Category Archives: Diary

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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On Cable Street, London

It was a strange time to travel to London. The attacks on London Bridge and Finsbury Park, and the desperate scenes from Grenfell Tower – let alone the stories that were emerging of how something like that could come to pass, let alone how the survivors were being treated – seemed to weigh heavy on the city as the temperatures soared to record levels. We had lots to do and lots of people to see, but there was one free morning. Over breakfast Katrin and I discussed our options.

‘I’d like to see this,’ I said, pointing at a picture of a mural on my phone. It was only a short walk away, down Brick Lane and under the railway. A place I had never been to but a name which resonated. Cable Street.

On the 4 October 1936, Oswald Mosley and his British Unionist of Fascists planned a march through the East End of London. That their route took them down Cable Street was no coincidence. This was a neighbourhood with a large Jewish population, and Mosley’s Blackshirts were marching to intimidate. The mural that now stands on Cable Street on the side of St George’s Town Hall shows what happened next: the combined forces of locals and anti-fascist demonstrators made up of Jewish, Irish, Communist, Anarchist and Trade Union groups among others, gathered on Cable Street to barricade the route and stop the Blackshirts passing through. Continue reading

Baltic Lagoons and Ghosts on the Shore

The lagoons of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern – the many Boddens that stand between spits of land, islands and half-islands – are a fundamental part of the Baltic landscape. The tourists may head for the long stretches of beach between Travemünde and the Polish border, but for thousands of years the focus of life has been the sheltered waterways, teeming with fish. The Bodden has a hold over the local imagination in a way that the open waters of the sea do not, and there is a certain poetic and melancholy appeal to the reeded banks that hide shy birds from all but the most patient of watchers: in the inlets and coves and sandbanks; in the fields of sheep and cows that run down to the water; and in the thatched villages and their small harbours that face not the Baltic but the Bodden. As I caught the bus from Ribnitz-Dammgarten it followed the single road that led on to the peninsula from the west. The Bodden approached and retreated when viewed through the right-hand side windows of the bus, across ploughed fields and wide expanses of marshland through which drainage channels had been cut in dead straight, unnatural lines. 

From Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast

Things have been a little quiet of late here on Under a Grey Sky, mainly because of a number of deadlines as different projects managed to come together at the same time. But I decided to break radio silence because last week we took delivery of copies of my new books Ghosts on the Shore, published by Influx Press. It was not only an incredibly exciting moment, to hold it in my hands for the first time, but it was a fitting day for it to arrive as that very evening we drove north for a weekend in Wustrow, on the Fischland-Darß-Zingst peninsula and the location of one of the chapters of the book.

As well as history, family memories, stories and the people that live along the Baltic shore, one of the reasons that the area became so interesting to me that I decided to write a book about it is the landscape. In particular, the bays, inlets and lagoons that can be found all along the coast have a particular feel and atmosphere that shapes my feeling about the area. It is very different to the rugged, rocky coastline of North Wales that shaped my ‘idea’ of the coast as a child, and it has its own haunting, often melancholy beauty. For the first time, we were staying in a house that looked out over the harbour and the Bodden beyond, and it seemed like a fitting place to celebrate the publication of the book.

We will be holding a launch event in London on the 21 June at Burley Fisher Books and in Berlin on the 16 June at FC Magnet. At the Berlin event we will also be screening a short film made by my good friend Eymelt Sehmer that is based on the book and which we travelled to Usedom to film earlier this year.

From Sharp Haw, Yorkshire

The path leads up from the Grassington Road first along a farm track and then across slightly muddy fields towards the shapely cone of Sharp Haw, rising out from the ground like a child’s drawing of the perfect peak. Ahead of us stands a pheasant on the path. There are lapwings and meadow pippets. The call of a curlew. And then, overhead, the roar of two vintage aircraft, jousting in the ever-changing skies above the Yorkshire Dales.

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Trans-Pennine Express

At Manchester Airport we climb aboard. Tired travellers struggle down the narrow aisle in search of empty seats, lifting wheeled cases and plastic bags of fags onto the overhead shelves before sitting down heavily with hungover smiles. An announcement warns of travelling on the wrong ticket, inducing slight beats of panic in even those passengers whose paperwork is in order. And then, with a jolt and a lurch, we are off.

Northern England passes by outside the window. We are travelling across the Pennines from Manchester to Leeds, a journey I used to take from home in Lancashire to university in Yorkshire. Crossing the great divide. Lotte asks me what has changed. Not much, I say, as we look down on suburban back gardens and their trampolines, the overgrown edgelands between the tracks and the back fence a tangle of bushes, brambles and fly-tipped waste. Across the rooftops we spy a cricket pitch and a primary school. 20th century blocks of flats and more modern, sandstone-coloured new-build estates. Shipping containers and a mechanic’s yard. An ice cream van under an overcast sky. Pink and white blossom adding colour to the scene. Continue reading

Postcards from the Edge, Part Ten: The Long Silence of the Factory Bell

For the past few months I have been walking the outskirts of Berlin for a new book project. Along the way I published a series of postcards from the edge here on Under a Grey Sky. The walks are now completed, and you can find the postcard archive here. Now I just need to write the book…

Outside the old brewery friends gather in the spring sunshine, taking a seat on one of the benches that line the waterfront north of Spandau’s old town. There has not been beer produced here for a long time. Instead, the old brewery has been transformed, with a mix of re-purposed old red-brick buildings and architecturally complementary new-builds to create a harbourside complex of apartments and a ‘premium residence’ old people’s home, with restaurants and cafes on the ground floor. The view from the upper floors includes both the citadel and the power stations beyond.

An iron bridge takes me across the river to an island. The remnants of an armaments factory still stand, re-purposed during the Cold War to store the reserves of the West Berlin government should the USSR attempt another blockade of the island city. Now the warehouses and factory spaces are used for events, part of a multi-million euro plan to re-invent this island on the Havel as a residential and commercial zone. The landscaped paths and gardens are ready and waiting. As are the jetties and landing stages. Only the apartments remain imaginary; depicted on a billboard that stands on the edge of a muddy expanse of wasteland.

The re-imagining and re-purposing of places and spaces built for very different uses can take time. Off the island once more, the old industrial complexes that fuelled the rapid rise of Berlin in the second half of the 19th century are now less about making things and more about providing space for those 21st century activities that have square metres as the highest priority when it comes to real estate. Film studios and storage halls (private and commercial). Indoor football pitches and paintball. Logistics companies and winter parking for campervans. Infrastructure is still important, but whereas once it was the canal, the river and the railway, it is now access to the autobahn and a pledge of high speed internet access that is offered up outside properties with square metres to spare.

Lots of space, but little passing traffic. A red kite hovers above a fenced-off strip of marshy land, that somehow escaped the city’s relentless advance. Apart from the odd car on the main road, there is little other movement to catch the eye. No one waits at the bus stop. No one is following me along the pavement. And across the street the billboards stand empty. In this corner of the outskirts, on a weekday morning, there is no one to advertise to.