We caught the tram having walked through smooth, unmarked snow on the pavement outside our house. As we walked a cyclist passed, cutting a solitary line ahead of us where the caretaker of a neighbouring building leaned on his shovel and considered the work that was to come. The tram was soggy, with puddles of water surrounding islands of grit, our neighbourhood of Berlin-Wedding passing by on the other side of steamed-up windows.
We took the tram to the end of the line. Is this where we came for my arm? Lotte asked, as she always does when we come to this corner of the city, as we disembarked opposite the Virchow Klinikum. Yep, I replied, but turned her away from the hospital and crossed over towards the graveyard that stands like a gothic warning to patients walking the grounds on the other side of the street. Here the road, our road, makes its last hundred metres as an ordinary city street before it becomes the motorway, next stop Dresden, Leipzig or Magdeburg…
We arrived as the storm picked up, the narrow lane to our destination already beginning to freeze. In the darkness the trees whipped back and forth and we hurried across the slippery car park to lock ourselves away… it’s just a breeze our receptionist said. Welcome to the Baltic. The next morning it had blown itself out, and we walked the icy cliff-top path and then along the crunchy, frozen sands beneath. The water was glassy and still. We spied boats offshore and birds in the shallows. A long figure stalks the clifftop, picking his way along an overgrown path with large, unbalanced steps. Stay away from the edge! Only we could see that beneath his feet was a curving lip of sandy rock, punctured by holes that had been last-summer’s sandmartin nests, and beneath that… nothing.
Overnight the familiar world changes. The city under snow is a different place. Edges are softened. Sound is muffled. Lotte and I walk out from our apartment onto the street we see every single day and it feels like a place in a dream, one which you recognise, where you know where you are but that doesn’t seem quite right. Not that Lotte cares, as she sees the clean, untouched expanse of snow covering the terrace of the hotel next door.
From Teufelseestraße the path leads through the winter woods for only a few metres before it begins to rise. Although we have come across to the other side of Berlin to climb a hill, in this the flattest of cities the steepness of the slope still comes as something as a shock to the system, not to mention the thighs. As we walk it is clear what this hill, the 99 metre Drachenberg, is made of. Beneath the young trees that guard its slopes, poking through the crumbly top-soil, is the rock of the mountain. Here it is granite. There it is marble. A slab of concrete. Red brick.
The Drachenberg and its neighbouring Teufelsberg (120m) were created out of the rubble of the Second World War. The latter hill is made up of an estimated 400,000 bombed houses, and buried underneath it all is the remnants of Albert Speer’s Nazi military training school. Pre-war Berlin is what these mountains are made of and as we walk towards the “tree line” and the open plateau at the top of the Drachenberg, it feels as if the history of those countless buildings is clamouring for attention at our feet and at the base of those bare trees. Read more…
The day after Christmas we drove through the streets of West Belfast until they began to rise to meet the lower slopes of Black Mountain. Not that we could see it. As we reached the last house on the left, where Feargal lives, the fog not only blocked our view of anything above us but also the city we had left behind. So the visibility was poor and the ground was surely to be sodden, after the rain of the previous couple of nights, but we gathered together with Feargal and his friends the mood was good.
Just past the house a river runs beneath the road and there is a sign dedicated to Feargal’s dad Terry, whose poetry has appeared on these pages and who did more than anyone to get access to the Belfast Hills. The story is on Under a Grey Sky here, and sadly Terry died not long after. I never got to meet him, but my dad and Deena did and by all accounts he was a remarkable man. So we were walking in his memory, and that of Feargal’s brother – also called Terry – who was killed in 1998 and who had also loved these hills and the outdoors in general.
It was in these quiet days between Christmas and New Year in 2011 that I started Under a Grey Sky, so as well as a look back on what has been going on over the past twelve months it is also something of a birthday. Although I haven’t been able to keep up the intensity of posting here over the last year or so, I remain very proud of the writing that I have published here in 2015 and remain incredibly pleased that so many people continue to read about my (and our) adventures beyond the front door.
At this point a year ago I had a couple of plans for the 2015. I had just finished work at The Circus after five years looking after their company communications and a decision to return to the world of freelance work. The first major plan was the launch of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place with my friend Julia. We published Elsewhere No.01 in June, followed by Elsewhere No.02 in September. Along the way we built a small team here in Berlin who helped us get the journal out there and put on a couple of events, as well as working with some excellent writers, photographers, musicians and illustrators from around the world. I am incredibly proud of Elsewhere and can’t wait to show everyone No’s 3 and 4 which will be published in 2016.
On a Sunday morning I meet the river by the entrance to Ormeau Park and turn left along the embankment, heading upstream. On the bridge railings a ghost bike hangs, painted white in memory of a fallen cyclist. Below me, on the water, a solitary rower aims downstream, towards Belfast Lough and the sea, towards the waterfront developments of the city centre and the yellow cranes of the shipyard, stroke after powerful stroke.
My route takes me past the gable end of terraced houses and the entrance to Botanic Gardens. There is no life in the Lyric Theatre this early, and I share the pavement with a couple of cyclists and a young woman walking purposefully past me towards town. Across the street tattered flags stake territorial claim on an estate lining a ridge above the river, looking down on an open grassy space where the bonfire will be built. An underpass takes me beneath the road about to cross the river and I pause at a sign marking the riverside route. The inscription begins: Read more…