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 walk away from the lake, up a narrow path that cuts along the bottom of a gorge formed by two steep wooded hills, the floor covered in soggy leaves. This sense of enclosure evaporates as I cross the street, following a path into an open expanse of fields separated by high pathway avenues. These are the Karolinenhöhe Rieselfelder, part of a series of sewage irrigation fields built in the second half of the 19th century to process the waste of the rapidly growing, industrialising city. These fields were set up outside Berlin’s limits back then, although by now the shifting boundaries outwards mean that most are contained within the outskirts. Some were in operation up until the 1980s, and are now either farmed or have been turned into nature reserves.
Here, just south of Spandau, the traces are more visible the other former sewage irrigation fields I have crossed during my walk. Mostly grassed over, there are tell-tale fixtures and fittings that speak to its previous function. Concrete canals and drainage ditches. Steep-sided basins. Cobbled service roads, lined with trees. I have been here before and yet it is just as strange as on the first visit. In a way it is emblematic of the outskirts as a whole. Neither city nor country. Aspects of both. An in-between place. An edgeland place.
Most of all it reminds me of the polders on the banks of the River Oder, right where Germany meets Poland. To get to the river and the coloured boundary posts the path drops down from one dyke, crosses the dry polder, and then rises up to a dyke on the other side. All the way across you are aware that you are walking in a place that perhaps you shouldn’t. A place created by humans where, at any moment, the water’s could rise and you would be literally up to your neck in it. At Karolinenhöhe I have a similar, uneasy-yet-illogical feeling, and I find my pace quickens as I follow the raised service road in a diagonal line towards the very edge of Berlin, on the other side.
On a Sunday morning I meet the river by the entrance to Ormeau Park and turn left along the embankment, heading upstream. On the bridge railings a ghost bike hangs, painted white in memory of a fallen cyclist. Below me, on the water, a solitary rower aims downstream, towards Belfast Lough and the sea, towards the waterfront developments of the city centre and the yellow cranes of the shipyard, stroke after powerful stroke.
My route takes me past the gable end of terraced houses and the entrance to Botanic Gardens. There is no life in the Lyric Theatre this early, and I share the pavement with a couple of cyclists and a young woman walking purposefully past me towards town. Across the street tattered flags stake territorial claim on an estate lining a ridge above the river, looking down on an open grassy space where the bonfire will be built. An underpass takes me beneath the road about to cross the river and I pause at a sign marking the riverside route. The inscription begins: Continue reading
At the end of the Western Harbour breakwater we came to the abandoned lighthouse and climbed through a hole in the fence. The view back across the harbour was spectacular, to Leith and the Royal Yacht Britannia, and beyond the Arthur’s Seat, the castle, and the rest of the Edinburgh skyline. We picked our way cautiously through the broken stone and glass spreading out from the open doorways of the lighthouse. Graffiti and litter. Evidence of illicit parties. Few better places, on a clear day like this, looking across the Firth of Forth with a fly-by of eider ducks, exiting the harbour ahead of a Spanish warship.
Below us, on the slippery stones just above the waterline, a couple of fisherman discussed strategy. One was teaching the other, acting out the motions with empty hands as his friend gripped the rod intently. They both ignored the signs warning about eating shellfish from this particular shore.
We returned to Berlin a week or so ago from our summer travels through Germany and France, straight back into the hectic normality of everyday life, and with a notebook filled with scribbles and reflections on the places we have seen and experienced. So where to start? On page one of course, and a man-made lake at the southern edge of the Harz Mountains…
On our second morning at the Wiesenbeker Teich and we emerged from our tents to a view of the forested mountains above the lake shrouded in mist. There was some rain in air, and from our camping spot above the water, it looked as if the lake itself was smoking in the early morning gloom. Apart from the campsite, there is not much around the lake. A crumbling hotel stands at the end closest to the town of Bad Lauterberg, but otherwise it is steep-sided hills falling into the water, with trees growing all the way down to the water’s edge.
The first clues to the history of the village of Peenemünde, at the northern end of the island of Usedom, were the military signs amongst the trees on either side of the road that swept through the forest. Much of the countryside around the village remains restricted, as it has been since 1936 when the whole northern peninsula of the island was purchased by the Reich Air Ministry. Alongside the airfield, the German Army also established a research centre under the technical leadership of Wernher von Braun, whose mother had in fact recommended the site as “just the place for you and your friends”.
Von Braun was a rocket engineer, and the centre at Peenemünde was tasked with the development of the guided missiles and rockets that would, by the end of World War II, bring death and destruction to cities across Northern Europe. Altogether, the V1 rocket would be used some 22,000 times, and the later V2 on at least 3,000 occasions, including over a thousand aimed at London. An estimated 2,754 Londoners were killed in the rocket attacks, with a further 1,736 killed in Antwerp, Belgium, which had the dubious honour of being the Nazis most-targeted city with their new “miracle weapons” that were supposed to end the war in their favour. As it turned out, more people – mostly slave labourers – were killed in the production of these rockets than in their operation.
What do we think of when we hear the word “landscape”? The first thought might involve hills and mountains or endless prairie fields and wide, wide rivers. It might involve sea cliffs and beaches, bleak moors or a Postman-Pat patchwork of land divided into neat parcels by high hedges. Landscape feels like it should be somehow “natural”, and it is tempting to idealise it as such, even though there are very few places – especially in Europe – that can truly claim to have been untouched by the influence of humankind. After all, we introduced the sheep that tore away the natural vegetation of the Welsh hills and we planted the corn that waves back and forth across the Mid-West. But still, more often than not the word is used to describe something different to the built-environment of the city, which is why I remain amazed when I find those corners of Berlin where it feels as if no other word will do.
The district of Lichtenberg in the east of Berlin is certainly an interesting place. It has something of a troubled reputation, mainly due to the social and economic problems that the neighbourhood has had to deal with the in the two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is also home to a cemetery where the heroes of the socialist revolution, such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg are honoured each January with the waving of red flags and a pile of red carnations. And it is home to, in an old industrial complex, to an ever growing corner of Vietnam in the German capital.