Category Archives: Journey

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 Eight: Strandbad Wannsee

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…

From across the water the bathing beach is pretty much empty. No swimmers in the water or sunloungers occupied. No table tennis games played out on the terrace or beers served through the kiosk hatch. A solitary worker, climbs down from his tractor. There are a couple of piles of new sand on the beach. But that’s it. In a few months there will be thousands over there on the sands. Some will have packed their bathing suits with joy and anticipation. Others dreaming of Westerland. But from across Berlin they will head south, to Wannsee, and their beach.

The Strandbad Wannsee was born out industrialisation, of the needs of hundreds of thousands of city dwellers who moved to the metropolis by the Spree in the second half of the nineteenth century to turn it, by the 1920s, into one of Europe’s biggest cities. Most Berliners lived in small apartments in one became known, in the Berlin lexicon, as Mietskaserne – rental barracks. In the working class neighbourhoods of the city the apartment houses and the factories rubbed hard up against each other. These cramped conditions had catastrophic public health effects, not least in infant mortality rates. Health wise, things were worst in the summer. When the weather turned warm, the city stank. Air pollution above and an overwhelmed sewage system below. Through open windows across dank and dreary courtyards the noise of the neighbourhood filled the small apartments.

Psychologically too, things were difficult, for these were the first generations who had come to the city; from small towns and villages beyond Berlin and elsewhere in what was now the German Reich. They may have lived in the city, but many clung to the memory of the places they had left behind. An allotment garden provided a link. So did the lakes and forests on the edge of the city. So when the weather turned warm, the Berliners caught the train and headed out of the city. To the water. To Wannsee.

Technically, public bathing in Wilhelmine Berlin and its surroundings was illegal. But still they came, to this well-to-do villa colony by the lake, now linked to the stinking city by rail. In 1907 the local authorities came up with a solution, opening a stretch of shoreline at Wannsee to the general public. The industrialists and other villa owners put up a fight but it was to no avail. The Strandbad Wannsee existed, and would continue to exist through the Third Reich, the divided city and beyond. Today the beach might be empty, but give it a few months. The air is better in Berlin now. Apartments in the Mietskaserne of certain former working class neighbourhoods are some of the most expensive in the city. But Berliners still need that temporary escape. They will still come to the lake, and to the Strandbad Wannsee.

Postcard from the Edge, Part Seven: Teltow Canal

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…

I have just crossed the bridge from one side of the canal to the other. From Brandenburg to Berlin. From Teltow in the former GDR to Zehlendorf in the old West. I stopped on the bridge to watch a barge pass beneath me, a red and white flag fluttering in the breeze. The colours of Poland. The canal was built in the early years of the twentieth century, a Berlin by-pass linking the Havel with Dahme and on to the River Oder. The borders were different then. No-one really cared where the edge of Berlin was and crossing the Oder did not mean leaving Germany. Barges moved across the German Empire slowly. The canal would still be a teenager when things began to change.

I walk along the embankment which was once a towpath, although today the only horses in view are staring at me from a neighbouring field across an electric fence. The Teltow Canal feels like a river here, with its sloped and grassy embankments leading down to the water and a line of tall reeds. Beyond the reeds, trees and high fences, the business of the Teltow Canal is the mix of edgeland industries that have become a feature of my walks; the scrapyards and concrete works; power plants and car dealerships; retail parks and, here, a former shipyard, converted into workshops for all manner of esoteric businesses. It appears to be a vehicle graveyard. Old Audis and Mercedes sitting on rusting trailers. A bus from the 1970s and a fire engine from even further back.

A sign on the wall says SPECIAL EFFECTS. Babelsberg is not far away. It is clear now that these vehicles have not been abandoned at the end of an uneven lane at the very edge of the city. They are film props, stored here down by the marshy creek where spaces are large and the rents are cheap. A place where new worlds can be imagined and reality distorted, because the camera need not be telling the truth. SFX by the water’s edge, on the banks of the Teltow Canal.

Postcards from the Edge, Part Four: The Müggelberge

walk4blogOver 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…

The last time I walked these woods it was with friends and family, stretched out along the path as we crossed the small range of hills in the south-east of Berlin that separate the Müggelsee from the Langer See, the Dahme from the Spree.  Today, having not met a soul on that same path, I feel alone in the woods, although someone, somewhere, is using a chainsaw. I am aiming for the top of the hills, where a tower was built in the 1960s to replace one that burned down in the 1950s, although it will be closed when I get there, its panoramic views of Berlin and Brandenburg protected from me by a high metal fence and a padlock.

But in the German forest, even a small one like this, you are never really alone. As I push on up the hill, avoiding the path that is treacherous with ice, I am walking with the characters that live here in the Müggelberge – on the hilltops, the tiny valleys or in the depths of the Devil’s Lake. Fontane told me these stories; tales of the Wassermann and the ghosts that appear when nocturnal wanderers pass a certain stone by the path. There is also a Princess, whose palace was once swallowed by the marshland on the edge of the lake, who can take you and show you, or demand to be carried to the church in Köpenick, a few kilometres back down the track…

Fontane seems to like these stories, like he likes the Müggelberge themselves. More than any other collection of hills that rise modestly from the sandy soil of the Brandenburg plain, he thinks that these are the most like mountains in miniature, with their summits and their gulleys, their “high” passes and icy lakes. The Müggelberge are an artists’ impression sketched on a pad. An architect’s model, laid out a table. They are an experiment by nature, a first attempt, perhaps, before more ambitious projects down in the south.

Feels like coming home? (Rotterdam to Hull)

Ferry1

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.

Continue reading

The tram to Hohenschönhausen, Berlin

Tram_1

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

A year to elsewhere and back

Rannoch

It was in these quiet days between Christmas and New Year in 2011 that I started Under a Grey Sky, so as well as a look back on what has been going on over the past twelve months it is also something of a birthday. Although I haven’t been able to keep up the intensity of posting here over the last year or so, I remain very proud of the writing that I have published here in 2015 and remain incredibly pleased that so many people continue to read about my (and our) adventures beyond the front door.

At this point a year ago I had a couple of plans for the 2015. I had just finished work at The Circus after five years looking after their company communications and a decision to return to the world of freelance work. The first major plan was the launch of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place with my friend Julia. We published Elsewhere No.01 in June, followed by Elsewhere No.02 in September. Along the way we built a small team here in Berlin who helped us get the journal out there and put on a couple of events, as well as working with some excellent writers, photographers, musicians and illustrators from around the world. I am incredibly proud of Elsewhere and can’t wait to show everyone No’s 3 and 4 which will be published in 2016.
Continue reading