The wild white horses

All night the wind and the rain hammered at the windows and shook the walls, the story of the storm creeping into dreams and half-awake thoughts. The view down and across the field as it started to get light was of a sea beyond the cliffs that was thrashing and churning, banging off the rocks to throw explosions of spray high against the overcast sky. For a moment the sun came out, the patch of blue sky closing again almost as quickly as it opened.

We walked out, down the headland path towards the coves at the bottom of the island where we have rock-pooled and swum off the rocks, built fires on the sands or spied birds and sea rescue helicopters off the rocks. Now there was just water, a violent, flailing mass of water, swelling and crashing, the huge waves making the normally impressive cliffs seem small in comparison. The wind stung and the spray soaked us, leaving us with a strong, salty taste on the lips. One wave caught the wind and, although we were a long way from the edge of the headland, soaked us like a bucket of cold water had been tossed across the path. It was impossible to look into the wind without it hurting your face and eyes.

Beyond the rocks, the sea was like something out of folklore, like one of those vengeful seas that rises up to swallow whole a town of gluttons and hedonists after nature cannot take the debasement any more.

Down on the main beach there was no main beach, the high tide and the storm lifting the waves up to the very top of the shingle and onto the dunes. Seaweed had landed high in the grass, along with plastic debris – bottles and face-cream pots, half a petrol canister – that suggested the seas and oceans had finally had it with us dumping all our crap and had decided to throw it back at us where we walked. The spray had been joined by rain now. At the end the beach, a family stood a little bit too close to the waves. The dad took the kids by the arm and pulled them back, away from the seventh wave. The sea was not to be messed with.

A friend from university was staying at the next village up the island. Back inside – soggy clothes hanging from door frames and in the shower – I saw her videos posted on social media, the waves rolling straight in off the sea and crashing over the beach wall onto the street beyond. She told me the road to her village had been closed off. It seemed odd that we could still write to each other in the middle of the storm. The rain had closed in now. It was no longer possible to look down across the field and beyond the headland. Nothing but a grey wall. But the wild white horses were still there, the fury not yet exhausted.

Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton

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From the Baltic to the Irish Sea – Readings and Events in November 2017

It is extremely exciting to announce a series of events taking place on either side of the Irish Sea during November 2017.

November 1st – Bangor University
Journeys through Memory: The German Baltic and the Berlin Wall

I will be talking to Dr Anne Saunders about the German Baltic and the Berlin Wall at an event that is free and open to all on Wednesday 1 November at 2pm. We will be talking about the writing of both Ghosts on the Shore and Mauerweg (co-written with Paul Sullivan). I will be reading from both books and there will be a Q&A.

Event poster

November 21st – The Winding Stair, Dublin
Journeys through Memory: The German Baltic and countries that no longer exist
with Marcel Kreuger

Marcel is the author of the upcoming Babushka’s Journey and we will both be reading from our books, talking about our travels through central and eastern Europe and discussing the related themes in Babushka’s Journey and Ghosts on the Shore, from family memory to how we tell the stories of the past.

Event Facebook page

November 22nd – Spirit Store, Dundalk
the corridor no.3 – Borders, Walking and Writing
with Evelyn Conlon, Garrett Carr & Marcel Krueger

I am really pleased to have been invited to take part in the third event as part of the new multidisciplinary arts project in Ireland exploring “the corridor” between Dublin and Belfast. I will be talking about the importance of borders and how we explore them in our writing with novelist and short story writer Evelyn Conlon, my good friend and fellow walker-writer Marcel Krueger, and Garrett Car, author of The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border.

Event info on the corridor website

November 23rd – No Alibis, Belfast
Journeys through Memory: The German Baltic and countries that no longer exist
with Marcel Kreuger

Marcel and I will bringing our discussion from Tuesday in Dublin to Belfast on Thursday (via our Dundalk interlude along the corridor) at the ever-wonderful No Alibis bookshop. We will once more be talking about both our books as well as giving a reading and answering (hopefully interestingly) any questions you might have.

Event Facebook page

On Friday 24th November, I will be sleeping.

I hope to see some of you in Bangor, Dublin, Dundalk or Belfast in November… hopefully there will be some more events to announce soon…

Paul

After the storm

(Or, the story of a Grey Sky Walk)

It was only a few days after the winds hit the city, toppling chimneys and uprooting trees, tragically taking a couple of lives. Despite the increased frequency of extreme weather – the summer was marked with floods from torrential rains and an overwhelmed drainage system – there is still something unsettling about experiencing a storm like that, one which had blue lights flashing and sirens sounding long into the night.

