exposed to the air and paint frequently to protect the woodwork.

A few months ago a pine marten took up residence in the thatch, just under the chimney, not entering the loft. My scent sufficed to persuade him to leave, although I had to watch my head in the loft as I completed the task of ensuring his unlikely return. My best friend 'Winston' who's loud bark when aroused and keen nose, was not, however, required to find the pine marten and give chase, but the hole the pine marten had created burrowing into the thatch needed repairing, which was another new skill and job for me to learn and complete.

Long grass grows on the sand dunes all around to give it permanence and to slow down its gradual movement, accelerated in the Autumn and Winter as the winds increase in speed. Along with the grass, heather, moss and lichens grow up over the sand dunes and across the sand tracks.

I often see giant hares who inhabit the surrounding area. They will suddenly appear and run zigzagging away into the heather, but often I also catch sight of them on the skyline looking proud, strong and alert.

The four seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter are well defined. In Winter the seals come in to the harbour of Hvide Sande, where the water from Ringkøbing Fjord flows in to the ocean. There you can see them, their heads dark in the ocean and if you look intently you can spot their round faces with big eyes and long whiskers, coming up above and through the ice floes as they hunt for fish. Suddenly, there is a splash and you can catch sight of them leaping a little and twisting in the sea as they secure their catch. Often they may still be there in early Spring and as I pass over the lock, I instinctively look to see if I can see any round dark heads with whiskered faces rising up through the swirling current.

The early warm days of Spring bring high blue clear skies with the sun beginning to rise earlier and set later. As the sun rises in the east over Ringkøbing Fjord, spreading its rays over just the peaks of the white dunes and onwards onto the sea, the sound of the skylark can be first heard - a magical song coming out of the clear blue sky. The skylark largely remains unseen, but if you stand still and watch you will suddenly see the skylarks rising vertically out of the heather and then hovering their wings flapping in a blur as they seem to panic, suddenly afraid that they may fall to earth. If there is a strong on-shore breeze, they will surf the high wind, their wings out stretched remaining near stationary, high in the blue sky, then suddenly fold in their wings and rocket down to earth. You can watch them and listen to their song, but often as not, you will only hear them and although your eyes can search the sky, you will not see them.

Looking, down at the sand, as one strolls towards the ocean, particularly where it is sheltered from the onshore westerly wind, you may see the trace of a sand lizard (Lacerta agilis). Then further on, as you walk up and over the rising sweep of the dune towards its peak, you may suddenly see an unusual curving trace in the sand. It is not a long curving spore but a series of linked semi-circles forming one continuous line - you have come upon the mark of the viper (Vipera berus). If you follow the trace across the sand it will eventually disappear into the heather and grass, but the thought of what may have died from the viper’s bite during the night, comes into your mind, reminding you of nature’s all encompassing cycle of birth and death.

Growing on the sand amongst the marram and sand sedge is the endangered and protected sea holly (Eryngium maritimum) with its broad spiked green stiff and partly folded leaves. A strong aphrodisiac mentioned by Shakespeare and quoted by Falstaff "hail kissing-comfits and snow eringoes (sea holly), let there come a tempest of provocation...". Its flowers are a striking steel-blue colour matching the colour of the evening ocean, when the first hint of darkness dims the sun's rays falling onto the sea.

Now with the days lengthening it is possible to begin to appreciate the stunning red and gold sunsets which come at you over the Western Ocean. Standing on the high dunes and looking west, the sun will set quickly, once it begins its rapid fall to touch the sea and sink down behind the deep blue ocean. If you look back eastwards to Ringkøbing Fjord, the dunes and wooden houses with their thatched roofs will suddenly light up in the early evening glow of the departing sun. Once the sun has gone, if there are any low lying clouds on the horizon, they will change their colour from white or grey to a vivid light or dark red and the sky will be aglow with colour.

