Saturday, 29 October 2011

Netherlands, Schiermonnikoog and Thoughts on Travel Writing

I'll be writing my latest Dutch trip up for a newspaper, so I can't blog about it till after the piece has appeared.  As it is about taking kids to Holland, a lot of it was like this  ......

(One of the "Six Servants" at Efteling Park's Fairy Tale Land)

Or this..........

(a pirate ship playground marooned on a huge sandy beach in Scheveningen.)
But I've been remembering other trips to Holland, starting when I was a child.  Then, there was the exciting night ferry ride, getting-on the train in your pyjamas and waking joyfully to a land where people ate chocolate vermicelli sandwiches for breakfast -.

(and they still do!)

And at Christtmas time, you might see Sint Nicolaas with his elfish assistant, Black Peter, handing out marzipan to good children.

 (photo from Bloglandlane, which has more about the Sint Nicolaas tradition)

After I grew up, I returned to Holland occasionally to write articles. And in looking through my cuttings file,  I've noticed something. Nearly all the travel articles I've written in the last few years are descriptions of outings, attractions and hotels.   But until a few years ago, my articles were about real life in the countries I visited - and I have to say they were far more interesting to write.

One of these old Dutch articles was on "green" and eco aspects, travelling by bke and visiting hippies, visionaries, eco gardens, and all kinds of wind powered places, including a sawmill.

And I learned quite a lot about all kinds of windmills.  This thatched one (can you see?) was quite an experience with its narrow stairs and ladders, as the sails creaked round and it puffed out dust.

The Dutch article I  most enjoyed writing was a magazine feature about the northern province of Friesland.  This focused on traditional foods and cooking (yes, there is some).   I searched around today and found some of the background notes I made for this story, and have put them at the end of this post.

Reading these notes through really brought it home to me why I wanted to do travel writing in the first place. I wanted to learn how people live and think in other countries, how their lives are different, what they do, what their grandparents did and how they think about life.

Sadly, very few editors now commission articles that deal with things like this.  It was only a few years ago that top-range publications would hire writers and photographers to produce several pages on an unusual destination, its life, history, art and culture. But it hardly happens now - have you noticed?  Perhaps people no longer want to read thousands of words evoking a place, specially when they can pay a virtual visit via YouTube or read someone's blog much more quickly.  Do you agree?

But actually I think it's mainly because print media (magazines, newspapers and books) are in big trouble. Circulations have plummeted by 50 or 75 percent over the last decade, advertising revenues have dropped through the floor and as yet, nobody can think of a way to deal with it, except by cutting staff, cutting fees cutting expenses and, in many cases, cutting quality.

For instance, one extremely famous international publication now pays precisely NOTHING to contributors to its online travel pages.  It is relying on its reputation - and the online editor says that the "travel writers" are happy not to be paid because they can enjoy freebies from commercial partners, and also get "exposure" for their work.

Well, that's true. Trouble is, the "exposure" isn't worth much, if nobody's prepared to pay a fee. .  Meanwhile, staffers or regulars fill up space by compiling lists of places they may or may not have visited themselves - top ten country walks, top ten waterside hotels, etc. It's cheap copy, and advertisers like it. Perhaps it is also what readers actually want from travel pages these days, too. 

Anyway, times change. But I liked reading through my half-forgotten notes which were made on the Frisian island of Schiermonnikoog.    Since they're notes, they don't link up into a complete narrative, but you can take my word for it that it was interesting to do the research. 

Notes on Schiermonnikoog
At about ten o'clock, the sun breaks through the hazy cloud like a big silver ball, and an ear-shattering boom shakes the ground. The birds are shocked into silence, but after a while, they gradually resume their singing. The sea continues to pound quietly at the edge of the beach, a long, long way away.

Schiermonnikoog island is only ten miles long, but the wrecker's wind sweeps the sand towards the East, adding thirty metres a year to the coast.  If it was only in the South Pacific, say its residents, it would be called Treasure Island, for there is plenty of gold and silver lying beneath the fierce North Sea that lashes its shores.