There was little indication of damage done as we headed north. The U-Bahn was running again and we could see, once the train emerged from its tunnel to the elevated tracks, the planes taking off and coming in to land at the airport. In Tegel, the Saturday shoppers were happily pounding the streets and down at the promenade there was no sign of the storm, except for the piles of fallen leaves that might have been larger than usual. It was only on the path that follows the river across the northern edge of the city we saw proper evidence of the power of the wind.

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Stories in the stones: Kalø Castle and the Mols Bjerge, Denmark

We share the causeway with cows. Or are they bulls? Perhaps someone can tell us, someone who hasn’t lived all of their adult lives in a city. In any case, bulls or cows both make me nervous, but the stream of families, walkers and other visitors making their way from the car park to the ruins of Kalø Castle out at the tip  of the peninsula, don’t seem to be all that bothered. Warily, I step around them across the polished smooth cobblestones.

This is the end of Denmark’s longest medieval road, built some 700 years ago to link the castle with the rest of Jutland. The story goes that the castle was nearly impenetrable, built by King Erik Menwed after the defeat of a peasant’s revolt. This was a fortress aimed to protect royalty not from the threats of overseas, but potential enemies much closer to home. Over the centuries the importance of Kalø Castle waned, later becoming a prison and the local manor house for the region of Djursland, until the establishment of an absolute monarchy in 1660 brought the history of the castle as a castle to an end.

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The imagined lake: Storsjön, Sweden

To the south of the city of Borås in Sweden, there is a lake. It used to be three lakes, back before the 20th century brought with it the ever-increasing demands of a thirsty textile industry. The lake was imagined into existence. Someone stood and looked and saw and the possibility. They looked over a landscape of woodland and fields, three lakes surrounded by farms and crofts, and they imagined the tunnels and the dam, the water rising by ten metres. Imagination became reality. The three lakes slowly but surely met each other in the middle. Lake Storsjön was born.

Not that it is easy to tell this is an artificial lake, 107 year’s old, when you stand at the sandy beach close to the parking places and the clubhouse of the local cross-country skiing and running club that has trails leading out from here through the forests and around the lakeshore. At first you think you have found what it is you were looking for. A place hidden away from the modern world. Still wild. Forgotten. Timeless.

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In the forest – from Pichelsberg to the Devil’s Lake

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In West Berlin times this was the British Sector, and traces remain of the occupation that began in 1945 in a city devastated by war. The Olympic Stadium – built for the 1936 Games and location of Jesse Owens’ triumphs under Hitler’s disapproving gaze – was the headquarters of the British military occupation forces. The Commonwealth War Cemetery is here, as well as the campus of the British School. From the banks of the Havel, emerging from the shaded paths of the Grunewald Forest, you can see across the water to the terraced gardens of the white villa, once the residence of the British Commandant. Until 1994 the British military held an annual celebration of the Queen’s Birthday on the Maifeld. The boots march no more, but the traces of their presence in this corner of the city remain.

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From the other bank, outside the high walls of the Commandant’s villa, it is hard to imagine that you are looking towards Germany’s biggest city, even as you stand within the city limits. The low hills of the Grunewald hide the streets and the cars, the tall office blocks and the even taller Television Tower. Only two human-made structures are visible here: the frayed domes of the former American Listening Station on the Teufelsberg and the red-brick Gothic Grunewald Tower. Both, above the West Berlin tree line, offer views across the cityscape that are unavailable down here on the lakeshore.

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Hollow Ponds and the Strange Labyrinth

From a house in Leytonstone we walked through quiet residential streets until they gave way to an open patch of grassy land, leading down to a beach where ducks and geese gathered on the edge of a small lake. It was a warm Saturday morning in June, but apart from birdlife there was nothing on the water. Perhaps it was too early for the inexpert rowers to head out from the little wooden boathouse to explore the Hollow Ponds, these former Victorian gravel pits that had been dug out further by unemployed men in 1905 to create a boating lake speckled with islands, and a small part of the ancient Epping Forest that stretches out on either side of the boundary between London and Essex.

In Will Ashon’s fascinating book about Epping Forest, Strange Labyrinth, the chapter on the Hollow Ponds reflects on the fact that they had not only inspired “a rather sappy song” by Damon Albarn but also some of the other activities beyond boating on the lake that the area is known for:

“The bushes around here and the car park further east are renowned locations for gay cruising and dogging and if a man strolls along behind you looking as if he’s forgotten something while staring at his iPhone, he’s probably checking for your profile on Grindr:”

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