Category Archives: Reflections

Hollow Ponds and the Strange Labyrinth

From a house in Leytonstone we walked through quiet residential streets until they gave way to an open patch of grassy land, leading down to a beach where ducks and geese gathered on the edge of a small lake. It was a warm Saturday morning in June, but apart from birdlife there was nothing on the water. Perhaps it was too early for the inexpert rowers to head out from the little wooden boathouse to explore the Hollow Ponds, these former Victorian gravel pits that had been dug out further by unemployed men in 1905 to create a boating lake speckled with islands, and a small part of the ancient Epping Forest that stretches out on either side of the boundary between London and Essex.

In Will Ashon’s fascinating book about Epping Forest, Strange Labyrinth, the chapter on the Hollow Ponds reflects on the fact that they had not only inspired “a rather sappy song” by Damon Albarn but also some of the other activities beyond boating on the lake that the area is known for:

“The bushes around here and the car park further east are renowned locations for gay cruising and dogging and if a man strolls along behind you looking as if he’s forgotten something while staring at his iPhone, he’s probably checking for your profile on Grindr:”

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The art and places of Käthe Kollwitz

Gustav Seitz’s memorial to Käthe Kollwitz, Prenzlauer Berg

On Kollwitzplatz in Prenzlauer Berg there is a statue of the woman for whom the leafy, prosperous square in the north of Berlin is named. It stands in the heart of the square, next to the playground, facing the spot where the artist Käthe Kollwitz used to live having moved to Berlin in 1891 at the age of twenty-four. She would go on to spend the next fifty years living on the square, almost the entire rest of her life, as her husband worked as a doctor in one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods and she worked on some of the greatest artwork produced in Germany in the 20th century.

The experience of living in Germany through the rapid growth of industrial Berlin and the First World War, the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism, certainly had an impact on her work. But more specifically, it was perhaps working class Prenzlauer Berg that influenced her the most, both on the streets that she walked daily as well as the stories of the patients who passed through her husband’s surgery. This was a Berlin of extreme poverty, of overcrowded apartments, of illness and child labour, and Kollwitz did not shy away from depicting these realities in her work. The writer Max Egremont describes her art as having ‘a preoccupation with suffering, a horror at what people could inflict on others, at how painful so-called progress could be’. It is true. What I would add to the quote is that there is also a sense of responsibility, both in the work itself but also for those who look upon the suffering and horror; a responsibility to challenge a profoundly unjust society.

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On Cable Street, London

It was a strange time to travel to London. The attacks on London Bridge and Finsbury Park, and the desperate scenes from Grenfell Tower – let alone the stories that were emerging of how something like that could come to pass, let alone how the survivors were being treated – seemed to weigh heavy on the city as the temperatures soared to record levels. We had lots to do and lots of people to see, but there was one free morning. Over breakfast Katrin and I discussed our options.

‘I’d like to see this,’ I said, pointing at a picture of a mural on my phone. It was only a short walk away, down Brick Lane and under the railway. A place I had never been to but a name which resonated. Cable Street.

On the 4 October 1936, Oswald Mosley and his British Unionist of Fascists planned a march through the East End of London. That their route took them down Cable Street was no coincidence. This was a neighbourhood with a large Jewish population, and Mosley’s Blackshirts were marching to intimidate. The mural that now stands on Cable Street on the side of St George’s Town Hall shows what happened next: the combined forces of locals and anti-fascist demonstrators made up of Jewish, Irish, Communist, Anarchist and Trade Union groups among others, gathered on Cable Street to barricade the route and stop the Blackshirts passing through. Continue reading

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 Ten: The Long Silence of the Factory Bell

For the past few months I have been walking the outskirts of Berlin for a new book project. Along the way I published a series of postcards from the edge here on Under a Grey Sky. The walks are now completed, and you can find the postcard archive here. Now I just need to write the book…

Outside the old brewery friends gather in the spring sunshine, taking a seat on one of the benches that line the waterfront north of Spandau’s old town. There has not been beer produced here for a long time. Instead, the old brewery has been transformed, with a mix of re-purposed old red-brick buildings and architecturally complementary new-builds to create a harbourside complex of apartments and a ‘premium residence’ old people’s home, with restaurants and cafes on the ground floor. The view from the upper floors includes both the citadel and the power stations beyond.

An iron bridge takes me across the river to an island. The remnants of an armaments factory still stand, re-purposed during the Cold War to store the reserves of the West Berlin government should the USSR attempt another blockade of the island city. Now the warehouses and factory spaces are used for events, part of a multi-million euro plan to re-invent this island on the Havel as a residential and commercial zone. The landscaped paths and gardens are ready and waiting. As are the jetties and landing stages. Only the apartments remain imaginary; depicted on a billboard that stands on the edge of a muddy expanse of wasteland.

The re-imagining and re-purposing of places and spaces built for very different uses can take time. Off the island once more, the old industrial complexes that fuelled the rapid rise of Berlin in the second half of the 19th century are now less about making things and more about providing space for those 21st century activities that have square metres as the highest priority when it comes to real estate. Film studios and storage halls (private and commercial). Indoor football pitches and paintball. Logistics companies and winter parking for campervans. Infrastructure is still important, but whereas once it was the canal, the river and the railway, it is now access to the autobahn and a pledge of high speed internet access that is offered up outside properties with square metres to spare.

Lots of space, but little passing traffic. A red kite hovers above a fenced-off strip of marshy land, that somehow escaped the city’s relentless advance. Apart from the odd car on the main road, there is little other movement to catch the eye. No one waits at the bus stop. No one is following me along the pavement. And across the street the billboards stand empty. In this corner of the outskirts, on a weekday morning, there is no one to advertise to.

Postcards from the Edge, Part Nine: Karolinenhöhe

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.

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.