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The end of islands? (1)

23/03/2014

When I went to stay with my Danish penfriend (who lived in the suburbs of Copenhagen) in the late 1960s, I travelled much of the way by ship – not just across the North Sea from Harwich in East Anglia to Esbjerg in western Jutland, but also across the Great Belt strait between the Danish islands of Funen and Zealand. In those days it took all of an hour to cross the 15-km strait, plus the time taken to embark and disembark. And if I’d made the same journey about thirty years earlier, I’d have had to take yet another ship across the narrower Little Belt strait between Jutland and Funen, which were not linked by bridge until 1935.

Denmark is an island nation if ever there was one. Apart from the Jutland peninsula (which extends north from Germany like a half-melted ice-cream cone, and itself includes an elongated island at its northern end), the entire country consists of islands – over 400 of them, some 70 of which are still inhabited. Until well into the twentieth century, ferries were a crucial feature of transport not only within Denmark but also between Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia, and Denmark’s largest cities were separated from each other by unbridgeable stretches of water.

Yet all that has recently begun to change. After that first big step, the Little Belt bridge, not much else happened for quite a while; but there had been talk for years of doing the same with the Great Belt, which became an ever greater obstacle to rapid travel as other modes of traffic speeded up. So it was only a matter of time before the plans were put into effect. In 1998 the Great Belt ferries were taken out of service for good, having been replaced by a bridge-and-tunnel combination that included one of the world’s longest single spans – a vast and costly infrastructural project that revolutionised Denmark’s transport system. The strait could now be crossed in just ten minutes, with no extra embarkation and disembarkation time, and at last, on the threshold of the twenty-first century, the country’s main cities were directly linked by road and rail.

But more was to come. Denmark’s capital Copenhagen and Sweden’s third-largest city Malmö are only 25 km apart as the crow flies – but once again they were separated by a stretch of water known in English as the Sound, which effectively cut off most of Scandinavia from the rest of Europe. In 2000 the next link in the chain was jointly inaugurated by the Danish and Swedish monarchs, and 80,000 people made it to the finishing line in one of the world’s largest-ever running events – a half-marathon across the new ‘fixed link’. Many Danes have since found cheaper housing (and more space) in Sweden and commute to their work in what is now next-door Denmark, and Malmö has experienced an economic boost.

The process continues. Over the years more and more of Denmark’s smaller islands have been connected to the larger ones by bridges or tunnels; and there are now plans for a tunnel from the southern island of Lolland to the island of Fehmarn off the German coast (at present linked by ferry services across the 18-km Fehmarn Belt), perhaps even another one – a full 40 km in length! – from the remote and thinly populated Danish island of Bornholm to the nearest mainland in Sweden. It seems the costs of maintaining ferry services year after year invariably outweigh the costs of designing and building a bridge or tunnel – at least the immediate financial costs, for whenever a such a thing is proposed it is just as invariably opposed by environmentalists claiming it will do irreparable damage to flora and fauna. To be sure, new bridges and tunnels generate more road traffic – but also more rail traffic. Who is to say what is better for the environment in the long run? What would all those Danes who now commute between rural Sweden and Copenhagen have been doing otherwise? Cycling or catching the suburban railway to their work? Or queuing in exhaust fumes on the motorway out to Helsingør or Roskilde? I wonder. Perhaps someone’s already measured it.

Anyway, as all this interlinkage proceeds, the idea of Denmark as an island nation is starting to sound a trifle absurd, for it is now possible to travel from Finland via Denmark to Germany and the rest of Europe without ever leaving the motorway. And similar things are happening in other parts of the world.

The southern part of the Greek mainland is called the Peloponnese, a name that includes the Greek word for island, although until quite recently it was in fact a peninsula, joined to the rest of the country by a neck of land or ‘isthmus’ just north of the town of Corinth. But in 1893 the isthmus was bisected by the narrow Corinth Canal, linking the Aegean Sea in the east to the Gulf of Corinth and the Ionian Sea in the west.

The bridge across the new canal was now the only direct link between the ‘island’ and the rest of Greece, and the north-west and south-west of the country were connected by ferry between the ports of Rio and Antirrio (‘opposite Rio’) at the western end of the Gulf of Corinth. But in 2004 the ferries here were also taken out of service for good, having been replaced by a brand-new – and truly beautiful – earthquake-proof bridge, first used by torchbearers en route to the Athens Olympic Games that opened a week later. So now the Peloponnese is attached to the rest of Greece at two points.

Then there’s Sicily, just across the Strait of Messina from the ‘toe’ of the Italian boot, where there are again plans for a bridge, the longest of its kind in the world. But some have said the money would be far better spent on improving Sicily’s neglected road system, and the project has repeatedly been cancelled and then revived.

There has even been talk of bridges or tunnels between Corsica and Sardinia, the UK and Ireland, Andalusia and Morocco, even Sicily and Tunisia. So far I can’t find any trace of plans to link up Mallorca with the rest of the Balearic Islands, but I daresay that too is only a matter of time.

The Faroe Islands are now interconnected by a system of tunnels and bridges, and so are Japan’s four main islands. Will Indonesia, the rest of Greece, New Zealand, the Philippines and the Cape Verde Islands follow?

And will true islands slowly but surely become a thing of the past? The Frisian Islands off the coast of Holland, Germany and Denmark? Ireland’s Aran Islands? England’s Scillies? Scotland’s Hebrides? Capri? Venice? I hope not.

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One Comment
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