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Familiar Spaces… New Year Exploration

January 7, 2015

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On the first weekend of the year we decided to escape not so much the madness – for that was all reserved for New Year’s Eve and the early hours of the following morning – but the debris and the feeling of the morning after the night before. Outside our apartment on Osloer Straße the street was strewn with firework casings, empty and smashed bottles, piles of grit from the snow flurry earlier in the week, and first of the abandoned Christmas trees, branches drooping and the needles scattered across the pavement.

We caught the S-Bahn from Bornholmer Straße, that famous bridge where the Berlin Wall was first opened and – with its dramatic views south towards the city centre – the venue for one of the larger impromptu firework displays on the 31st December. The half-empty train took us north, through Pankow and towards the suburbs, always close to the Panke river that flows, mostly hidden, by the raised railway tracks. At Karow – still Berlin and yet, with its detached houses and neat village centre, feeling like a place apart – we sought out the river and the route to the Karow ponds.

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Looking back on three years… and forward to elsewhere

December 27, 2014

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Three years ago the first post on Under a Grey Sky was published, reflecting on a year of travels and explorations that took Katrin and I to familiar corners of north Wales and Spain, as well as new experiences not only on the road but also within our home city of Berlin. Under a Grey Sky was always intended to reflect on the fact that you don’t need to travel long haul to find fascination (although you can), and that there are plenty of adventures to be found just beyond the front door.

Looking back on those three years and the writing and photography we have published here, from friends old and new, and our own explorations both here in Germany and beyond, Under a Grey Sky has been not only a great place to reflect on what we have experienced but has also served as a motivation to get out of the house, even on the gloomiest of February days. It has become such a fundamental part of our life, even if the frequency of new articles has tailed off a little in the past eighteen months, and we are always on the lookout for what to write about or photograph next.

At the same time, the project has also connected me with likeminded people – such as the wonderful community around Caught by the River – as well as making many new friends along the way, many of whom are fantastic and inspiring writers, even if I have never met them face to face. It has also informed the writing and other activities with Slow Travel Berlin, included the creation and launch of our series of guided walks and the publication of a book, Mauerweg, with STB-founder and great friend, Paul Sullivan.

That book was also tied to Traces of a Border, another “spin-off” project from Under a Grey Sky, exploring the 160 kilometre length of the Berlin Wall Trail. With the 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Wall in November 2014 and the publication of the book, there has been a little break from Traces of a Border, but that project won’t stop because there are still many more stories to tell.

So as Under a Grey Sky moves into its fourth year I am very proud not only of the website, but of the change in my own writing (and indeed approach to life) that the project has very much been central to inspiring. I have walked, talked, written and read more… and it has led, eventually, to another new project that some of you may already know about. In 2015, along with another good friend and incredibly talented designer Julia Stone, we will launch a quarterly print journal of place. Julia and I had long spoken about a project together, and during the course of 2014 we developed the idea that you can read about on the Elsewhere website.

I am really excited and nervous about this step, but my experiences over the past three years since I sat down to write that very first post on Under a Grey Sky convince me that we have a good chance to make it work. I hope some of you will come along for the ride.

See you in 2015,

Paul Scraton

The Strange Beauty of the Anklamer Stadtbruch

December 12, 2014

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The strangeness began on the approach to Anklam, a massive collection of dead trees swamped at their base with water and surrounded by reeds, like something out of an apocalypse movie. It looked spooky and brutal, as if some cataclysmic event had taken place here, and so of course we stopped for a photograph.

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Half an hour later we were sitting in a minibus being driven through the streets of Anklam. We did not spend any time in the town, so we have to be careful not to rush to judgement, but it looked like a place that had seen better days. Many of the old Wilhelmine buildings were crumbling, but they looked more solid than the GDR-era plattenbau that looked ready to fall down at any moment. We were being taken by a guide from the city out into the Stadtbruch, a marshland and peat bog area on the edge of the inland sea that divides the mainland of Germany with the Baltic island of Usedom.

The walk was between two peat bog areas that had been drained for farmland but over the last twenty years allowed to return to something approaching a natural state. This is the case for a lot of the land between Anklam and the inland sea, and along the banks of the Peene river, which explained those dead trees we had come across earlier. We would see a lot more of them over the next couple of hours.

But first, before dealing with natural ruins, we started with some man-made ones. With a white-tailed eagle soaring overhead, we were looking across the water towards Usedom and the remnants of the old railway bridge that once transported the Berlin trains to and from the island, and which helped transform the fishing and farming communities into the seaside resorts I have written about on Under a Grey Sky over the past year. In 1945, with the end of the war approaching, the SS destroyed the bridge to prevent the approaching Red Army from making use of it, and ever since this particular line has been out of action. To get to Usedom now by train requires a more circular route, north and through the harbour town of Wolgast.

The long absence of the trains does have a benefit for the walkers and the birdwatchers who have discovered this strangely beautiful corner of Germany, for the raised embankment is high enough above the reclaimed bog to allow you to walk right through the middle of it without even getting the soles of your shoes wet. And so we walked, stopping to look and identify the wealth of birdlife that call this place home, as well as the traces of otters, dancing butterflies and one of the last remaining elm trees in Germany. Apparently the disease that wiped out the elm in Germany began a few kilometres to the south, and so this one survived… a remarkable story from a remarkable place.

