Category Archives: Journey

Feels like coming home? (Rotterdam to Hull)


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.

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The tram to Hohenschönhausen, Berlin


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


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.
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On the road… through Germany and Belgium to Elsewhere

Open Road

We have reached that time of the year again when we put Under a Grey Sky on hold in order to set off down the road or along the rails to collect more stories and pictures for when we return. This year however, regular readers will have noticed other pauses on the blog – unscheduled and unannounced – and it is certainly true to say that the volume of posts here has fallen over the past twelve months.

There are two reasons for that, and thankfully neither of them are because we (Katrin, Lotte and I) have not been getting out and about and having those adventures beyond the front door. The simple fact is that with the launch of Elsewhere this year and an agreement to write a book about the Baltic coast, time has been limited for writing up our wanderings and wonderings here. Alongside this, I haven’t been able to spend so much time looking for guest contributors, and so the combination of these two reasons – both linked to the journal and the book – has meant that Under a Grey Sky has suffered somewhat.

Still, as I look back through the posts that are here from the first six months of 2015 I am looking back on a great half a year of explorations near and far. And the other journey, that of launching the journal from a website and a blog via a crowdfunding campaign to being something printed and solid and held and read by many hundreds of people around the world(!) has been a fantastic experience. It is not easy, of course, and actually the process of writing and editing has been the smallest aspect of running the journal, as distribution and marketing takes more time and energy than the creative process.

Which reminds me… do you have your copy of Elsewhere yet? The first edition – which you can buy here – has some great writing and wonderful illustrations, as well as interviews, photography and reviews. And if you have already read it, liked it, and want to help us make the project sustainable, how about a subscription? The second edition, which will be published in September and which we are working on around our summer trips, promises to be great… we have some wonderful writers, great photography, and a feature that I am working on with my good friend Marcel Krueger about the night train that I am really enjoying putting together.

So that is that… we have a couple of weeks exploring the forests of central Germany, watching out for the witches and the wild boars in the woods, the high fens on the Belgian-German border, and the footpaths and beer glasses of the Ardennes… see you on the other side.


PS. The image above is from another road trip. I will send a copy of Elsewhere to the first person in the comments to tell me where it is – and if you already have a copy, to a person of your choice…


On the Regional Express


In the bowels of Berlin Hauptbahnhof the platforms are lined with trains that will take you are long way from the German capital. Czech railways. Polish railways. The slim lines of the ICE. But on platform eight – which is thronged with young people as three separate school groups have all just arrived for a few days in Berlin – there is a small train waiting, in orange and green, whose final destination is about an hour out of the city and the town of Rathenow, close to the Sachsen-Anhalt border but nevertheless still firmly in the state of Brandenburg.

But a train is a train, and there is something special about Germany’s regional expresses. Often they are – as this one is – double-deckers, which mean they offer a fine view down over the embankments and fences that line the railway into back gardens or the forest, across the fields and the lakes. They move slow enough that you get a sense of really moving through the landscape, and they stop at every small settlement along the way. Berlin-Staaken. Dallgow-Döberitz. Elstal. These are all places we will pass through on the RE4 from Berlin to Rathenow, and although they may be small, some of them have their own stories to tell.

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An old summer camp in winter… Kühlungsborn


I took the bus north, from the shabby concrete concourse of the Berlin ZOB. Waiting for the bus reminded me of travels that seem a long time ago now, catching the bus from Zagreb to Sarajevo or along the Croatian coastline, the entire series of Rocky films dubbed into the local language playing above my head as some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world passed by in darkness. As I stood in the cold with my fellow passengers I thought of Cape Town to Durban and the loss of feeling in my legs after thirty-odd hours, and the longest journey of all, from Berlin to Ormskirk via Hannover, Amsterdam and London. I have never been particularly fond of long distance bus travel.

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Seventy years since Auschwitz-Birkenau


Today is the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in German-occupied Poland. As events are held across the world to commemorate the anniversary, I dug out an article I wrote based on a visit to Krakow in the early months of 2006. Katrin was pregnant, and we had travelled to the Polish city to scout locations for an international hostel conference she was organising. A few months later, when the conference took place, we had to travel overland as Katrin was no longer allowed to fly, but on the first visit we landed at the airport and were driven into town through socialist-era suburbs that reminded us of Berlin to the beauty of the old city centre:

On a clear winter’s day, with a light mist hanging overhead, weak sunshine bathes the Old Town of Krakow in a gentle, almost dream-like light. It softens the cobbled streets, the towers and spires, the market square – a more beautiful city in Europe is hard to imagine. In the bone-chilling cold people move at a brisk pace. Young women students scurry between university buildings wrapped in heavy scarves and jackets, hats pulled low, their round, pretty faces open to the elements. Only tourists loiter – that’s what tourists do – framing the city through digital lenses. But in January they are few in number. As the city ebbs and flows, people go about their daily business. For them beautiful Krakow is commonplace; while visitors gaze in wonder, local eyes rarely rise above street level.

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