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Sunday 14 May 2023

Ameland Adventures

It's been somewhat absurdly busy of late, to the point where I think I need a holiday from going on holiday... 

Let me summarise the whole escapade before bombarding you all with pictures. Last month we went on a holiday to Germany and then to the tiny Dutch island of Ameland, of which much more below. We got back on a Saturday, so we did at least have the Sunday free. Except, not really, because I'm unofficially repeating my lecture course on galaxy evolution for the benefit of assorted students. This has meant a much greater workload than I imagined, in part because it needs to be updated in light of advances made in the last few years*. Also I've split it up from its original 4x 90 minutes to 8x 45 minute lectures, which is not always an easy cut. But mainly, I have to remember what the hell it is I actually want to say, which means practising each talk. Again. And since this is being given on a Monday, part of Sunday afternoon had to be spent doing this.

* I won't be updating the blog posts, however, because this is just too much work and there are other posts I'd rather write.

So Monday afternoon was spent in lecturing and consultation with my Master's student. Then there were three days in the week where we were fortunate enough to have a visit of Nobel laureate Reinhard Genzel, who's both a very nice man and an outstanding speaker (closing one talk with an animation flying into a black hole, accompanied to the strains of Highway To Hell). This series of talks basically consumed the whole three days plus an evening. That same Friday Shirley and I went to see the hilarious comedian Jim Jeffries (because a friend had to sell tickets), and then the next day we went on a short hike with some friends who we haven't been able to arrange a hike with in many months.

Things didn't let up the following week. My former neighbour from Arecibo came to visit Prague, so that was a very pleasant evening's catch-up. The next day a friend who left the (Czech) astronomical institute last year came to visit, which took up an evening an a Saturday. The following Monday one of my best friends from Cardiff came to visit, and we had another scientific visitor that same week, and then we went to Munich for a long weekend. The Tuesday afterwards my brain was fried so I spent the morning mowing our overgrown lawn instead of doing much scientific work, which only meant that my arms were tired as well.

Oh, and yesterday we went on another hike - an annual tradition in support of Eurovision, which we then watched into the evening/small hours of the morning.

This morning I did sod all except spend three continuous hours curled up in a chair reading an enormous book, and it was bloody brilliant.

Anyway, having spent much of the last few weeks outside in the bright May sunshine, I'm quite happy now to retire indoors, read books, write blog posts, and with any luck degenerate into an unkempt Howard Hughes figure quite ready to leer menacingly at people at anyone who suggests "going outside" or equivalent tomfoolery. I may have to start hurling faeces at people if they're not careful.

Honestly, there comes a point where "good busy" just becomes regular, annoying busy and everyone, now matter how wonderful they are, just needs to politely sod off and leave me alone. And likewise, a point when the idea of being outside in the lovely* sunshine becomes oh god no what the hell are you even on about. It's not that any one activity is bad, it's that at some point, if I don't get some me time, I am going to actually murder people... by headbutting them, if need be. 

* Read, "blazing". I mean, it's nice to be outside, but it's also nice to be inside too, no ? Surely that's not just me ?

Right, anyway, what was Ameland like ?

Lovely ! It's a wonderful place and I highly recommend it to anyone. First, we stayed in Shirley's (step)parent(s) house for a couple of days, which has such nice morning views that they deserve an honorary mention here :

Then we headed up by car, past the rather strange abandoned Emsland monorail test track, up to a truly tiny port to catch the ferry. Taking a circuitous route to stay within the deep channel, the ferry takes about an hour to cover the few kilometres distance (at low tide it's actually possible to walk across with the aid of a guide, hence the importance of the channel).

The main delight of Ameland is its amazingly varied terrain. The port on the mainland is a salt marsh, which is also found on parts of the island :

Being very low-lying, the whole place tends to be extremely windy. But this is part of the appeal, making the otherwise relaxing environment feel that bit more wild and bracing. Naturally this lends itself to dramatic sea views despite the total lack of cliffs : the whole thing is, I believe, made of sand, with no bedrock visible anywhere.

In places the sand has been blasted smooth. You can watch the process happening, seeing it flow like a rippling veil from horizon to horizon. 

And yet in other places the grass on the dunes is so think it looks like a high moorland that should feature in Wuthering Heights... except for the lighthouse.


Walking through the dunes, one can find small pools with ominous signs warning of the dangers of quicksand (but only in Dutch, since obviously the quicksand leaves foreigners alone*). This pleased me, since all my childhood cartoons had assured me that quicksand would definitely be something of extreme importance that I ought to be jolly well prepared for. Just next to this is a pine forest in which groups of gnomes are battling it out :

* In the cottage we stayed in, the visitor's book goes back to 2017 and all the messages are in Dutch and German, so I made sure to leave the first one in English. I claim this cottage for Wales !

It's what I imagine would happen if old-school Disney had made The Lord of the Rings.

And not five minutes walk from all of this are freshwater bird sanctuaries and the sort of landscape one expects to find in an old Dutch Masters painting :

As you can see, the island is home to geese and other birds by the thousand (there are also rabbits en masse, tame enough to come within a few feet of the cottage window). For this reason there's an extra element of surrealism at night, because the street lights are green to avoid confusing the birds. Where it gets really surreal is with the lighthouse : above the green glow of the street, six powerful beams rotate through the sky, intersecting the island at the highest points, including one poor sod who hadn't seem to have taken this into account when siting their house. 

With the beams sweeping across the moorland-like dunes, it put me in mind of that bit on Horsell Common in The War of the Worlds :

Now and again a light, like the beam of a warship's searchlight, swept the Common - and the Heat Ray was ready to follow. 

Seriously, lighthouses are - like quicksand - the sort of thing you learn about the existence of as a kid, and maybe you visit them during the day, but nobody has ever said to me, "You've never stood underneath a lighthouse at night ? You should !". It's really very strange. The beams are pale and yet strong, wan yet unmistakable and bright, and they don't photograph well at all. One also gets a strange illusion watching them rotate, since they're visible across the whole sky. Looking away from the lighthouse, the perspective seems to shift, as though they're emitted by another lighthouse in the distance. It's weird.

Ameland, then, is somewhere I highly recommend; I imagine the other islands nearby are similar. The history of the place is interesting as well, littered with bunkers from the days of the Atlantic Wall. If you want somewhere you can have plenty of places to explore, while also plenty of time to relax, this is definitely worth considering.

Right, that wraps up one travel post. Munich to follow shortly.

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