Over the next few months I will be walking around the outskirts of Berlin, starting each walk where I finished the last, until I complete a loop of the edge of the city. These walks will be written up for a new book project, and here on Under a Grey Sky I will publish some postcards from along the way…
At the Heimatmuseum they tell me that the first human settlements in Berlin were here, eleven thousand years ago. Reindeer hunters who caught the migrating animals as they crossed the river on their back and forth journeys each year, before the planet warmed and they headed north, to the Arctic, for good. I stand on the path and look out across the reed beds, the alder marshes and the stream itself, winding this way and that. On this side of the path it is easier to imagine the reindeer hunters. On the other, a row of suburban gardens and their collection of trampolines, compost bins and patio furniture. Looking this way, the leap of imagination is further.
This contrast between the two sides of the footpath continues as I walk on, following the waymarked Barnimer Dörferweg across the northern edge of Berlin. Gaps in high fences offer a glimpse at neat lawns and greenhouses in one direction. Signs warning me to keep to the path because these wet meadows are the nesting ground for rare birds in the other. So I stick to the prescribed route, here at least, and the sound of my feet crunching on the grit and the ice, and the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker hitting a tree. At least, I think it is a woodpecker. It might also be the sound of an early riser, lifting the shutters of their bedroom window, to let in the half-light of this January morning on the outskirts.
Words & Picture: Paul Scraton
When sitting in the back of the car as we crossed Anglesey as kids – slowly, because the dual carriageway hadn’t been built yet – we were always searching for the landmarks that meant we were nearly there. There was one point, the crest of a low hill, where the road cut through some rocks beneath a white cottage surrounded by gorse bushes, that we would see through the gap in the front seats and the car windscreen the vista that told us we were close. The Rhoscolyn Coastguard lookout. The reverse cigarette of the Anglesey Aluminium tower. Holyhead Mountain.
A little more than 200m high Holyhead Mountain is easily the highest point on Holy Island, higher than anything on Anglesey, and although that is not particularly tall when compared to the peaks of Snowdonia a few miles away, it is still a striking lump of rock that sits above the port town of Holyhead and falls directly into the sea on two sides. The Romans built a lookout tower there, which gives it its Welsh name of Mynydd Twr… and it appears to have been a place of settlement and human activity for thousands of years. It has had chunks taken out of it as it was quarried for stone and the cliffs below its summit are popular and populated with any number of bird species who share the slabs with rock climbers dreaming of white horses as kayakers ride the waves beneath their feet. We have been coming here for years, mainly to the South Stack Lighthouse and the Ellins Tower RSPB centre, but this time we were going to walk the mountain.
Not up it, but around. Continue reading
Long time readers of Under a Grey Sky will have seen pieces about Rhoscolyn before, and here comes another one, but I make no apology. As someone who left the UK at the age of 22 and has lived in Berlin for almost 15 years, and whose parents no longer live in the town that I grew up in, the idea of “home” has always been an interesting one to me. And if there is one constant in my conscious memory, the one place that has changed through the years but – really, when it comes to my emotions about the place – always stayed the same, then that is Rhoscolyn, and specifically Outdoor Alternative, home to my Uncle and Aunty, cousins and whatever it is kids of cousins are to me or to Lotte (we have this discussion on every visit).
Over Easter we returned again, to that field with the views across from Holy Island to Anglesey and beyond, to Snowdonia. When the weather is good it feels as if you can make out the climbers reaching the top of those peaks. When the weather closes in you can feel as if this collection of buildings along a dusty track is the very end of the world. This time, on arrival, we did as we always do and walked the headland around to the beach, following at the same time the waymarked trail of the Anglesey Coastal Path but also the personal topography of memory and my fellow members of the Red Devils, who explored every patch of heather and gorse, sandy cove and rocky inlet, and gave them names and stories and drew maps that made the place truly ours… and now, as we walked that headland again, I could still picture those maps in my head as I told some of those stories to Lotte.
The Possibility of an Island is a better title than it is a book. Indeed, although I have read it I cannot for the life of me recall a single scene from Michel Houellebecq’s book, but the title has stayed with me. To me islands always seemed to be filled with possibility; they are an endless source of fascination. Perhaps it is because they are contained, a world in and of itself, that can be explored and mapped. There is an end to an island. A natural border.
A few weeks ago I read about a short journey I have always wanted to take. The writer Richard Carter had climbed into a canoe on Coniston in the Lake District and, slowly but surely, made his way across the lake to Wild Cat Island. No matter that the island’s real name is Peel Island, for any readers of Arthur Ransome’s wonderful Swallows and Amazons will know what it is really called, and thirty five years after reading the book for the first time (about six or seven years before I did), Richard discovered the magic was based on reality:
We drift past a low, rocky promontory and some rocks. This is so right: it’s just like in the book! We’re almost past it before I see it: back to our right—I mean starboard—a steep-sided, narrow channel leads straight into the heart of the island. A few feet to either side of here, and the channel would be invisible, obscured by rocks and headland. This is the place! We’ve found the secret harbour! Continue reading
At the entrance to the village a sign warns us of free-running dogs and wild chickens. Not being a fan of either, I proceed with caution down the muddy track to the collection of cottages around an open green that makes up the tiny settlement of Kenmore on the banks of Loch Fyne. The green space between the cottages was no accident, it was the place to dry the fishing nets in this village that long made its living from the produce pulled from the loch.
We follow the path down the side of the green (no sign of the dogs) until we reach a stone beach and a rocky promentory. The cloud is low, hiding the surrounding hills. The water is flat calm, glassy. A grey heron flies by with long, beating flaps of its wings. Down on the shore oystercatchers pick their way over the stones. At the top of the rocks the shells of their catch lay battered and smashed, a crunchy confetti. A twin-sailed boat makes slow progress down the loch. Not far away a group of divers, heads and bodies encased in black, slip over the side of their motor dinghy.
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.
At the end of the Western Harbour breakwater we came to the abandoned lighthouse and climbed through a hole in the fence. The view back across the harbour was spectacular, to Leith and the Royal Yacht Britannia, and beyond the Arthur’s Seat, the castle, and the rest of the Edinburgh skyline. We picked our way cautiously through the broken stone and glass spreading out from the open doorways of the lighthouse. Graffiti and litter. Evidence of illicit parties. Few better places, on a clear day like this, looking across the Firth of Forth with a fly-by of eider ducks, exiting the harbour ahead of a Spanish warship.
Below us, on the slippery stones just above the waterline, a couple of fisherman discussed strategy. One was teaching the other, acting out the motions with empty hands as his friend gripped the rod intently. They both ignored the signs warning about eating shellfish from this particular shore.
The Rubha nam Frangach, or the French Farland, can be found a few miles south of the town of Inveraray on the western shore of Loch Fyne. The name of the promontory, and also the cottage that was our home for a week over Easter, dates back to the eighteenth century and the height of the herring fishing industry on the loch. Back then, over 500 boats a day would be operating on Loch Fyne, and on the French Farland a small settlement of traders bought, cured and packed herrings from the local boats and took them back to France, returning with brandy, claret, silks and laces that they sold to the aristocracy of the region, including the Duke of Argyll in his castle a few miles up the road.
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.
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.