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Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig

The Gnitz Peninsula, Usedom

November 28, 2014

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When most people travel to the Baltic island of Usedom, the attention is taken – understandably – by the sea. Most of the island is in Germany – with only the town of Świnoujście at the eastern end in Poland – and from north to south it is a line of holiday resorts that date back to the nineteenth century, the coming of the railway, and the development of seaside rest cures and vacations for the growing populace of the cities of northern Germany.

But the island is not only built on tourism. Before the first bathers arrived, the main economic activities on Usedom were agriculture and fishing, and that continues to this day. But whilst some of the fish would be and are pulled from the Baltic, a good proportion of the industry is focused on the inland sea that separates the island from the mainland. The communities that face the Achterwasser as it is known still target the tourists, with campsites and signs advertising rooms and apartments for rent, marinas offering boat trips and kayak tours, but it feels less developed than those resorts along the coast, and that these are still places where people live and work, even in the off season.

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Autumn leaves

November 26, 2014

Winter is almost upon us, but it has been a beautiful autumn… here Chris Hughes reflects on the conditions of autumn that so fascinate photographers:

Autumn provides the colour and the clear air that inspires landscape photographers to get up before dawn and also to wait through many chilly dusks hoping to capture dramatic and frequently very beautiful pictures. Given that perfect combination of an indigo sky and a low, searchlight-like sun that follows a sharp autumn shower and many an inspiring photograph can result.

All too often these brilliant conditions occur when you are driving on the motorway, have no chance to stop and probably do not have the camera with you anyway.

So it is that you must seek out opportunities to photograph the colours of autumn even when the sky really is grey and the sun hidden from view with rain close by. You must be cunning and look for the details and the miniature rather than the vast, dramatic vistas and where better to look than on the ground, around your feet and among the most common of autumn features. Let’s look at the leaves.

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There is great beauty in the mass of leaves but sort through the jumble and find the individuals, seek out the colour variations and revel in the variety of shapes and size. Reds, browns, yellows, vivid green all gleaming wet with dew or rain, leaves are landscapes in miniature.

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Perhaps it’s just me, but I am fascinated by these jewels of autumn and take far too many photographs of them. These tiny autumn landscapes can be found in every street, park, garden, allotment and .. well everywhere there are trees. But, like the autumn light that creates such transient drama, these leaves quickly fade and disappear, turn brown and return to the earth. So you must act quickly and not miss your chance.

Fortunately, come the spring the leaves return, passing through the many shades of green before once again the miracle of autumn comes round one more and the leaves produce their rainbow of colour and I will be looking down to find them once again. I will be taking more photographs of leaves.

But I will also be looking for those brilliant moments when the low sun shines intensely from under a dark sky and lights up the bright yellows and oranges across the dark brown fields.

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Words & Pictures: Chris Hughes

Water and Concrete: Walking Cologne and the Rhine

November 21, 2014

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By Marcel Krueger:

I turn away from the plastic people and plastic boutiques of the Belgian Quarter, and cross the Friesenplatz and its puke pancakes from the night before. On my way to the cathedral and the water I pass through Steinfeldergasse, a small lane where every one of the small colourful low-rise buildings on either side is owned by the Catholic Church or a Catholic association. The church is still a dominating presence in this town.

I arrive at the cathedral shortly afterwards, walking past Komödienstrasse and An den Dominikanern, where a cameraman of the US army filmed a tank battle in March 1945. A German Panther tank destroyed a Sherman, killing three of its crew, and was in return blown up by a Pershing tank destroyer in one of the last tank fights in the destroyed city. The dramatic manoeuvres and firefights amidst the rubble around the cathedral could have been scripted by Hollywood, but the dismembered dead were all too real, futures obliterated by high-explosive shells. Now, on the streets where they died, I could buy an ‘original German cuckoo clock’, or pause to eat a döner kebab.

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An Accumulation of Light

November 14, 2014

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By Julian Hoffman:

“Everything beckons us to perceive it,
murmurs at every turn…”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Hearing that a pair of eagle owls inhabited a rocky gorge on the plateau, we decided it was worth trying to see them hunting about the cliffs at dusk. First we explored the area in daylight, getting a feel for it before evening. The gorge began at the sea in a small cove where a few fishing boats were dragged up on to the beach and a handful of people swam in the shallows. Our friends couldn’t be tempted into the late September water and so they left us, trousers rolled up to our knees, walking the crystalline edge of the Black Sea. We’d only been in the surf a few minutes when they called us over, hushing us to come quietly to the pool of water they were standing by.

A squacco heron crouched on a stone at the edge of the pool. It was water lit, absorbing the mirrored light until it glowed. The bird’s back was draped in ochre and violet; its breast laced with lemon that bloomed towards the emerald edges of its eyes. It seemed to be the reflected emblem of the day, a distilled essence of light. The green and black lance of its bill was steady, and its eyes unwavering. It appeared to be lost in a trance but was peering for fish in the shallows, as still as the reflecting water. One of us must have shifted our weight, because suddenly it unfolded the white flags of its wings and glided away.

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