We walked up through the forest, following a rising track surrounded by trees, waiting for the moment that it opened out and offered us views east to the calm waters of the North Sea that we had left behind a few hours before, and north to higher hills along the Scottish border. As we walked we told stories, imagining the path we were following had been cleared by dragons, or that the dry-stone walls half-swallowed by the undergrowth were ancient territory markers of beasts and beings that existed only in our imagination. We did not know it then, as we walked through the forest, but the Simonside Hills that we were aiming for have long been a place of stories and storytelling, and we were far from the first to have been inspired by this landscape.
Craster in the early morning. The North Sea is calm, still like a mill pond. Down below the path oystercatchers pick their way across the rocks of what – at a higher tide – we have named ‘Jacob’s Island’ but which is now very much connected with the mainland. At low tide a rusted ship’s boiler can be seen resting on the damp sands, the legacy of a hundred-year-old wreck and a reminder that while the sea may be calm this morning, the rocks along the Northumbrian shore have claimed many ships over the centuries.
Through the village and there is little sign of life on the streets. Outside the cafe a young woman wipes the overnight moisture from the picnic tables on the terrace, preparing for a day of serving tea, cake and sandwiches to daytrippers and long-distance walkers following St Oswald’s Way along the coast. A drinks delivery is unloaded at the the pub and in the smokehouse someone is working as the smell of kippers drifts out from the stone buildings and down towards the harbour.
On the last day of the summer holidays the sky – which has been clear and blue all week in the Uckermark – is overcast. Down by the shore of the Kölpinsee the mood is melancholy. Starlings flock around an old cherry bush. In the fields cranes stand in groups, preparing for a long journey. We are heading south too, to Berlin, but it won’t take long and we are stretching out the last day of summer, pausing here and there to see what we can see.
At the small beach a man stands by the firepit with a couple of plastic bags, eyeing us suspiciously. He is the only person we have seen out on this Sunday morning, aside for a couple of car drivers. We walk down to the jetty to look out past the reeds and across the choppy waters of the lake. I can feel him watching us, his eyes moving from us to our car and its strange numberplate. We are a long way from Nordrhein-Westfalen, it is true. But none of us are from there and the car does not give us away, indeed it only complicates matters in the small villages of northeastern Brandenburg.
What is it about Venice that draws so many visitors to its islands and canals, that has so many writers and artists searching for inspiration, that captures the imagination of even those who have never been to the city? Jan Morris, who wrote a whole book about the city, described it as “the loveliest city in the world, only asking to be admired.” I am not sure. On my one and only visit I was distinctly underwhelmed. But perhaps I had been expecting too much. The idea of Venice still appeals. A city where the streets are water. A city seemingly floating in the lagoon. And Venice has inspired many imitators. There are New Venices to be found here, there and everywhere. It has been recreated in Las Vegas. It has been recreated, kind of, on the southern fringe of Berlin.
The journey began before we even caught a glimpse of a boat, a ship or a patch of water, let alone the open sea. The motorway, having swept across flat fields, canal-flanked and criss-crossed, now swung around Rotterdam and – beyond the pylons and the billboards, the railway wires and a raised bike path that might be a dyke – the first cranes of the Port of Rotterdam appeared against the skyline. It is the largest port in Europe, a fact that I knew and yet was unprepared for as we seemed to drive for ever past a procession of container yards, refineries, warehouses, yet more cranes and – finally – the first glimpse of ships flying flags from all around the world.
At the terminal for the ferry to Hull we stood in line as the ship loomed over us, above the waiting room for foot passengers (there were not many) and the wire fences that kept us all in place while advertising the sun-faded glories of the East Riding of Yorkshire to the travellers about to head across the North Sea. A family kicked a football across an empty patch of concrete. Motorbike riders compared horsepower and routes. Cyclists compared panniers and aching legs. We walked down the line and counted the numberplates.
GB. D. F. B. DK. NL. White letters on a blue background, surrounded by stars.
On the corner of Prinzenallee and Osloer Straße I wait for the tram, standing on the platform of the stop between the currywurst Imbiss where they grade their sauces by how red it will make your face and the old pub on the corner that was a den for serious drinkers when we first moved to this neighbourhood five years ago but which now sings over its polished wooden tables as the canary in the coalmine of gentrification. Except, as I wait for the tram and look down Prinzenallee, past the pub towards the Spielothek and its slot machines, towards the Späti with used mobile phones in the window and the line of kebab shops, halal butchers and shops advertising cheap calls home to wherever home may be in this neighbourhood with the highest number of foreign-born residents in the city, I can’t imagine that you could gentrify Gesundbrunnen. It was once a spa town, north of the city. Then came the railways and industry and then the bombs of the Americans and the British and as the Berlin Wall cut it off from its southern and eastern neighbours the industry had long fled, never to return. The printworks is a cultural space. The factory on Osloer Straße is a children’s museum. The bus depot is a dance studio. The queues at the unemployment office are long.
Here comes the tram. It is an imposter, one of the few lines in this city that breaches the old East-West border. Look at a tram map of the city and it is like the Berlin Wall never came down. But it did, the first hole opening at Bornholmer Straße in November 1989, across the bridge that the tram I am waiting for will soon take me as I travel from Gesundbrunnen into Prenzlauer Berg. The bridge rises up, over the top of the railway lines and past the allotment gardens and the Lidl supermarket where the checkpoint once stood. Into the east, towards my destination. Continue reading
We travelled north, out from Berlin along the bumpy autobahn that exits the city via Pankow and which is presumably too important a commuter road into and out of the city for it ever to be closed to fix its legendarily uneven surface. From the Berliner Ring – the German capital’s M25 – we left the motorway and continued our journey on overland roads that made their way through forests, villages and between fields. Even outside of the large patches of forest that cover much of the state, many of the roads through farmland are lined with a single row of trees; avenue streets through the countryside. Trees, woods and forests. Add about a thousand lakes and that, to my mind at least, is Brandenburg.
Sometimes, when you drive, ride or walk through the state that completely surrounds Berlin, it feels as if there is no one there; as if there is some kind of force at the heart of the city – the TV Tower perhaps – that sucks people towards it to leave behind a depopulated, forgotten hinterland where wolves and wild boar roam the forests and black kites share the skies with white tailed eagles. There are people of course, some 2.4 million who call Brandenburg home, but that number has fallen by about 8% since 1989 and German reunification a year later and it is predicted to fall further still. And when I think about Brandenburg, this land beyond Berlin’s borders, I don’t think of Potsdam or Cottbus or the old one-industry towns lined up along the Oder and the Polish border, but empty villages, empty lakes and empty lanes. The word that first comes to mind is sleepy. Spring, summer, autumn or winter; it doesn’t matter. There will be space in the market square, on the forest trail, at the beach on the lakeshore.