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Cast in stone: the island of Rømø

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: The island church on Rømø is dedicated to St Clement, patron-saint of mariners (photo © hidden europe).


The Danish island of Rømø is full of reminders of its erstwhile connections with the whaling industry. There are fence posts made of whalebones, and the skull of a whale stands beside the main road across the island.

Nowadays it is an easy drive to Rømø. Too easy, some would say. A wide highway sweeps west from Skærbæk in Danish Jutland towards the sea. Logic dictates that it should stop at the coast. But it does not. A broad concrete causeway, over nine kilometres long, connects the mainland with the island of Rømø. This is a muscular piece of engineering. It is a reminder, as is the forest of wind turbines that stretch as far as the eye can see along the coast of Jutland, that Denmark is seriously into environmental management.

Of the three populated North Frisian islands that lie in Danish territory, Rømø alone has an allweather causeway link to the mainland. The five dozen residents of Mandø, the next island to the north, rely on a rough gravel causeway over the mudflats to reach Jutland. This can be a perilous journey. At high tides the route is impassable. After fierce winter storms the Mandø causeway often needs to be reconstructed. Yet further north and with three thousand residents, Fanø has by far the largest population of the Danish islands in the shallow Wadden Sea. It is linked by a regular ferry to Esbjerg on the mainland.

For centuries, Rømø was particularly difficult to reach from Jutland. The island looked out to the sea, nurturing trading links with German and Dutch ports around the North Sea and developing a niche interest in whaling. Rømø men had the tenacity and courage to confront the fiercest seas. Many of the vessels that developed whaling around the coast of Greenland were owned and crewed by Rømø families. Those mariners from Rømø who could not find a place on a local boat signed up for whalers operating out of Hamburg or Amsterdam.