Great Reed Warblers, Rowing Clubs, and Fat Mary… Tegel, Berlin

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Just around the headland, having left the small village of Tegelort behind to once again be walking between the woods and the water, we were halted on the path by the noise. It was an incredible racket, disturbing and otherworldly, of frogs impersonating birds or birds impersonating frogs. We gazed down from the path, into the reeds, but there was no sign of what type of life was making the sounds that seemed to be surrounding us. Later, I listened to sound files on the internet, trying to trace it to source. The Great Reed Warbler seemed to be the closest, and once more I marvelled; this time at footage of a small bird capable of such an uproar.

The walk had began at Tegel, the district to the north of Berlin that gives its name to the airport that sits between it and the city centre, and that has a decidedly 1970s feel thanks to a fine collection of neon signs advertising cafes, flowershops and banks, and plenty of post-War architecture. We followed the tree-shaded street down to the lake, the tourist boats and the Greenwich promenade, the name of which had inspired the local council to import some red phone and post boxes from the British capital. We skirted the lake for a while, despairing at elections results and debating the best way to transport whisky through the wilds of Swedish Lapland.

Our route took us inland, and away from the lake, at the Dicke Marie. Fat Mary is a tree, over 800 years old, that began to grow at a time when bears still lived in the Tegel forest. Goethe paused a while, as he was known to do with trees across the German-speaking lands, whilst the legend has it that Fat Mary was named for the cook of two young boys in the early years of the 19th century: Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt. It’s a good story, and one which brings the daytrippers to the nearby biergarten for early afternoon coffee and cake and late afternoon half-litres of pilsner. We had those in mind as well, but we were only at the start and anyway, we knew we would see Fat Mary again.

Crossing the forest we came to the settlement of Tegelort, on the banks of the Havel and the headland where the river opens out into the Tegel Lake. It is a neighbourhood of mismatched houses looking out across the footpath to the water, linked to the north end of Spandau by a car ferry, and surrounded by water and a number of different islands. It is a place of rowing clubs and sailing schools, a place to rent kayaks or go swimming from beaches dug out of Brandenburg’s sandy soil. And as with so many places in this green and watery city of ours, it is a place where it is hard to imagine you are still well within the city limits and that this is very much part of Berlin.

After our pause at the froggy chorus of birds hidden in the reeds we pressed on, following the lake back around to Fat Mary and the first of the apartment blocks and lakeside hotels of Tegel itself. By now the rain had begun to fall, causing the passengers on the top deck of the steamboat cruiser to head below as the big wheel continued to lazily churn the waters of lake and we discussed how Mark Twain came to get his name. In the rain we had no time for Fat Mary and her biergarten, choosing instead to head for Tegel and its neon signs and a pub with a waitress so friendly that – even more than the woods and the water – would have convinced us we had left German capital far behind were it not for the U-Bahn station at the bottom of the road.

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Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig

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