I only run on roads when there’s no alternative. Raised drain covers, dozy pedestrians and irresolute yet strangely territorial cyclists all have the capacity to drive you to distraction before breakfast. And then there’s the war of attrition repeatedly enacted between knees and pavement, in which there can only be one winner.
So, three months into a short spell in a German metropolis that has been interspersed with daydreams of rolling hills, I set out in search of something different. What I found wasn’t high, but it was remote, and concrete was in mercifully short supply. The fiercely proud inhabitants, whose lifelong proximity to the Gulf Stream automatically exonerates them from any accusations of doziness, call it Söl.
Sylt, as we know it, is a sandy spit in the North Sea nearer Denmark than my foster country. Compelled by an enthusiasm that presumably has little to do with the hesitant gait of the oystercatcher or the silent dignity of lighthouses, the wealthiest caste of Germans have in recent times discovered the island anew. The invaders cross the Hindenburgerdamm from the mainland, driving the house prices up and the locals out, and lending an added pathos to the mournful nationalism expressed in the anthem of their new enclave. This defiant melody, shot through with the isolated community’s repudiation of mainstream civilisation, is intoned every February around a ritual bonfire intended to loosen the clammy grip of winter. Needless to say, the advent of the holiday home has rendered the seasonal transition even more vital.
Capitalism, however, was the last thing on my mind as I edged my way over the dunes that separated my youth hostel from the beach and met the sea. High tide having come and gone at dawn, the sand by the water’s edge was fresh as a town washed by a night’s rain and had lured others out into the foggy morning. A spontaneous detour into the dunes took me past signs bluntly forbidding access and banishing me without ceremony onto the cycle path below, a stretch where pines festooned with dew linked arms over my head like a couple at a ceilidh. Once the unprepossessing capital of Westerland had fallen away inland, the thatch roofs of seaside real estate were the closest thing to manmade settlement until Wenningstedt edged sheepishly into view to starboard.
Instinctively, I veered back towards the shoreline. A ramble through brushland had brought me within lolloping distance of the highest point on the island, the Uwe-Düne. In reality little more than a tussock, it would prove an important waymarker in my naive odyssey. To come clean, I had contrived to lose my bearings on an island never more than eight miles wide. Small wonder, in fact, since my main source of wisdom had been a conversation the previous evening with a pair of veteran hikers whose principal tip had been not to stray past the improbably named Elbow Mountain to the west if I wanted to get back by nightfall. The ultimate irrelevance of this gnomic insight was sealed by an unconscious sortie across the island’s slender waist and the subsequent – and by this stage entirely practical – decision to hug the east coast instead.
Soon enough, the Wattenmeer nature reserve had slithered up on my right. As the mist cleared to reveal a motionless formation of wooden objects out at sea, it took a great effort of willpower not to see Viking ships in place of mundane landing platforms for wading birds. A mere five miles north of this starkly beautiful fringe, those notorious pillagers’ modern descendants can circumnavigate the mudflats and execute a peaceful invasion via the ferry port at List. Until Denmark and its territories became Bismarck’s latest fool, this wouldn’t actually have been necessary. Today, though, any fleet attempting to take back north-east Sylt by force would come up against a citizens’ army made all the more formidable by the keen individualism of its soldiers. Every dune in the thorny wilderness where the town meets the land is crowned by a miniature fortress ringed off by a fence and a flight of steps as precipitous as it is evidently private. Spare a thought for the postman.
Then the endless bay is somehow over. The shelducks melt away with our spasmodic oystercatchers, and I am set fair for Scandinavia on a beach like any other. It being early February, however, the ferry doesn’t dare show its face. And I’m not sure this is what the man in the shop had in mind when he said my running shoes were waterproof.