The map in Hendrik's lighthouse is dotted with wreck symbols. That blast at ten o'clock was the controlled detonation of a 50-year-old mine,, he says, and he shows me the entry in that morning's log. You often find the detritus of long-fought battles and tragedies in these rough grey waters, and Hendrik knows a good deal about the dead ships. He puts his finger on the chart at the spot where the "Lutine" went down with thousands of silver coins in 1799. Since then, her treasure has stayed where it is. Only her bell was ever retrieved, and it this bell which is tolled at Lloyds of London every time a ship is lost at sea.

I descend the spiral stairs of the lighthouse, and then cycle down one of the many tracks to the beach. The few roads are more like lanes, for visitors don't have cars. Only the island's 900 residents are allowed to drive here, and mostly they don't. The tide seems to be out, or perhaps it is  just the sheer size of the beach that makes it seem so.

I leave the bike where the sand gets deep, and walk towards the sea until it is hard and smooth and dappled underfoot, with odd, branchlike patterns from algae, and long, thin shells half buried. Birds wheel and swoop and cry overhead or feed at the water's edge - oystercatchers, plovers, sanderlings, dunlins, shrike, silver and black-backed gulls.  

Schiermonnikoog is a national park, a place where the boundaries between sea and land blur.   Most of the island is wild: tidal mud flats, dunes,, some windbeaten woodland and scrub, countless rabbits and hares.  Several times a year the sea engulfs large parts of the island. People know when it's going to happen, because the hares and rabbits make for the dunes, impelled by a kind of sixth sense. 

The island does have visitors - many visitors - about ten thousand a year.  They somehow manage to lose themselves and have a quiet time in their holiday homes,  or in the white, angular Hotel Van Der Werff in the centre of the town.  Dutch and Belgian Flemish are mostly spoken, although many islanders know English too, and some still speak Schiermonnikoogs, the island's own language, an ancient mixture of Saxon and Scandinavian tongues. It is incomprehensible to mainland Dutch people, so it is dying fast.

"We're all Europeans now" shrugs restauranteur Jan Berend Bazuin, but Hendrik is sad, looking back at the generations who have spoken the language and realising he is one of the last.  Until this century, the island's men would go away to sea, sometimes for years at a time, and they would only get to speak their own language when they got home.  It wasn't only the men who travelled - their wives did too, and their families. A hundred years ago, Hendrik's great-grandma went overland by train and coach to St. Petersburg and then Marseilles with her three little daughters to visit her husband when he was in port. 

The island's one town - or village, really, is a relaxed place with wide verges and trees, and trim, low Dutch houses. I stayed in an 18th century house, now a youth hostel, where ducks and horses peer in through the windows.  Almost opposite is a large field in which the islanders keep their pets.

The Frisians seem rather fond of fancy livestock, in particular little brown goats, but the people of Schiermonnikoog have branched out into peacocks, donkeys, deer, Shetland ponies, pouter pigeons and extraordinary fancy hens like walking feather dusters.

They all live together like animals in a children's story, rushing periodically up to the end of the field where people came to feed them with household scraps.

 Down a path in the middle of the scrub is a little war cemetery for airmen or sailors shot down or claimed by the sea.  Several times a week Jan Groendijk cycles along in the early morning to tend its flowerbeds and trim its shrubs. A quiet man, he first did the job because he was asked to, but then, he says, "I was caring for their graves and I began to wonder who they had been. It didn't seem right not to know."

Knowing that most came from England, Jan wrote in fractured English at his own expense to local papers in the mens' home towns, asking for information. Gradually, relatives and friends came forward, and now only about six men are still unknown. There were letters, visits, eventually group reunions, Now Jan has a file for each man, with momentoes, old school reports, letters, photos.

"We can think of these people, here", he says, as he plants out the spring bulbs.  "We think of them all. It is sad, but at least the sea which killed them, has brought them to a good final home."



  1. Thank you, I have always had a soft spot for windmills, as well as lighthouses.

  2. It is sad that the print media is changing. I just love your notes with all the details and pictures. Those details are what make you feel like you are there...or want to be there. You paint the picture with words. Sorry to hear it is yet another dying art. :(

  3. I think people these days have a shorter attention span. Why go buy a book when a blog or video is right at their fingertips accessible from home for free. I really like your windmill picture although the first picture seems a little scary for a children's fairy tale.

