The year starts slowly. Around the back of the boathouse, the vessels have been lifted up out of the water and tied to the chain fence in preparation for the winter freeze that can come at any moment. The road runs down the back of the properties that line the western shore of Plötzensee, this lake that has been here since the retreat of the glaciers and is now flanked by a children’s home and a youth hostel, the facilities of the swimming beach, football pitches and tennis courts, and a stonemason’s where they’ll keep your name alive for as long as someone has paid the cemetery fees.
Christmas decorations still hang and flags advertising ice cream flap in what breeze there is, but beneath dull Berlin skies it feels as if the weather too is taking its time to get going this early in the year. The wooded paths around the lake are filled with joggers and strollers, but what action there is takes places on solid land. The playground is empty and there is little to encourage anyone to linger on the empty park benches. There is a need to keep moving.
In the summer the water will be alive with swimmers from the beach and those too tight to pay the bathing fees and who have jumped the lake’s perimeter fence, as the rowers strike out from the boathouse in varying degrees of expertise. Later in the winter a different type of action will come to the lake, after the snow and the temperatures have fallen and a rink can be cleared just offshore from the nudist section of the beach and the air will be filled with the sound of sticks on pucks and skates on ice.
Somewhere, in the apartments and houses of the city, ice hockey players wait for the cold to come, so that the lake freezes and the games can commence. Today, it feels like they might be waiting a while. On the Plötzensee there are no swimmers and there are no hockey players, just a cormorant flying low across the lake, wings beating down towards the water, a black bullet moving fast until that too is just a memory. The lake is still once more.
Beneath the jetty
Swans paddle without fear of
Divers from above
Words & Picture: Paul Scraton
A guest post from Silver How, by Chris Hughes:
You could see the snow coming
across the ridges to the north.
Long lines streaking the sky,
falling onto the orange bracken
and colouring the fell-sides grey.
But when it hit us
it struck with hard-edged suddenness
stinging faces and rattling on our clothing
pushing us quickly onwards
to the top of the hill.
Quickly over to the other side
to find the shelter of the rocks
and watch the snowstorm pass over.
And calm return.
The sun once more beamed out
of the clear blue sky.
But the hills had changed
now clothed in a thin mantle
of fine white lace,
over the shoulders of deep green
and rust-red growing up from the
gun-metal grey waters of the lakes.
The bare trees glow stark and silver
in the strong searchlight beam
of the fierce winter sun.
As we carried on down the streaming hillside,
soaked by the overnight rain
and the melting snow
we could see the spring struggle
to overcome the winter.
Buds and catkins,
and singing birds
led the way and we were pleased with our
short adventure over the
well-named hill of
Words & Pictures: Chris Hughes
Sometimes I forget how flat Berlin is. On a glorious morning in the north of the Black Forest, running out from the village of Enzklösterle after the rain, I remembered. The road ran out from our campsite down by the river and up into a valley. At first it was paved, past the driveways of neat family houses and their colourful, flowered balconies. Then it was a gravel track. And then I turned onto a path through the trees, skipping from side to side to dodge the muddy puddles. All the way it was steep, so steep, and when it finally levelled, the trees retreating slightly to give me a view back down the valley, I had to stop, hands on knees, gasping for breath.
After a moment or two I recovered, and then started again. The path stayed more or less at the same altitude, clinging to the side of the hill, and I followed it for a couple of kilometres until I reached the next gravel path after, leading back down to the next village. The path was grassy, soaking my socks through my distinctly un-trail-shoes. But I did not care. The sun was warming but not yet hot, butterflies danced, and a jay crossed my path in a flash of turquoise, into the trees. When I reached the next village I dropped back down, to run home alongside the river at the bottom of the valley.
By Tom Salmon:
“Here hills with vales, here woods with water vie;
Here art with nature strives to feast the eye;
Here Espec’s tow’ring fabric, clad with green
and monkish grandeur, decorates the scene;
Here architects engrave th’ Ionic scroll,
and fam’d Burnice’s pencil crowns the whole.”
– An anonymous contemporary description of Rievaulx Terrace and its Ionic temple.
It felt like spring had finally arrived as we drove through the North York Moors National Park. The low sun, flickering through the bare trees, gave the woods an almost stroboscopic quality. Daffodils lined the lanes and snowdrops nodded in the March breeze. We were heading to Rievaulx Terrace, a landmark created by a wealthy landowner in 1758 to stroll, entertain and impress his friends. Every landscape tells a story, especially when they cost as much as this must have done to create.
By Phil Scraton:
Throughout my childhood the coast had special meaning. The River Mersey did not offer its ports, Liverpool and Birkenhead, easy access. Shallow channels were dredged of their silt and sand to allow access to the Irish Sea and to the world. Ports built on the backs of slaves traded through the Atlantic triangle, on the last hopes of Irish migrants as they escaped the Great Hunger and on the wool, cotton and coal industries of Yorkshire and Lancashire whose labour was exploited in pursuit of Empire.
Where I lived they called it the ‘shore’, holiday-makers preferred ‘the beach’. I can’t remember the first time I heard the word ‘strand’ but wrongly assumed, as my German friends know so well, it had a Celtic connection. I can’t explain why, but for me ‘the strand’ has always evoked expansiveness; the power and vastness of the ocean, the constant movement of the tide – incoming, outgoing, only calm for fleeting moments each day, each night.
By Phil Scraton:
Certain moments capture the imagination, stop us in our tracks, and are the stuff of coincidence. And so it happened on a cold, calm afternoon before the snow storm arrived. The previous evening I’d been reading an anthology of Robert Frost’s poems compiled and reviewed by Louis Untermeyer. Frost identified the ‘complete poem’ as ‘one where an emotion has found its thought, and the thought has found the words’. His poems often celebrate the great outdoors, sharply observed, laced with metaphor and emotionally stirring. He commits to place and to the detail he finds there: ‘And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm/ And the fence post carried a strand of wire’.
In his poem The Need of Being Versed in Country Things from which the above lines are taken, Frost invites the reader to reflect on the remnants of a house lost to fire. It stands alongside ‘The barn across the way/ That would have joined the house in flame/ Had it been for the will of the wind, was left/ To bear forsaken the place’s name’. While the poem celebrates the continuing life offered by the dilapidated barn as birds, flying to and fro, ‘rejoiced in the nest they kept’, Frost suggests they ‘wept’ its neglect and decline. For:
The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.
By Phil Scraton:
I was 17 when I first heard The Dangling Conversation. The song’s simple beauty contrasted with the complex emotion of its lyrics. The mood, the characters, caught my imagination. Written by Paul Simon, recorded with Art Garfunkel, we are introduced to the lives of two lovers caught in the quiet solitude of a seemingly lost relationship. ‘You read your Emily Dickinson’ and ‘I my Robert Frost’; we ‘note our place with bookmarkers’ that ‘measure what we’ve lost’.
Like a poem poorly written
We are verses out of rhythm,
Couplets out of rhyme,
In syncopated time
Lost in the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs,
Are the borders of our lives.
In a ‘lost’ relationship, ‘out of rhythm’, ‘out of rhyme’ what was the relevance of the Emily Dickinson/ Robert Frost juxtaposition? I soon discovered that both were fine North American poets, two generations apart. Their personalities and lives had little in common; she a virtual recluse and a home-based correspondent, he an affable teacher with a love of the outdoors. Yet comparisons of their poetry have been endless – books, theses, articles, essays.