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.
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 sounds of the city began to fade as we climbed the steep slope up from the river embankment; the squeal of the trams as they turned the corner to cross the bridge; the siren of a police car racing past the Rudolfinum on the opposite bank; the bells from any number of churches, whose spires rise up above the Old Town and, as we climbed higher, came more and more into view.
At the top we reached Letná Park we could see beyond the narrow streets of the Josefov and around Old Town Square, out to the TV Tower with David Černý’s babies ever crawling up the sides. After a few days of staring up at the castle we now looked across the ridge to it, to Petrin Hill and down the river towards the National Theatre, the New Town, and some modern tower blocks beyond. Continue reading
On the 17 November 1989 a group of students set out on a candlelit procession through the streets of Prague, following the funeral route of Jan Opletal, a medical student killed by the Nazis in 1939. Fifty years later, with central and eastern Europe revolting against Communist rule, the students of 1989 were in no mood to follow the agreed route. Instead they made their way along the river bank to the National Theatre and turned right onto Národní třída, heading for Wenceslas Square. Met by riot police they held out flowers, put their candles on the road in front of them, and held out their bare hands to show their non-violent intentions. The response was brutal, and truncheon blows rained down on the students and the other men, women and children that had joined the peaceful demonstration. It was, in the words of Timothy Garton Ash, “the spark that set Czechoslovakia alight”.
The memorial to mark this momentous first step in the Velvet Revolution that would end Communist rule in just a couple of weeks, is pretty difficult to find. It is on Národní třída, hidden in a small passageway at the point on the street where the students met the riot police. It is close to the Cafe Louvre, where Kafka and Einstein once hung out, and the Reduta Jazz Club where President Havel took President Clinton during a visit that seemed to take in more basement watering holes that palace reception rooms. The simple memorial shows a set of hands. “We have bare hands,” the students told the police, and regardless of the violent response, the protests would remain peaceful. That, and the speed of change, is one of the remarkable achievements of the events of November and December 1989. Continue reading