Summer brings long warm and later hot days and in late May, June and early July a slight touch of the 'White Nights' of the North. The sea temperature rises and it is possible to swim in the ocean in the morning and evening but, one must take great care for off from the shore, sand banks lie hidden under the waves and a strong undercurrent can pull you out between them, as the water recedes from the sandy beach. The beaches are long and largely unpopulated apart from June and July, but even then not many people may be found along their long shores.

During these months one may look out to sea and see the white sails of a traditional three master schooner plying its way out of Hvide Sande and along the coast. Now is the time to barbecue freshly caught fish from the ocean or fjord and light your own smoker, to enjoy 'aftensmad', in English evening meal or dinner and a cool glass of fine Danish beer or lager. What mustn't be missed though is a wander down towards the beach with some cans of beer or a few bottles of wine, to sit amongst the dunes and catch the last setting sunrays. Then during the summer months the stars are brilliant in the sky and the Milky Way stretches as a pure celestial path overhead, especially on those nights the moon is absent.

Autumn, brings cooler days and the sun, has of course, begun its journey south setting earlier and rising later. It is still possible though, to have a last swim in the ocean at the very beginning of October, if you are lucky enough to catch a few very warm and sunny days. The long beaches can be all yours, apart may be, from encountering some sea-shore strollers with their dogs enjoying the last lingering warmth of the sun.

As one walks along the sea-shore, you may catch site of the terns fishing just off from the beach, flying wildly then hovering and diving vertically into the waves to feed. Along the sea-shore sanderlings will be running along the sand as the sea washes in, displaying their very quick gait, so unusual for a sea bird and reminding one of those army light infantry regiments that march at double-quick time, halt and then move off again.

The end of October with the clocks going back, really marks a shift to Autumn heading towards Winter. Now is the time to walk along the sea-shore looking amongst the kelp, sea shells and remains of the crabs being picked at by sandlings, washed higher up on the beach, for the gold of the ocean or as the Greeks called it Elecktron - one is searching for Amber. When you see and feel the real thing, you will know it. Warm and light to touch, often a dark red, it feels completely different to similar looking rocks and there is often no need to place it in salted water to see it float and not sink like a stone.

If no amber is found the sea-shore abounds with dark red and black pebbles of washed granite and gneiss, also pebbles of lava some a deep basalt black may be glimpsed, having been washed-up from Norway and Sweden's now extinct but, active volcanoes of 250 to 70 million years ago. Breccia, hornfel rocks and sandstone pebbles and flint may be found. A special find is Rhomb Porphyry a volcanic rock with embedded crystals, found in only three places in the world, the East African Rift Valley, Mount Erebus in Antarctica and the Oslo Graben or Rift. It is from the Oslo Rift which produced considerable lava during a period of abundant earthquakes, we find examples on the Jutland coast of Denmark, south of Hvide Sande. The embedded crystals are strikingly large, within a far finer structure reflecting its two stage formation, first the large crystals forming deep in the earth, then as the lava rose and suddenly cooled the formation of the finer mass.

As Winter arrives it is time to take down, until next Spring the Dannebrog vimpel, a very narrow and elongated version of the Dannebrog the Danish national flag, which fell from heaven and thus was given by God at the Battle of Lyndanissee in Estonia, in 1219. The Dannebrog, which is flown on special flag days, must be taken down at sunset and on no account must be left to fly overnight, while the vimpel may be left to fly continuously.

Being so close to the ocean, little snow falls on the sand dunes over Winter, but occasionally there is enough on the tracks to wax one's cross-country skis and insert just the front of your boot into the bindings and with your long ski sticks push oneself off over the snow and attempt that perfect rhythm of Nordic langlauf skiing. The early fading light though draws one home to ensure the Morsø stove is still burning and to top up the fire with a new dry log, then it is time for a Gammel Dansk - a fine bitters and to think of the warm duvet, with perhaps a quick glance at your favourite bedside book, Karen Blixen's 'Out of Africa' and re-read that opening sentence, as your eyes close in sleep, "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills..." and to dream "I have a house on the West Coast of Denmark amongst the dunes".


Previous Posts from Denmark 
Danish Folk High Schools
Inge Lehmann

Aksel Sandermose