  4. It sounds like you like Holland! I have only been to Amsterdam, so thanks for writing about the Frisian islands!

  5. That was a great post Jenny, especially the article, it ended beautifully.

    I think you are right about the reason why there are less articles of the kind you mention. Money, or profit, is now everything, sadly. Maybe that will change one day, I hope so!

  6. I love your photos. You have an eye for machinations that are brought to life through your images: the windmill, the sawmill, and the lenses in the lighthouse. The ship on the beach is a great photo, too. Your notes are a wonderful walk through your trip. The cemetery with a caretaker who really cares makes an enchanting and poignant story.

    It's too bad that this has changed with the changes in printed matter. We have lost something of great value. I know I can google anything, but prefer the printed page, in any form, in front of me.

  7. I had no idea the Netherlands were such a surreal place (judging by your photos). And I mean that in a good way!

  8. The lowest common denominator sells, quality takes time to read and folks don't have the patience unless they really want to read about a place or object. People prefer the tabloids as 'news' is short and to the point, also bent to say what they want it to read. Quality writing does not bring readers, therefore less advertising therefore less money.
    Books of travel still sell? Maybe it is time for a book on Holland?

  9. Thank your for another great post! If I'd stumble upon a list of "10 best walks" or something like that, I'd make sure NOT to go on any of those walks, because they'd probably be crowded by too many people. Or maybe not, and I am just prejudiced against anything en masse.
    To travel because I want to find out how people live there, what they think and what life is like in that place is my main motivation for travelling, unless of course it is business or visiting family.
    Luckily, because I have friends and family in England, the US, France, Italy, Switzerland and on Bornholm means I have been able to visit all those places staying in private homes, getting a glimpse of the everyday lives of ordinary people.
    My weekly newspaper, the ZEIT, still has a good travel section with well-written articles the kind you'd appreciate - and I hope they pay their authors well!

  10. Thank you for such a very interesting, and beautifully illustrated post.

  11. I was immediately struck when I saw the first photo by 'I've been there and taken that photo - with my children gazing up at the figure.'.

    That made me wonder if that may be one of the problems for the travel writer and travel publisher today. If we travel we may well have been there. If we haven't we may be able to and thus want to experience it for ourselves. Do we perhaps forego vicarious travel nowadays.

    Are there two markets for travel writing: guides and experiences? I've never thought about it before. I use (rather than read) travel guides occasionally (Mum and Dad always had Baedaker and then, as The Lake District was their heaven, Wainright). If I want to read experiences then my reading is targeted and I don't buy a travel magazine.

    Like Librarian my family has been fortunate to experience life in different countries by staying with friends. Sometimes I'm a tourist. Generally I'm a visitor.

    So many questions. So much food for thought.

    You've made me do that a lot lately, Jenny.

  12. Wonderful reports and great shots!
    Have a good week!

  13. I love the pirate ship playground. Very clever.

  14. This was really lovely pictures and very interesting and wonderful post!

  15. A great post Jenny with the lot of insight info about print media...and Holland. Love the close-up of the windmill! A good Sunday to you.

  16. Fascinating comments on the difficulties and realities for Travel Writing - or any other paid writing it seems.

    About my post on the soft toys - clearly the point was not about the toys at all, but you understand I think, that I am unable to say very much about the cruel reality behind the glitz. The 'illegal' nature of these children is due to their 'illegal' conception. Sadly there are children in similar situations in other parts of the world, Malaysia for one: no papers, no education, no rights.


  17. Thank you for sharing your Frisian island of Schiermonnikoog's notes. I love reading it.

    I precisely love travel articles written in that way, rather than reading up about top 10 places, things to do, etc.

  18. Great post - and terrific pictures! I love the little donkey (with passenger) - and the pirate ship looks great fun!

  19. Hello Jenny:
    This is a most interesting post which raises some very pertinent issues about travel writing today. Yes, we have noticed a change of emphasis, and quality, in recent years and do not regard the changes as for the better. So many things, and travel writing in this regard is no exception we feel, are done in the name of profit, expediency or laziness that there seems little left for the professional in the field to take pride or satisfaction in. Of course, times change, but one does wonder what the 'New Age' of travel writing will look like?!!

    Your writing conveys a sense of place so beautifully and, accompanied by your most carefully composed pictures, is a perfect way to inform, entertain and enthuse. Surely this is what is needed to make savvy travellers of us all?!

  20. Your notes are so interesting. I really want to go there now! It is sad that travel writing is not getting the investment it used to any more. I like to read about a place in some depth, even if not planning to go there, it is preferable to those ten best type articles you mention. There are lots of tv programmes like that now too with some talking heads and 100 best this or that-a really quite annoying format.
    The pirate ship reminds me of the ship on the beach in the film 'Never Let Me Go'.

  21. I love the guy with the long neck!

  22. This was so fun! Your pictures and writings, as always, are wonderful. You make me wish I could hop a plane.

    Also, I am having problems with gmail so I would like to thank you here for your very kind comments on my blog. Your kindness means a lot to me.

  23. A very interesting post - especially, for me, your observations about how publishing is changing. It is sad but there it is. Love your memories of Holland, too.

  24. Like someone says, "quality takes time" "folks don't have patience" to wait is quite true not only in publishing world but I think in the end we return to "quality".

    I'm interested in how children feel to see the sculpture at the fairy tale land,of course it depends on children, I suppose though.

    Your post is full of interesting pictures and subjects. I had a vicarious pleasure in exploring the island through your notes giving a personal touch.
    Thank you Jenny.

  25. Love your notes! And how can you not love a nation which puts chocolate sprinkles on bread and calls it breakfast. I particularly loved that when I was there!
    It is sad that print media has changed so much but that's certainly why I moved to online writing and found a few niches where people actually want to read "proper" stories (! not just fact-filled advertising). But it's not the same as a proper magazine with a real story (do you know "Hidden Europe" though - they do what I consider "real" stories and are print. Small but good!).

  26. Very interesting and rather sad to hear what is going on with travel writing. I'm a fan of books about travel (thinking Paul Theroux for one).


  27. How awfully sad that people no longer pay for someone to write up about a place which would help the ordinary traveller get the most of their visit.

    Do you write travel books? I haven noticed that there seem to be fewer of them too.

    Your little descriptive piece of Schiermonnikoog is exactly what I would welcome.

  28. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. It's really been interesting to hear what you have to say, and hear the different "takes" on the matter of travel writing and all the interesting observations. No, @Friko, I have not written any travel books, although I have contributed to a couple. There is a continuing market for "literary" travel books. They are terribly expensive to research as they suually need a long visit and /or a unique theme. Perhaps I could do one for England! that's a thought... The bottom has fallen out of writing guidebooks, though (I mean the ones that recommend sights and hotels). @Amanda, I know Hidden Europe but I hadn't thought of suggesting anything to them, thanks for reminding me.. @Cosmos, you know some of the models at fairy tale land were a bit scary because in some ways they seemed weirdly realistic. @GB, I agree that you can't say much new about theme parks becuase they're always the same of course. But most places offer a different experience to everyone After posting this I was contacted by someone who did a project on wind power in the Netherlands and emailed me a very interesting manuscript with more info about the wind sawmill. @Librarian, staying with people is totally the best. How lucky to have relatives on Bornholm, I've always been interested in it. @AVCr8tor, I think too with the internet there's always something else to read at the click of a button. Whereas if you read a magazine you tend to continue because there's nothing else lamouring for your attention!

    Thanks again for the comments.

  29. Do the waste bins/trash cans in Die Efteling still say 'Thank you' in a myriad of languages when you throw rubbish into them?

  30. That was a great post Jenny, especially the article, it ended beautifully.

    Tours and Travels

  31. Ah, I simply must answer you GB about the trashcans. The answer is, sadly, NO. They made a big impression on me, too, years ago


Blog Archive